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






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February 14, 2001. Virginia state senator Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax County) has withdrawn a bill that would require public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Barry claims the House of Delegates' Education Committee are "spineless pinkos" for trying to amend his measure to allow local school districts decide what penalties to impose on students who violate the law. According to the Washington, Barry complained that libertarians and liberals were picking apart his patriotic mandate.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

February 14, 2001. The Kansas state board of education has restored evolution standards for science classes. In a related story, the governor of Kansas has denied that his uncle is a monkey.

February 7, 2001. According to, a study of 420,000 cell phone users in Denmark found that cell phone users are no more likely than anyone else to get cancer.
[thanks to Florin Clapa]

February 2, 2001 As bad as the devastation has been in India due to the recent massive earthquake, it is going to get worse, according to Hindu astrologers, who claim that Pluto and Mars are aligned to wreak havoc this week. So says Yahoo!
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

February 1, 2001. South African President Thabo Mbeki has been criticized for his openness to alternative science when it comes to dealing with AIDS and HIV, especially his refusing to provide treatment to infected pregnant women. But a new South African project will provide free AIDS medication to some HIV-positive pregnant women. Some see this as a sign that the South African  government "is abandoning its controversial approach to the disease," according to the NandoTimes.

January 30, 2001. According to the Washington Post, the state of Virginia passed a law requiring "the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in every classroom of every school" unless the student or the student's "parent or legal guardian objects on religious or philosophical grounds." This raises the question: is the pledge of allegiance a prayer? It would seem that in 1954 when Congress added the words "under God" to the pledge, it transformed Francis Bellamy's pure patriotic oath to a combination public oath and prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that it is unconstitutional to have forced prayer in public schools, even if allowances are made to let those who don't want to pray to opt out of the prayer. I don't imagine it will be too long before the Virginia law is challenged in court.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

January 26, 2001. Roy Moore, Alabama's new chief justice who calls himself the "Ten Commandments Judge" has hung a plaque of the Ten Commadments "in his office rather than the Supreme Court chamber" as he had suggested, according to Moore promised that "God's law will be publicly acknowledged in our court." Does this mean that the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion will not be enforced because the First Commandment forbids worshipping any god but the god of the Israelites?
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

January 22, 2001. According to, the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida, has got some rabbis wondering if it's just another theme park or a sermon whose theme is that real Jews are Christians. "When it opens February 5, visitors will be able to enter a replica of Jesus' tomb, climb the stairs of a faux Herod's Temple and travel down a re-creation of the Via Dolorosa, the street that Jesus walked before he was crucified." Various shows depict ancient Jewish history, prayers, etc., as preludes to Christianity. The rabbis don't oppose Christians preaching their faith, but they are offended by the implications and innuendos that Judaism evolved into Christianity.

It is probably a bit unrealistic of the rabbis to hope that the theme park would depict Christianity as a heretical cult.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

January 18, 2001. Is complementary therapy the medicine of the new millennium? asks the current issue of the British Medical Journal. EurekAlert has the answer. Maybe.
[thanks to Florin Clapa]

January 16, 2001. In a show of being a "uniter not a divider," Jesus is apparently appearing on the house of a Muslim in Indonesia. At least that's what some are saying about a brown stain on the whitewashed house, according to LineOne. Of course, it could be another case of pareidolia. Christians are a small minority in Indonesia where churches in nine cities have recently been bombed, leaving 15 dead.
[thanks to the Drudge Report]

January 15, 2001. The Institute of Medicine has issued the latest of four reports on recommended dietary allowances (RDA) of vitamins and minerals. The report is based on a four-year review of the scientific research into vitamins and minerals. The bottom line? "Nutritionists say a healthy daily diet, with at least five fruits and vegetables, can provide plenty of most vitamins." Nevertheless, 40% of Americans take supplements. Some need them. Some are probably being harmed by them. E.g. Vitamin A: "more than 3,000 micrograms daily can risk birth defects in pregnant women and liver damage for others." Vitamin E: more than 1,000 milligrams (1,500 international units) a day "could cause uncontrolled bleeding." Vitamin C: "more than 2,000 milligrams a day can cause diarrhea."

On the other hand, "many people over age 50 have trouble absorbing vitamin B12 from natural food sources and thus should eat fortified foods, like breakfast cereals, or a daily supplement to ensure they get 2.4 micrograms a day....[and] the amount of vitamin D older people need for strong bones has doubled, to 400 international units."

While the RDA has changed for many vitamins and minerals, the labels used on consumer goods generally follow the guidelines set down in 1968. To confuse matters even more, some products list the amounts of vitamins and minerals by milligrams or micrograms, while others use international units (a microgram equals 3.33 international units).

The USDA has set up a nutrient database online, so you can do a search for a product like milk and get a list of dozens of dairy products which you can then click on to find out what nutrients are contained in various sized servings.

January 14, 2001. "Confessions of a Lonely Atheist" by Natalie Angier (New York Times) presents the views of one group clearly underrepresented in G.W. Bush's "inclusive" government. I do not think you will hear the new president go any further than any past president in inviting us to work together, theist and atheist alike. Not gonna happen. Wouldn't be prudent.

