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

ęcopyright 2006






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October 1998. Los Angeles Times. Andrew Weil, M.D., "In the medicine chest, a place for herbs." This article begins by making a plea for herbal remedies while claiming that the New England Journal of Medicine attacked herbal remedies in a recent editorial. He also claims that a study done at Stanford University indicates that some 70% of us are using "alternative" medicine, i.e., medicine that does not include drugs or surgery. However, the article quickly degenerates into a paranoid whining about how the big bad bullies of real medicine have hogged all the money for research and that's why naturopaths and homeopaths can't do science. Weil thinks we should fund "integrative medicine" (i.e., whatever spiritual hocus-pocus is suggested by whatever shaman who happens to be in the neighborhood). If only these quackmeisters had the funds they could prove the real value of shark cartilage or bee pollen. But the big bullies at the A.M.A. have all the resources. The same kind of pathetic plea was made in the 1950s and 60s by parapsychologists. The only reason they couldn't prove ESP, remote viewing, etc., and collect their deserved Nobel Prizes was that the real scientists had a good 'ol boys club and excluded them from participation. They couldn't get university jobs where all the research was done. So now they have departments and labs all over the world and what have they discovered that is of any value to anyone? They've proved only that whining loud enough and long enough pays off. The same tactic seems to be working for the "alternative" folks. The National Institutes of Health has upped the budget for the "Alternative" division to some $20,000,000 a year.

November 3, 1998. Update. Bastyr University, a naturopathic college in Bothell, Washington, announced it will be the home of the new National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Congress has approved $50,000,000 for the center, which will look for ways to integrate Chinese medicine, homeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine into mainstream health care.

Also, Bastyr will be a title sponsor of the International Conference on Integrative Medicine, which will be held at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, April 30 through May 2, 1999.

astrology on the attack

Don't be surprised if we next hear from the astrologers demanding their "rightful" place in our universities. Ivan Kelly, foremost critic of astrology (see "further reading" under the astrology entry in the Skeptic's Dictionary), sent me a copy of a troublesome article by astrologer Valerie Vaughan. "Debunking the Debunkers: Lessons to Be Learned," appeared in Aug/Sept 1998 issue of The Mountain Astrologer. Vaughan claims that astrologers are persecuted by establishment science. That is why astrologers can't get "access to research funding." And that is why astrologers fail to design "research protocols and run controlled tests in order to supply evidence for their art." Yet, in the same article Vaughan also claims that "astrology is not a science in the same sense as chemistry or physics....At most, it might be considered a social science."

Having firmly established that astrology is a social science, she then notes that   "other social sciences, such as history, are not regularly attacked for their failure to apply scientific methodology in a laboratory setting." How true. Apparently, Ms. Vaughan does not understand that scientific methodologies can be and are regularly applied outside a lab in the social sciences. Some of these methodologies are based upon logical principles such as Mill's Methods, which most astrologers do not seem to believe apply to their discipline. Some of these methodologies involve the use of statistical analysis of data. Vaughan understands the need for statistical analysis, but does not believe the usual scientific protocols apply to astrology. She says that scientists "insist on statistical analysis using random samples. But astrology cannot be proved or disproved using random samples because astrology is based on the premise that conditions are never random."

A scientifically minded person might think Vaughan is wrong, considering  all the tests done using random samples of both subjects and astrological readings that have shown that astrology has no significant predictive value. But Vaughan has something else in mind. Those studies made the assumption

that any time is just as good as another to perform a test of astrology, but what if you're testing whether Pisces is less aggressive than Aries, and it so happens that Mars is rising during the test? Or suppose that preliminary research does reveal some validity in astrology, but in a later attempt at replicating the results, the Moon is void of course or Neptune is rising? Of course the results will be inconclusive!

Further complicating matters, she says, is that when scientists (read "non-astrologers") test astrology they test parts of a person's chart. They ignore "the wholeness of a chart." Thus they commit the fallacy of composition (not her term): they assume "the whole equals the sum of its parts."

Astrology is incredibly complex; there are innumerable variables which must be considered before an astrologer can confidently make a statement. Practitioners of astrology know that no one factor, such as the Moon in Aquarius, can 'mean' anything in an absolute sense. That Aquarian Moon could be out-of-bounds, in a different house, opposed Saturn, or affected by any number of other conditions that modify its significance.

