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





vertline.gif (1078 bytes)



October 3, 2002. Four "PTA leaders, den mothers, baby sitters and career women" were arrested in Sacramento yesterday for running a pyramid scheme billed as Women Helping Women. The description of the women as upright citizens comes from their lawyer. Jan Scully, the D.A., describes them as helping themselves to as much as $100,000 each and the county sheriff says the women committed "fraud within a fraud." The story is a classic in self-deception and wishful thinking. According to Scully, "The promoters have said, 'If this is illegal, why hasn't anyone been arrested? Why hasn't anyone been prosecuted?' Today we're answering that." Peter Hecht has the story.

October 1, 2002. George Barna, author of 30 books and longtime pollster focusing on the state of Christianity, has found, among other things, that

  • The divorce rate is no different for born-again Christians than for those who do not consider themselves religious.
  • Only a minority of born-again adults (44 percent) and a tiny proportion of born-again teenagers (9 percent) are certain that absolute moral truth exists.
  • Most Christians' votes are influenced more by economic self-interest than by spiritual and moral values.
  • Desiring to have a close, personal relationship with God ranks sixth among the 21 life goals tested among born-agains, trailing such desires as "living a comfortable lifestyle." ["Pollster says he can't find Christianity transforming lives," by William Lobdell, Los Angeles Times, Published Sep 28, 2002]

Barna's "statistics often show self-described Christians living lives no different from those of atheists." What a shock!

further reading

September 27, 2002. Religious news today. First, St. Mychal. The New York Times reports that there is a movement to canonize Fr. Mychal Judge, the chaplain who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Burt Kearns, a television producer, has set up a Web site to promote the idea.

Second, Loraine Daly, 40,  is suing a Pentecostal church in Sydney, Australia, for breach of duty. When the spirit of the Lord entered her body, she hit the floor. "And there was nobody there to save her," writes Kelly Burke, Religious Affairs Writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. Daly claims she "suffered brain damage from the fall, leaving her with disabilities including headaches, nausea, memory loss, impaired concentration and a feeling of vagueness." She wants $750,000 for her troubles.
[thanks to Kerrie Dougherty]

update: Oct. 18, 2002. Ms. Daly lost the suit.

September 26, 2002. The New York Times reports today that Bell Labs fired scientist Dr. J. Hendrik Schön for making extraordinary but fraudulent claims in some 17 peer-reviewed papers regarding molecular-scale transistors. A committee of scientists concluded that even though Schön had some 20 collaborators over a three-year period, he alone was guilty of fabricating data. The scandal illustrates the practice of publishers hurrying to get into print dramatic stories, bypassing the rule-of-thumb that extraordinary claims require replicable studies done by independent labs before being published as established. When attempts  were made by outside labs to replicate Schön's data, it couldn't be done. Schön was asked for his data, but claimed he didn't have any. He said he deleted it from his computer because he needed the disk space. He claims he kept no lab books. He attempted to re-do the experiments but was unable to replicate the data.

The scandal also illustrates how much faith scientists have in each other and how much faith journals such as Nature have in the integrity of scientists. Dr. Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, noted that detecting fraud has never been an objective of the peer-review process.* The scandal also illustrates the fact that science is ultimately a self-correcting enterprise, and that errors--whether due to fraud, mistake, or incompetence-will eventually be found out.

September 24, 2002. Most of you have probably received several e-mails from someone in Nigeria claiming he can make you rich because he's got all this money just waiting to be transferred to your bank account. All you have to do is give him your bank account number, pay a small transfer fee, and you will be set for life. You're promised something like 35% of $150,000,000. And of course, it's all legal. I sent the first couple of these missives to the FBI and then dumped the last dozen or so in the electronic trash bin. Turns out, I should have sent them to the Secret Service. That's the agency that deals with these kinds of scams. You would think nobody would fall for this pitch, but you'd be wrong. There are 75 known victims worldwide. The total amount of money lost is estimated at over $20 million. One helpful citizen lost over $600,000. One law firm lost over $2 million, embezzled by a church-going mother of two who thought she'd get millions of dollars, but is more likely to get years of incarceration.

It turns out that the operation's kingpin was working in my backyard, Sacramento. Roland Adams is now in custody. It's a fascinating story. You can read all about it in today's Sacramento Bee.

further reading

[thanks to Roahn Wynar]

September 23, 2002. There is a very interesting article in today's by Michelle Malkin regarding how Regina Norman Danson, a hotel worker and illegal immigrant from Ghana, duped Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Julia Roberts and New York Democrats Charles Schumer and Carolyn Maloney. Danson convinced them she was Adelaide Abankwah, the daughter of the dead "Queen Mother" of a Ghanaian tribe, the "Nkumssa," and that she was seeking asylum to avoid a clitoridectomy, i.e., female genital mutilation. That was in 1997. None of the big names have admitted how they fell for the sad, sad story, and it is only recently that charges of fraud have been brought against Danson.

Malkin is the author of Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals & Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (Regnery, 2002). [thanks to Joe Littrell]

September 19, 2002.  On the Ides of March, 2001, I reported that JK Rowling was being sued by Nancy Stouffer, an American writer, for plagiarizing. The verdict is in and Rowling is the winner. The court ruled that Stouffer "lied and altered documents to support her case."
[thanks to Ruth Saunders]

September 18, 2002. Olin Chism of The Dallas Morning News takes so-called "educational" television networks to task for being more concerned with entertaining than with getting the facts right. In an article entitled "Why 'fact' TV keeps trotting out Bigfoot," Chism notes that "extravagant, scientifically suspect claims are the stuff" of the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the History Channel, and A&E.

