Mass Media Bunk is a commentary on articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.

Robert Todd Carroll

©copyright 2006





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May 2, 2000. Reuters has taken the bait, and several Internet sites (Netscape, Yahoo!, Excite) have published a "news" story about a small town's attempt to get publicity about a "lake monster" and thereby drum up tourism. In Penticton, British Columbia, the chamber of commerce has offered $2 million (Canadian) for proof of the existence of Ogopogo, the Canadian Nessie who allegedly resides in nearby Okanagan Lake.
[thanks to Tim Boettcher]

April 30, 2000. Upon reading "Good day care prevents crime later in life, study says" by Anjetta McQueen of the Associated press (Nando Times) certain things stand out. Law enforcement groups claim that they have studies which prove that providing high quality day care prevents crime. The proof is so strong that a 700-member anti-crime group presented a report at the White House demanding more funding for quality child-care programs. However, one looks in vain for that proof in the article. I am sure many readers wondered if the crime fighters weren't guilty of post hoc reasoning and wishful thinking, or were just diddling with statistics to deceive the government into giving them more money.

The closest thing to evidence mentioned in the article is the following:

a compilation of studies comparing children in programs in North Carolina and Chicago with other children, says youths who spent their early years in quality day care were half as likely to be arrested.

Studies also found that troubled tots who didn't go to preschool and receive home visits from social workers were five times as likely to become chronic lawbreakers - arrested four or more times - by age 27.

The article also mentioned that polls of parents and police found overwhelming support for child care and after-school activities.

The critical reader would know that opinion polls are next to worthless in providing relevant data in support of an empirical causal claim. The critical reader would know also that without knowing the details of the studies referred to in the article, one can't know whether the conclusions drawn by the authors of the report are justified. How were the studies designed and conducted? How were the participants selected? How were key terms such as "high quality day care" defined? How many participants were in the study? What methods were used to follow-up on behaviors in long-term studies? What was the margin of sampling error in each study? Such details are necessary, otherwise it is impossible to make a reasonable evaluation of the studies and the conclusions drawn by others. I know it may shock some people, but statistics have been abused by many with an axe to grind or a program to fund. None of this essential information was provided in the article.

Upon reading this article, some might think that only people with good incomes can afford quality day care and that the real reason children who don't get quality day care grow up to commit more crimes is not because they did not attend a high quality day-care center, but because of a number of other factors that differentiate the poor.

In reading the study from the group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids (entitled "America's Child Care Crisis: A Crime Prevention Tragedy") one finds it is authored by an impressive list of JDs MDs and PhDs and some police chiefs. It's funded by a lot of impressive people and groups, including the David and Lucile Packard and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundations. The report claims that its conclusions are based on "large national studies," some of which have gone on for a decade or two. The report indicates that these studies involved subsidizing the poor for early childhood education and after-school intervention programs and comparing those who got intervention with those who did not. However, you will search the 32-page report in vain for data necessary to evaluate these studies. They are referenced, but the reader will have to dig them up to discover even the simplest piece of useful information, such as how many children were in the studies.

A critical reader knows that large differences in outcomes between two groups may be insignificant. Without knowing the absolute numbers, one can't make a reasonable evaluation of claims such as the following:

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, low-income three- and four-year-olds randomly assigned to be in the
High/Scope Educational Research Foundation’s preschool program were only one-fifth as likely to have become chronic lawbreakers at age 27, compared to similar children who did without this educational child care.

In Syracuse, at-risk infants and toddlers enrolled in a quality child development program, with parenting support for their mothers, were only one-tenth as likely as similar children to be delinquent ten years later.

If the studies involved very small numbers of participants, and if the follow-up was not adequate, the data may be insignificant.

Unfortunately, the entire report from the Fight Crime group is couched in terms of percentages and extrapolations from those percentages. Not a single reference is made to the number of children in any of the studies they looked at. There is also no mention of the methodologies used in the studies, indicating that perhaps this issue was not deemed to be important by those studying the studies.

One must take too much on faith for this report to be the basis of any intelligent action on the part of lawmakers, the main group the report is aimed at. What is the likelihood that the lawmakers or their staffs are going to dig up the original studies to get the data they need?

The issue of defining and funding high-quality day care is too important and too political to be decided on the basis of this report. Yet, how soon will it be before journalists and government officials alike are throwing around the stats from this report as if they were gospel?

Nevertheless, there are some important issues the report brings up that need to be talked about. Day care is expensive and the best programs are too costly for most parents. Day-care workers are often untrained and unqualified, as well as underpaid.