Angier notes that while surveys of Americans keep finding that admitted atheists (those who will concur with the statement "I don't believe in God")  make up less than 5% of the population, things are quite different elsewhere.

17.2 percent of the Dutch concur with that statement, as do 19.1 of those in France, 16.8 percent of Swedes, 20.3 percent of people in the Czech Republic, 19.7 percent of Russians, 10.6 percent of Japanese and 9.2 percent of Canadians.

Some 80 percent of Americans believe in life after death, 

while anywhere from 40 to 70 percent of people in France, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Japan and the Czech Republic say, sorry, there probably is no life after death, there is no heaven, there is no hell, there are no Lazaruses.

To find countries with beliefs like ours you have to go to devoutly Catholic places like the Philippines or Chile, or to places like India, Indonesia or Iran. 

Angier asks "who in her right mind would want to be an atheist in America today, a place where presidential candidates compete for the honor of divining "what Jesus would do," and where Senator Joseph Lieberman can declare that we shouldn't..."indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion..."?

A 1999 poll found that atheists are about last on the list of who people would consider voting for. The stats for other types of people were

  • a black             95%

  • a woman          92%

  • a Jew               92%

  • a homosexual   59%

  • an atheist          49%

An earlier poll, in 1978, indicates that all groups except atheists have improved some 20--30 points. Atheists did improve, however---by 9 %.

One reason for our lack of popularity may be that we aren't organized and we don't proselytize. When we do organize, as in the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the Council for Secular Humanism, the issue isn't promoting atheism but something like separation of church and state, which many religious people can agree with.

There is some hope, however, that atheists are not as outnumbered as we may think. For one thing, we don't have a monolithic "Christianity" to contend with. According to one pollster, many who say they are Christians don't even know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Another pollster found that only about one-fourth of Americans attend a weekly religious service. And only 7 percent of the members of the elite National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God.

There is much more worth noting in this article, but I will just mention one: the freedom from criticism that religions and religious beliefs enjoy. You can criticize just about anything or any group and give it all you have, except when it comes to religion. There, you must back off, be respectful and use kid gloves or you will be tarred and feathered, even by your allies.
[thanks to Emil Gilliam]

January 14, 2001. According to the NandoTimes, science textbooks used by about 85 percent of all middle schools in the U.S. are "riddled with errors." The study was financed with a $64,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. A team of middle school teachers and college professors reviewed 12 textbooks for factual errors. They "compiled 500 pages of errors, ranging from maps depicting the equator passing through the southern United States to a photo of singer Linda Ronstadt labeled as a silicon crystal....One textbook even misstates Newton's first law of physics...."

"The books have a very large number of errors, many irrelevant photographs, complicated illustrations, experiments that could not possibly work, and drawings that represented impossible situations," said John Hubisz, a North Carolina State University physics professor who led the two-year research program.

The worst of the texts was the multi-volume Prentice Hall "Science" series. Prentice Hall said states alter standards or have content objections at the last minute and publishers have to rush to make changes.

Textbooks are generally reviewed for middle schools by people who aren't scientists and wouldn't recognize many of the errors. They check for political correctness and cultural diversity. The authors aren't responsible for the errors since many who were contacted "didn't write the book, and some didn't even know their names had been listed." 

One final note: "Reviews of later editions turned up more errors than corrections, the report said."

Meanwhile, a Swiss surgeon has turned himself into the police for amputating the wrong leg of an elderly patient.* And a study has been published linking cell phones and eye cancer....well, actually the study found an association between radiofrequency radiation exposure and uveal melanoma.*

January 13, 2001. The Sacramento Bee reprinted a story by David B. Savage of the Los Angeles Times entitled "Ashcroft ties Jesus to success of nation." The article rehashes some of Ashcroft's remarks made in 1999 at Bob Jones University. Ashcroft has been nominated by George W. Bush to be U.S. Attorney General. "America...has no king but Jesus" said Ashcroft, who stressed the importance of Christianity as the source of American law. He also seems to have asserted that the notion that we have no king but Jesus "found its way into the fundamental documents of this great country." I don't know what documents Mr. Ashcroft is thinking of, but fortunately the notion did not find its way into the U.S. Constitution, the true foundation of our legal system.

The Constitution protects freedom of religion and freedom of speech, neither of which were taught or supported by Jesus and neither of which can truthfully be said to be Christian values. The Constitution protected slavery. The 13th amendment abolished slavery. Christians could be found on both sides of that issue. The Constitution does not require anyone to believe in God. No penalties are set forth for being an atheist. No public office is denied to non-Christians. The revolutionaries declared their independence of Britain, a Christian nation that had been so Christian at one time that it did deny full citizenship to non-Christians. Fortunately, the founders rejected setting up a Christian state and pledged to defend the rights of non-Christians as well as the rights of Christians. Most Christians must accept the first commandment of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt have no other gods before me. No American is required by law to believe this claim, which, by the way, implies that the First Amendment is immoral because it allows the freedom to believe in other gods. No American is required by law to accept the moral beliefs of any particular Christian community. Finally our system of law does not require any law, federal or state, to be in accordance with any Christian code in order to be a valid law.

