From Abracadabra to Zombies
is a commentary on
mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the
paranormal, and the supernatural.
Skeptimedia replaces Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.
Mass Media Mediocrity
April 19, 2009. So, I'm in the air above Ireland on my way to San Francisco, unraveling the wires to my iPod ear buds, my nerves as tangled as the white threads in my hands. After two weeks of enjoyable touring in southwest Kerry and west Cork, during which time I watched no TV, listened to no radio, and gave only a cursory reading to parts of one or two newspapers (I had to find out who won the Masters, fool for golf that I am), I made the mistake of reading through the Irish Times the night before departure. I could have been reading the San Francisco Chronicle or the Sacramento Bee. Like some sick voyeur, I read story after story of callous criminality, abuse of children, murders of police officers, drug wars, duplicitous politicians, charges that scientists have got it wrong about sea level rises due to global warming (they've underestimated it by a large factor, according to the story I read), and economic woe. The saving grace was an article about Seamus Heaney's 70th birthday celebration. I didn't read it, but knowing it was there was a comfort.
To put my distress in context, I should note that I first visited Ireland in 1985 and have revisited the Emerald Isle a half dozen times since. Needless to say, things were different twenty-four years ago. That was before the Celtic Tiger clawed its way through what Marx might have called "rural idiocy," while others romanticized the very tough life of what the textbooks might call farming and animal husbandry.
I love the Irish countryside, the rolling green hills with their unmortared stone walls dividing them into neat sections, the occasional church or byre in ruins, the standing stones and stone circles, the wedge tombs and dolmens, the ubiquitous sheep and cows, and, yes, the pubs in the villages. (I laugh every time I remember telling an older humanities teacher that I was going to Ireland. He who taught thousands of clueless students about Egypt, Greece, and Rome over many years told me with a straight face that Ireland has no history. He was an ex-priest, so I forgive him his ignorance. I think of him every time I visit places like Newgrange, Trim, Monasterboice, or Skellig Michael.)
I love the smell of a peat fire and the sound of rain pelting the windows. The quiet beauty of the undeveloped countryside still exists in Ireland, and the Celtic Tiger is now a house cat, but one can't help but wonder if the new wealth didn't bring with it the violent gangs and drug wars, the crime and the brutality that we in the U.S. take for granted. My memory is as likely to distort the past as it is to remember anything accurately, but I don't recall any stories in the Irish Times in 1985 that compared with those I read in 2009. I could be wrong. I could be romanticizing a past that never was. No, I am romanticizing. How could I forget my visit to Northern Ireland in 1987? In the pouring rain soldiers displaying their weapons came running down a hillside and stopped our car on a country road. With the hatchback open and our luggage exposed to the rain by a snooping soldier with a menacing automatic weapon held across his chest, my wife dared to say "Can I ask you what you're looking for?" "You can ask," he replied, and then continued going through our belongings. I don't usually try to aggravate armed men, especially when they look like they're about 15 years old, but I had to at least indicate that I didn't appreciate the way the soldier held up to the rain (and spoiled forever) a poster I'd bought earlier in the day at a museum in Omagh. I don't remember a whole lot from my past, but I remember what he said, word for word: "It's people like you who come here to kill people like me." I have to admit that a thought that had never occurred to me before sprung into my mind. I should note, though, that there had been an IRA bank robbery that day and that many misguided Irish-Americans supplied the IRA with money, thinking they were advancing the cause of Republicanism. In other words, the soldier spoke the truth: people like me (Americans) were supporting the IRA (who were killing British soldiers then as now).
On a positive note, there was no horoscope page in the Irish Times and no stories about pedophile priests, or psychics who claim to get messages from the dead or find missing children in their spare time. On the other hand, there was no editorial calling for an end to the traditional closing of the pubs on Good Friday. I think if you want to stay away from the pub on Good Friday, go ahead and knock yourself out, but why deny a day at the pub to those of us who are not Christians and find no special significance in Good Friday (which might just as well have been called Bad Friday if you consider the crucifixion, spear stabbing, and crown of thorns)? Fortunately, the pubs don't close on Easter, so we were able to have a pint and some grub at the Blue Bull in Sneem on our way back from touring the Beara peninsula down to Eyries, a colorful village that holds many fond memories for us.
To add further insult to my disturbed state of mind upon leaving Ireland was the fact that the bookstore at the Dublin airport did not carry a single copy of UK author Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. (The book is still not in American bookstores, as far as I can tell.) No one is as determined and as thorough as Goldacre when it comes to finding fault with the mass media's coverage of science. I wanted to read Bad Science on the long flight home. No such luck. I had any number of trashy novels to choose from, and the store had a large selection of Irish history, poetry, fiction, and biography, but no science section. Of course not. Why encourage anyone to learn something useful about the world we live in? Why didn't I pick up a copy at a bookstore in town, you might wonder. Good question. I didn't go into Dublin or any other city on this trip, and Portmagee (my home base) doesn't have an ATM, much less a bookstore.