No mention was made of law enforcement's contribution to the problem of raising fear in potential day-care workers who have seen lives destroyed by overzealous prosecutors and police officers who created a witch hunt for child-abusing Satanists. Why not?

April 27, 2000. The local Fox station is featuring "Ghosts: The Best Evidence Caught on Tape" in prime time tonight. The Discovery Channel, not to be outdone, is featuring "Sea Monsters and Psychic Pets." Both are apparently trying to boost ratings during the May sweeps.

April 23, 2000. Kenneth L. Woodward of Newsweek has written The Book of Miracles - The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. He has also written an article based on his book for Newsweek (May 1, 2000), published on "The important issue," according to Woodward, "is not if a miracle 'really' happened but what believers make of the stories of miracles." Yes, that's the important issue if you want to sell a book about miracles. Over 80% of Americans believe in miracles and nearly half think they've experienced or witnessed one (Newsweek poll).

Miracle stories, ancient and modern, do two things: they explain the ways of God to the faithful, and they are the means by which believers experience the presence of God, or the gods, in their own lives (Woodward).

Yet, how miracle stories can do either of these two things without being true is not addressed by Mr. Woodward. If miracle stories are based on delusions and hoaxes, rather than fact, then they can't explain anything true about the ways of God nor can believers be experiencing the presence of God in their lives. The sinister and arrogant implication of this nonsense is that those who do not believe in miracles but believe in God don't really understand God and don't really experience the presence of God in their lives. Simply because the vast majority of people are superstitious does not mean they understand anything about anything nor does it mean that they experience anything except their own self-generated ideas and feelings.

The very idea of believing miracle stories is preposterous if not blasphemous.

The next time a believer prays for a loved one but the loved one dies, should the blame go to God? When a shooter kills ten but one lives, if the one who lives is due to God then so are the ten who don't. The next time a believer turns on the light switch but the light doesn't go on will he or she believe God burned out the bulb as a special sign, a reminder of the dark they are making darker?
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

April 18, 2000. I received an e-mail today from Ivan Kelly, renowned expert and critic of astrology, regarding a widespread claim among astrologers that Albert Einstein once wrote:

Astrology is a science in itself and contains an illuminating body of knowledge. It taught me many things and I am greatly indebted to it.

Ivan contacted Geoffrey Dean, another renowned expert and critic of astrology, who wrote the following:

Dear Ivan,   Re that Einstein quote. This is a good example of astrologers quoting each other nth hand, but with nobody ever checking the original quote.

In a letter in Correlation June 1991, 11(1):35-36, I chased it back to a book (in French) by the late Swiss-Canadian astrologer Werner Hirsig, Manuel d'astrologie, where the quote appears in French in the preface,  but with no source given. From there it was quoted by Solange de Mailly Nesle (1981), from which it was quoted by Tad Mann (1987) and Percy  Seymour (1988), and from there ever onwards seemingly without end.

The Hirsig book ends with a postscript dated February 1950, so the  quotation must date from before that time (Einstein died in 1955).  Hirsig's widow did not inherit his papers, so she was unable to check  them to see if they gave the source. Various people including Solange, Percy and myself have checked Einstein's writings and biographies but  have been unable to verify it, so Solange and Percy have deleted it from later editions of their books. His biographies contain nothing to suggest Einstein had any interest in astrology, and its style differs from that of authentic Einstein sayings.

My letter ended "Accordingly, until the quote is authenticated, it  should be ignored lest it add to the blight generated by Newton-Halley, Evangeline Adams, and other famous-but-wrong quotes."

Hope this helps.

Regards,  Geoffrey

March 31, 2000. The Madonna of psychics, Sylvia Browne, was featured in today's Sacramento Bee. The justification for the feature by David Barton is that Browne is in town for a show on Sunday at the Sacramento Convention Center. Tickets for the 21/2 hour show are $49 and 1,500 advance tickets have been sold. Barton also advertises Browne's latest book The Other Side and Back (Dutton, $23.95). Barton notes that Browne charges $400 for a personal "reading" and that she does these by phone at the rate of about 20 per day. There truly is a sucker born every minute.

Browne has brought her show to our town before. She is sponsored by a group called "The Learning Exchange," devoted to "alternative learning," I suppose. In her previous  performance she was promoting her book and audio tape entitled Healing Your Body, Mind & Soul. In one two-hour session Ms. Browne claimed to be able to teach anyone "how to directly access the genetic code within each cell, manipulate that code and reprogram the body to a state of normalcy." (See The Skeptic's Dictionary entry on cellular memory.)