Vaughan has no awareness that it is this very complexity which marks astrology as a pseudoscience. Nothing could ever disprove it. Astrology can explain everything that happens, even contradictory events. There is always some ready ad hoc hypothesis to explain away any apparent refuting data.

However, what is disturbing about Vaughan's article is not her profound misunderstanding of science and scientific methodologies, but her call to astrologers to take to the road like the creationists did a few years ago and go on the attack. She is outraged that there are now textbooks in our schools that "contain entire units or learning activities aggressively aimed at teaching students to distinguish between science and 'pseudoscience.'" Worst of all, astrology is often used as the prototypical pseudoscience. This must be changed, she says. The debunkers of astrology are "intellectual control junkies who cannot bear the thought of a phenomenon they can't explain." The reason astrology is so badly treated is because mainstream academia is afraid of "losing control, power, and status. Because of their need for intellectual and financial control, they keep expanding their territory, applying the scientific approach to areas that are just plain none of their business."

According to Vaughan, "scientist debunkers [of astrology] have entered the realm of public school education, but what else would you expect with Pluto currently in Sagittarius?" (What was that about nothing can mean anything in an absolute sense?) That is not all. Vaughan invites us to go with her down the slippery slope to envision science "infiltrating" the humanities, religion, philosophy, ethics--where "even poetry and drama are at risk."

Vaughan's article is primarily a call to action. She urges astrologers not to sit back and be persecuted by Science. She advises that astrologers try to get astrology into the public school curriculum under the guise of "multicultural frameworks."

Since every culture in the world has developed a form of astrology, it is inherently diverse....A possible tactic is to approach the school authorities about admitting Western Astrology as a valid cultural tradition, and see what happens.

Another approach, she says, is to try to take advantage of "a new educational craze which emphasizes student participation."

The idea here is that, if students show an interest in a particular question (no matter how unrelated it is to the established curriculum), teachers are supposed to follow the direction of inquiry and incorporate it into the lesson. In other words, if students in an astronomy class show an interest in astrology, the new standards stipulate that the teacher shouldn't say that this is a topic students are not supposed to be learning. It will be interesting to see how this kind of situation is handled, because it is in direct confrontation with the standards that allow science teachers to debunk astrology under the guise of instruction in science history, 'critical thinking,' and scientific method.

The reader might laugh at this, thinking that astrologers aren't going to get that close to any school curriculum. Think again. Astrologers have children and can belong to the P.T.A. Their kids can bring them to school for show-and-tell. Or, they could have credentials like Vaughan. She has a masters degree in Information Science and is the director of a science education library, where her duties include staying current with "guidelines and trends in science teaching, and to review the latest curriculum materials available."

update: Astrologers start their own college in Washington

further reading

  • "'Debunking the Debunkers' - A Response to an Astrologer's Debunking of Skeptics" by I.W. Kelly, Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 1999.

October 25-31 has been declared "Haunted History Week" by the so-called History Channel. Stories on ghosts and haunted houses and places will be featured in honor of that most important annual historical event: Halloween. I am sure they apologize to viewers who were looking forward to a dozen movies set in Nazi Germany.

September 1998. Discover Magazine. "Needles and Nerves," by Catherine Dold. This article claims that a physicist has some "high-tech" evidence supporting the claim that acupuncture "has a real effect on the body." What starts off as an anecdote about 62-year old Zang-Hee Cho who fell down and hurt himself, but had his pain relieved in ten minutes by an acupuncturist, deteriorates into a pseudoscientific argument of minimal significance.

While sticking needles into a few student volunteers, he took pictures of their brains and discovered that by stimulating an acupuncture point said to be associated with vision-but that is nowhere near anything known to be connected to the eyes-he could indeed trigger activity in the very part of the brain that controls vision. There just might be something to this acupuncture thing, he figured.

This is very unscientific thinking. Before making such a logical leap, Dr. Cho should first have consulted with a neuroscientist. Just thinking about something visual will stimulate the visual cortex and there is no connection between stimulating the visual cortex and healing the eye. Even if sticking needles into the foot, where the traditional points associated with eye health and disease are located, did stimulate the visual cortex, it would be irrelevant to curing eye problems. If stimulating the visual cortex could heal the eye, then all one would have to do would be to look at things or imagine looking at things to heal the eye. We could fire all the optometrists and opthamologists as quacks.