Not to worry. I had downloaded the April 1 podcast of the SGU rogues. My wires untangled, I clicked on the program and closed my eyes. A few minutes later I heard one the rogues say that the Time magazine science editor had interviewed Jenny McCarthy about autism and vaccines. I was fuming. Unlike many journalists who cover psychics and pseudoscientists, however, I checked out the story and found that the interviewer, Jeffrey Kluger, is not a science editor but a senior editor. I either misheard the SGU speaker (a good possibility since my hearing is worse than my memory) or the SGU gang got it wrong. Probably the former (and jet lag plus indifference prevent me from listening to the podcast again to find out for sure). Anyway, as far as I know, no journalist has investigated McCarthy's claim that her child had autism. She claims she cured him, but that's another story never to be investigated, along with her claims about Indigo mothers and star children. I can only guess why Dr. Jerry Kartzinel, who is described as an autism specialist, would co-author a book on treating autism with a former Playboy centerfold model with no other qualifications. (Sorry, being a parent of child with a disease doesn't make one an expert on that disease.) I can also only guess why Dr. Kartzinel, who might actually know something about neurology, wasn't interviewed. But I should keep my dirty-mind speculations to myself.
Kluger makes a feeble effort to challenge McCarthy's claims about vaccines, but he lets her declare that today's vaccines aren't safe without telling her that she doesn't know what she's talking about. I guess he couldn't challenge her because his bosses and readers might wonder why anyone would interview someone who doesn't know what she's talking about.
I wondered if Jim Carey, comedian and McCarthy's supportive boyfriend, wrote a book claiming he'd cured his own epilepsy, would Kluger interview him without investigating whether Carey ever had epilepsy? Sure, why not. Especially if Carey had a co-author called Dr. Jimboy Jangel, identified as an expert in epilepsy.
I had been mulling over the above thoughts before I went through the pile of mail that had accumulated while we were away and picked up Newsweek to read the cover story on epilepsy. I've recently read several books on the brain and nothing seems to interest me more these days than neuroscience. (For those that care, the books I refer to are: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, David J. Linden's The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, Norman Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, and Cordelia Fine's A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. IMHO the best of the lot for the general reader is Fine's book, though she draws strong inferences from many single, unreplicated studies by social psychologists. What she writes serves as a vivid reminder of the futility of trying to change the minds of true believers. Linden's is the most technical. Doidge's book might be subtitled How I Made Freud into a Pioneer of Neuroplasticity. Even so, there is much of value in his book. Pinker has some really excellent stuff on dirty talk, among other things.)
I wasn't too far into the Newsweek article by Jerry Adler and Eliza Gray before they note that their main expert, Dr. Orrin Devinsky, didn't dismiss out of hand the notion of earlier times that phases of the moon might trigger seizures because "if the tides can feel the moon's gravity, why not the brain?" Is it asking too much for a journalist who writes such crap to at least note that the lunar force is actually a very weak tidal force. A mosquito would exert more gravitational pull on your head than the moon would. A mother holding her child will exert 12 million times as much tidal force on her child as the moon.* It is certainly theoretically possible that mosquitoes, a mother's touch, or light from the moon might trigger an epileptic seizure. But shouldn't a journalist who mentions the moon and tides try to correct the misconception that the moon is exerting this massive gravitational pull on the tides? Apparently not.
What really disturbed my 4:00 a.m. reading of Newsweek, though, was the following: "A normal brain is governed by chaos; neurons fire unpredictably, following laws no computer, let alone neurologist, could hope to understand, even if they can recognize it on an EEG." How do they know that neurons are firing according to laws, I wondered? And how do they know that these alleged laws can't be understood by either neurologist or computer? Once again, SGU to the rescue. One of the first things I did when I got home from my travels was to download the latest SGU podcast. I listened to the program while exercising yesterday and it just so happens that there is a segment on a powerful computer program that extrapolated the laws of motion from a pendulum's swings.* It took scientists centuries to figure out those laws. What makes it impossible to write a computer program that could determine if there are any laws that neurons follow and, if so, what they are?
Not being a journalist, I can't answer that question. Having witnessed one of my students suffer a grand mal seizure (now called tonic-clonic) in the classroom, I can testify to the dangers and seriousness of epilepsy and the need to discover ways to control or prevent this neurological disorder. I support Newsweek's effort to call attention to the underfunding of research in epilepsy. Maybe after a little sleep and some exercise, I'll have the strength to plow my way through the remainder of the article by Adler and Gray. I may even read the accompanying article by Susan Axelrod, wife of David, senior (not science) advisor to President Obama. They have an adult child who has had epilepsy for many years. As noted above, being a parent of a child with a disease doesn't make one an expert on that disease, but maybe she has something interesting to say about what she has learned from her reading and discussions with experts over the years.
In the meantime, don't expect much help from the media in fighting any of the ongoing battles skeptics engage in. There is some hope, though. Before leaving for Ireland I was contacted by somebody claiming to be doing a show for the National Geographic channel on the Bermuda Triangle. I declined and gave up the names of two others who might be interested in going on camera. When I returned I found an e-mail awaiting me from a colleague of the person who'd made first contact, asking me to reconsider. "The documentary is called The Truth Behind the Bermuda Triangle and the aim is to debunk the myths that surround the Triangle. We aim to present a considered argument against all the different ideas put forward by those that believe something ‘mysterious’ is going on in the region. National Geographic is keen that we approach the documentary from the point of view that the Bermuda Triangle is no more dangerous than any other stretch of ocean and all facts presented will have to be rigorously backed up scientifically." That put me in a good mood. A program will be made that won't pander to the public's love of nonsense and false mysteries, and won't dismiss the token skeptic as a closed-minded spoiler. I wrote back that I would certainly reconsider speaking about the non-mystery of the Bermuda Triangle on film. We'll have to wait and see if it really happens.
(For more photos of Ireland, click here.)
* AmeriCares *