Browne's shtick is similar to James Van Praagh's: the dead talk to her and tell her everything is really great on the other side. According to Browne, the spirits of dead people live three feet above ground level and "have brilliant social lives, full of parties and music and dancing and sporting events and fashion shows and lectures." Apparently, large numbers of people want to hear this message and are willing to pay for it. Her own explanation for the popularity of her message is: "People are so afraid of annihilation, that everything's just random." She's taken her message to the audiences of Sally Jessy Raphael and Montel Williams.

As I see it, so-called psychics can be explained in one of three ways: (1) they truly are psychic; (2) they are frauds, taking advantage of people's gullibility and weaknesses; or (3) they have brain disorders that make them think they have special powers or receive messages the rest of us are unaware of. Of the three options, the least probable is option number one. Thus, it seem to me that when the mass media promote so-called "psychics" for their entertainment or news value, they are either promoting fraud or encouraging delusions. Perhaps the media think that because most parties in the psychic game are consenting adults, that makes it ok.

March 30, 2000. A reader who goes by the name of Mojo writes:

I was watching the History Channel this last Sunday, when they started showing a few reruns of UFO "mystery" type shows. I wasn't paying much attention until they started doing an interview with a former "Nuclear Physicist" from Area 51. It sounded very familiar. It was the famous Bob Lazar Area 51 lie. Bob has no degree in anything (claims the Government stole it), and the story he tells is gibberish to anyone but an UFO nut. He now has his own website at;

A very funny read to people who know of him, but very slick and convincing to the uninformed.

Tom Mahood's debunking of his story is at;

I find it hard to believe the History Channel would air this garbage without a disclaimer. I tried to go to their website to complain, but there is no contact info. It would be nice to have a place where garbage such as this can be reported, and have resources available to voice protests to the programmers responsible. Airing this garbage on a channel that purports to tell historical truths is going to go a long way to indoctrinate a new generation of sky watchers. I'm pissed.


All I can say is that the History Channel is not the place I would go or send anyone to learn something about history. Their idea of the history of Nazism, for example, is to show Hollywood war movies. The History Channel is a commercial enterprise and they earn money by, among other things, selling videos of programs such as UFOs: Then and Now?, an indiscriminate mixture of fact, fiction and speculation. The History Channel is affiliated with A&E, which not only has its share of UFO non-sense (see also "Have We Been Visited?"), but has aired several times a favorable biography of Nostradamus.

March 28, 2000. The Seattle has a lengthy piece of bunk on the wonders of water witching (dowsing). A token reference is made to James Randi and the theory that the dowsing rods move because of the ideomotor effect. But overall M.L. Lyke's article gushes over the popularity and staying power of one of the world's leading myths: that some people have the gift of finding water, gold, pipes, etc., by holding a forked stick in their hands as they walk.

March 26, 2000. The Miami Herald continues to contribute to the child abuse of Elian Gonzalez, who if the USA were the moral leader it pretends to be, would have been delivered to his father and grandparents in Cuba as soon as it was determined that he was not in danger by going home. This time the Herald is promoting the bunk that the Virgin Mary is appearing on a window pane of a Miami bank as a sign that she approves of kidnapping and child abuse. (To keep a child from being with his natural father and grandparents, when there is no reason to believe that the child would thereby be endangered, is abuse of the worst sort, no matter what one's stated intentions are.)
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

March 25, 2000. The has a piece of bunk from the Barna Research Institute which claims that "notions of a major American spiritual revival--and particularly spiritual awakening among men--are mythical." George Barna, the institute's director, bases his claim on a telephone survey. The survey seems likely to have gotten a good cross section of the American public, but the questions asked were biased. The questions concerned such things as church membership and attendance, and whether one was "born again." Barna assumes if you don't go to church, especially a Christian church, you are not spiritual.

Last December, the Gallup organization released the results of their poll on religion in America. Gallup did distinguish religion from spirituality and it did not equate religion with church attendance. Only 11% said religion was "not important" in their lives. Only 5% said they don't believe in either God or some form of universal or higher Spirit. Even more telling

Only 54% of the public choose the straight "religious" label, while 30% say they would define themselves as "spiritual, but not religious." Even 20% of those who say that religion is very important in their daily lives define themselves as spiritual but not religious.