Will an attorney general who does not seem to understand or agree with these facts of history about our legal system be able to enforce all the laws fairly and honestly? Maybe. And maybe there really is a tooth fairy who talks to psychics.

further reading

The Gospel According to the A.G. by Ward Harkavy (Village Voice)

January 11, 2001. actually has a piece skeptical of a weird idea! CNN picked it up from a Reuters interview by Deborah Zabarenko of astronomer Phil Plait who hosts the Bad Astronomy web site. Two of the weird ideas that Plait dismisses are the notions that eggs can stand on end due to the equinox and NASA faked the Apollo moon landings. As a sign that there is perhaps still some intelligent life in journalism, Zabarenko does not give the "other side" the lion's share of the interview. (What seems to be thought of these days as journalistic fairness.) In fact, she doesn't even give the pseudoscientists a hearing.
[thanks to Jon Henrik Gilhuus]

January 5, 2001. Some medical doctors are using computers to deliver prescriptions to pharmacies and are allegedly greatly reducing harmful errors due to bad handwriting, according to George Lewis of NBC. Evidence of one fatal error is given in the article, but it is implied that the inability of pharmacists to read doctor's hand written prescriptions significantly contributes to the 7000 American deaths attributed to prescription errors by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). According to Lewis, the IOM claims that the annual cost to society is estimated at $77 billion. That's 11 million per death. I wonder how the number was arrived at. Lewis also says that American doctors write 3 billion prescriptions a year.

The most frightening statistic in the article, however, is one given by Dr. David Bates of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where doctors are using computers to enter their prescription orders online. "It’s all done in clearly readable text — there’s no handwriting to interpret. The computers double-check to make sure the right medication is going to the right patient."  “This software reduced the serious medication error rates by 55 percent,” according to Dr. Bates.

January 3, 2001. According to Seattle, another popular "alternative" health practice has been shown to be worthless: hair analysis. According to  Dr. Stephen Barrett, chiropractors, chelation therapists and New Age "nutritionists" often have hair analyzed to detect toxins, or mineral and nutritional imbalances and deficiencies. An article in JAMA maintains that not only is there no agreed upon standard by which to measure test results, but "6 commercial US laboratories, which analyze 90% of samples submitted for mineral analysis in the United States," produced significantly different results from a "split hair sample taken from near the scalp of a single healthy volunteer." 

According to Dr. Barrett, "proponents of hair analysis claim that it is useful for evaluating a person's general state of nutrition and health and is valuable in detecting predisposition to disease. They also claim that hair analysis enables a doctor to determine if mineral deficiency, mineral imbalance or heavy metal pollutants in the body may be the cause of a patient's symptoms." The authors of the JAMA study claim that "there's no evidence that any patients have benefited from changing their diet or other health habits based on hair analysis."

Defenders of hair analysis, such as David Watts, disagree. He argues that "the fact that what is consumed, and inhaled ends up in the hair is a logical and supportable argument for the validity of hair mineral analysis in itself."

According to Seattle, an "estimated quarter-million hair analyses are conducted each year in the U.S. at a cost of more than $9.6 million."

further reading

January 2, 2001. Soon, British Columbia will be the only place in North America where traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners will be recognized as doctors by a regulatory body, according to the Two years ago, the British Columbia's Health Professions Council recommended that Chinese medicine practitioners  be regulated. Last month, the B.C. Ministry of Health agreed.

TCM doctors use herbs instead of synthetic drugs and acupuncture and chi kung instead of surgery or other traditional Western medical therapies.

TCM doctor Henry Lu, founder of the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Vancouver, supports the move. "Many diseases that have been treated by Western medicine are not quite successful," he said. True, but that doesn't mean TCM will be any more successful. Randy Wong, the registrar at the college, thinks the licensing will help in several ways. He notes that currently anybody can call himself a TCM doctor and set up practice in B.C. Licensing will weed out the bad guys.

"Wong said it will take at least two years to license TCM doctors in B.C. after bylaws on education and the prescription of herbs are approved by the government and the TCM community."

Canada has what we in America call Socialized Medicine, but so far the government has not agreed to pay for TCM visits and treatments.

Licensing will also be a step towards integrating TCM with traditional medicine. The final step will be when the government starts to pick up the tab for TCM. 

The article did not go into the reasoning behind The Ministry of Health's decision. Maybe they see this as a way to save money. Maybe they see that TCM is growing in popularity, and if allowed to continue unregulated could prove unhealthy for the province. Maybe they really believe it works as well as the medicine they now provide their citizens. Even if they don't believe there is anything important to TCM, the politically correct thing to do is regulate it. At least the government will have some control over what herbs are being distributed and can regulate their purity. Whereas, in America all you have to do is call your product a food or supplement, rather than a drug or medicine, and you can distribute it with minimal interference from the Federal Drug Administration or other government agencies. Teenagers in health shops who have read a few pamphlets distribute health advice and recommend herbs to customers as if they were physicians with years of knowledge and experience. The government might like to say let natural selection work this out but it might also feel a strong paternalistic urge to protect its citizens from unscrupulous purveyors of mugwort and ginkgo biloba.






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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