Acupuncture claims that by sticking needles into certain points on the body, one can heal the eye by unblocking chi and restoring a proper balance of yin and yang. Why would anyone think that stimulating the visual cortex has anything to do with healing the eye, unblocking chi or affecting yin and yang? Well, one could assume this is the case and simply beg the question, which is what Dr. Cho seems to have done. When confronted with the fact that some of his twelve subjects showed an increase and some a decrease of activity in the visual cortex when given acupuncture, Cho attributed this data not as refuting his hypothesis but as supporting it! Those who did not show an increase in visual cortex activity have too much yin! This is a nice ad hoc hypothesis to boot. No matter what results he got, Dr. Cho could explain the data in terms of yin and yang. Nothing could refute his hypothesis. There could be no clearer case of pseudoscientific reasoning.

In response to a personal e-mail from Dold which she does not want published, I am adding the following comments.

Dold's article is not just a case of reporting on a pseudoscientific thinker (Dr. Cho) without critical comment. She does quote Dr. Wallace Sampson as saying that "Cho's paper proves nothing....It's a simple case of pseudoscience."

However, the only supportive evidence Sampson allegedly provided was that "the study was too small and poorly controlled to detect real effects." Those comments do not address the pseudoscience issue. Dr. Sampson, a rabid critic of "alternative" health practices, is likely to have had a lot more to say regarding the pseudoscientific nature of Cho's research. That he wasn't quoted further, as well as other omissions, indicate that the author does not have a clear idea of pseudoscience.

She also quotes Dr. Bruce Pomerantz, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, as saying "People have looked for meridians but haven't found anything.... They've tried to measure qi without success. But the failure to find something doesn't mean it doesn't exist." Pomerantz is right, of course, but scientists don't investigate metaphysical entities such as qi, meridians, or ying/yang....unless they don't know the difference between science and metaphysics.

Dold does a good job of distinguishing two types of "acupuncture" studies. One type indicates that sticking needles into various traditional acupuncture points stimulates the production of pain killers such as endorphins. The other type indicates that stimulating certain traditional acupuncture points triggers brain activity not associated with the body part stuck with a needle. Cho's is of the latter type. He stuck a needle into the toe and found (using MRI) that he thereby stimulated a part of the brain associated with the visual system.

Cho found that three of his subjects showed more activity (more oxygen flow) in the brain, while the other three showed less activity (less oxygen), indicating that stimulating the toe may increase or decrease activity in the part of the brain associated with visual activity. Dold, however, makes no comment when Cho gives a metaphysical explanation for his confusing results. Cho finds an acupuncturist who explains this anomaly as due to differences of yin and yang in the subjects. The issue then shifts from Cho's study to the acupuncturist's seemingly magical knowledge:

...without seeing the data, the practitioner correctly pointed out who had shown an increase in activity (yang) and who had had a decrease (yin) in 11 of 12 cases. "I don't know how to explain it," Cho says (Dold).

Dold shows no skepticism at this anecdote, nor any interest in noting that Cho and his acupuncturist are not now discussing anything remotely scientific.

Dold recognizes that "Like many preliminary scientific reports, Cho's small study raises more questions than it answers and that "he has demonstrated new functional effects of acupuncture." Still, I think her article is misleading. The article claims to answer the skeptics who are "reluctant to accept that acupuncture has a real effect on the body." Skeptics are aware of the fact that sticking needles into people has a real effect on the body. Discovering that sticking a needle into the toe affects a part of the brain associated with the visual system could be of great importance. But no scientist will establish the value of this effect by looking for qi, meridians or differences in yin and yang.

Pseudoscientists do not distinguish what can be empirically tested from what cannot. To write an article that suggests that the two can commingle in the high-tech lab is to promote a pseudoscientific argument. The likelihood that Cho is going to "push the scientific frontier a little further by using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and other imaging systems to explore connections between acupoints and the brain" seems remote given his methodology. He should stick to physics, where presumably his methodologies are a bit more orthodox, and leave neuroscience to scientifically-minded neuroscientists, not to the likes of Dr. Pomerantz who seems to think there is hope of finding empirical evidence for metaphysical entities.






ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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