So, if religion and spirituality are doing so good, why is the country doing so bad? If you listen to some of our "religious" leaders you would think that America is going to hell in a hand basket because we don't have the Ten Commandments posted in every classroom and courtroom. If only 5% of the population are out-and-out atheists, can't we blame all these evil doings on religious and spiritual people? Or are we supposed to believe that it is this 5% of the population doing 100% of the evil?
[Thanks to Joe Littrell]

March 21, 2000. Maybe it's the change in seasons, or maybe my mother was right: trouble always comes in threes. Whatever it is, homeopathy has, for the third time in the past week, been praised in the mass media. This time by the Anchorage Daily News. Lyn Freeman, the author of "Homeopathy is controversial but effective," not only mistakenly claims that the metaphysical principle of like cures like is "similar" to the empirical principles and facts upon which vaccination against polio, rubella, etc., is based, but also notes that

Allergic patients often are desensitized by introducing into their body, in extremely small amounts, the very substance they are allergic to. By increasing the dose of the allergic substance very slowly and in small increments, the patient increases his or her resistance to allergic reaction.

This is true, but Freeman does not seem to notice that allergy treatment is not based upon a metaphysical belief that "like cures like," but rather is based upon empirical principles and facts. 

Are journalists really that ignorant of the difference between empirical and non-empirical principles? In this case, the journalist is also a doctor of psychology "with a specialty in mind-body interventions for treatment of chronic disease." After laying out a one-sided case in favor of the scientific validity of claims of homeopathic cures for "migraine pain, allergy, asthma, fibromyalgia, influenza, diarrhea and arthritis," Dr. Freeman asks disingenuously: "Is homeopathy a healing modality or just a placebo effect? I leave it to the reader to decide." (Reminds me of Arlen Specter: Who do you believe, Mr. Thomas the distinguished gentleman  or Ms. Hill the slut?)
[thanks to Tim Boettcher]

March 19, 2000. Dr. Christiane Northrup, Assistant Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, edits a monthly newsletter entitled Health Wisdom for Women. In the October 1999 issue, she explains why she recommends astrology to her patients. Astrology "is truly a science," she says. "If you're skeptical, think about how the moon influences your menstrual cycle." The moon not only doesn't influence my menstrual cycle, it doesn't influence any woman's either. The doctor also claims that "schizophrenia appears to be more common in people born in January and February." What her evidence for this might be is unknown, but it is apparently the same source who told her the moon influenced her menstrual cycle and that "studies show that more architects...have been born in March than in any other month." Dr. Northrup's howler for the month, though, is her claim that "people born at exactly the same time and place lead remarkably similar lives and even die at the same time from similar causes, despite having completely dissimilar DNA. They are known as astral or spiritual twins." Unaware that the moon's gravitational force on a person is less than that of a mosquito, Dr. Northrup asserts "the moon influences your menstrual cycle and the flow of emotions and fluids in both your body and the oceans. This has been very well documented."

I hope Dr. Northrup spent more quality time with her medical texts than she did in her research on astrology, which she finds very beneficial in her personal life and highly recommends to her patients and readers.

reader comments

29 Mar 2000 
Hey, I enjoy your page, but I wanted to write you in reference to the mass media bunk from March 19, 2000 regarding a Dr. Northrup. The quote "The doctor also claims that "schizophrenia appears to be more common in people born in January and February."" actually has some basis of truth, unlike the moon theory or the astrology nonsense.

I've attached a quote below from one of the best Psychiatry texts that addresses this issue (which I thought was odd when I was told the same thing in medical school).

Kaplan: Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 6th ed., Copyright © 1995 Williams & Wilkins SEASON AND BIRTH ORDER

Studies have shown that a disproportionate number of schizophrenic persons are born during winter months (seasonal excess of approximately 10 percent); that, together with a birth pattern in their non-schizophrenic siblings that is similar to that seen in the general population, suggest the presence of a seasonal factor. Proposed explanations for this seasonal effect include deleterious environmental factors in the winter (such as temperature, nutritional deficiencies, infectious agents); a genetic factor in those with a propensity for schizophrenia that protects against infection and other insults and thus increases the likelihood of survival; and more frequent conception in the spring and summer by the parents of schizophrenic persons.

Although no experimental testing has been conducted, studies appear to favor the harmful-effects hypothesis that schizophrenia involves infectious agents, but the other hypotheses have not been ruled out conclusively. Although some studies in the Southern Hemisphere confirm a higher birth rate for schizophrenic persons in winter than in other seasons, further study of that hypothesis is needed. There are a number of methodological problems with previous studies. If there are statistically significant increases of schizophrenic births during the Southern Hemisphere winter, environmental factors should be favored over socio-cultural ones. Whether winter- and summer-born schizophrenic persons differ is not clear, but that would not necessarily be expected if the causative agent is active all year but more active in the colder months.

So anyway, I thought that might be interesting for you to know. Keep it up.
Russell Biggs






copyright 2000
Robert Todd Carroll

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