They're also the stuff of public television. I've ranted about this enough times in these pages, so I'll keep my comments short. Television is an entertainment medium. It's main purpose is to sell ads or raise money (in the case of public television). If it educates, so much the better, but that is not its purpose. If you want history, don't watch television or go to the movies. If you want facts, don't watch television or go to the movies. But that is only part of the problem.

Another problem is that too many people do not know how to critically view a movie or television program. Thus, when they see program after program on channel after channel chasing after Bigfoot, a UFO, Atlantis rising in Peru, dogs that can sniff out cancer, etc., they don't know how to evaluate it. One of the reasons so many people can't evaluate this garbage effectively is because they are misinformed or uninformed to begin with. Many people apparently trust television to tell the truth, not edit scientists' claims so that they appear to say what they never meant to say, etc. They apparently don't understand that ratings drive the medium and ratings don't care a hoot about the truth. They don't seem to realize that television must hype everything, exaggerating and distorting data to serve the end of entertainment. The television industry is not trying to educate the public, they're trying to entertain us. If they protest otherwise, they're lying. The industry knows what we like, what we are suckers for, and they give it to us in abundance. They also know what keeps us coming back for more. Assuring words from skeptics that there is nothing to fear from aliens in the neighborhood, or Bigfoot in the back yard, is decidedly not what makes people return for more.

The solution? As I see it, there are only two possible paths to take. One, we educate ourselves and our children so that they are able to critically evaluate television programs and movies that make loose with the truth. Or, we create our own programs to compete with the mass media, programs that educate while being entertaining, such as "Scientific American Presents" or "Nova."

September 4, 2002. There are probably about 5 television programs a year that are worth watching. Last night's Frontline was one of them. The program explored the effect of 9/11 on the religious beliefs of many people, several of them Christian clergymen or Jewish rabbis (no Muslim clerics were interviewed). One or two atheists were also interviewed. Responses were quite varied. Some were primitive and purely emotional ('I'm a Christian. I believe in the Trinity, but I curse God and am having trouble with the Father.') Others were deeply reflective. ('I knew immediately religion was behind the terror. Religious passion can drive people to the greatest of goods and to the most horrible of horrors.' ) Some are finding solace in art. Others still pray and believe there was some divine reason for what happened to their loved ones and several thousand others. Some can't pray any more. God is absent, they say, as He was on September 11th. Some think such events prove there is no divine plan. Others seem to think God personally selected them to survive. One man had his atheism confirmed. One recognized that his notion of fanaticism needed to be redefined. A profound cynicism about life seemed to permeate the interviews, as person after person struggled to make sense of the event and the feelings it aroused. What kind of religion could nourish such nihilism? The answer seems to be: pick any one, but right now it is Islam. Nobody claimed Islam itself or religion itself is evil, but most recognized that the fervor needed to give rise to such acts of terror is learned, and it is mainly taught in religion. To paraphrase Jacob Bronowski's comment on the Holocaust: This is what happens when men aspire to speak for God.

The segment of the program that disturbed me the most was not seeing the anguish on people's faces as they attended services or tried to express what they were feeling in the aftermath of personal grief. It was not even the poignant scene of an opera singer unable to hold back tears as she recalled seeing the faces of young children not far from her as she sang "Amazing Grace" for the grieving. What disturbed me was the brief interview with the Reverend Dr. David Benke, president of the Atlantic district of the Lutheran Church, who had participated in an interfaith service at Yankee stadium. He has been called a heretic by clergy in his own sect, not for anything he said, but for participating in the event. Why was that so bad? Because, his fellow ministers say, he implied that other religions were equal with his own by sharing the stage with them. Some of his own people called him a terrorist and equated what he did with what the Islamic fanatics did on September 11th. There is a movement to oust him from his congregation. He is not alone. Petitions have been filed to remove Gerald B. Kieschnick from his post as president of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS) for supporting Benke's participation in the interfaith service. Benke was doing some soul-searching on Frontline:

If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history...then what's underneath religion? Is religion really part of a lust for power and control in people's lives? Is it a desire for absolute security so strong that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that's true, then I've got a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.*

Personally, I did not find that 9/11 changed anything in my own beliefs about religion or atheism. Religion is obviously a great comfort to many people and it motivates many people to do great good. It is also a terrible force with the capacity for immense destruction. Atheism is not a comfort in times of grief, but it is not a source of anger, either. This is the way the world is. This is how people are. How can we make it better? I can't imagine any group of atheists ever plotting to commit horrors like 9/11. I believe there are atheists in foxholes. I also know that some agnostics and some atheists will be so devastated and emotionally overcome by the death of loved ones that they will be driven to religion in their search for consolation. Some of us think that this is it, so let's make the best of what little time we have as conscious, feeling, intelligent beings. There is no pie in the sky behind the smoke and flames.

There is no Evil, either. The notion that Evil is some kind of Force or Being is just an attempt to classify what we don't understand or what we don't want to understand. Bin Ladin is not Evil Personified. He's an evil man. Evil is not Satan. People can be evil, meaning they can do things we hate. But there is not some additional reality called Evil that exists over and above all the evil deeds done by human beings. The rejoicing of fanatical Muslims over 9/11 clearly demonstrates that what some of us consider evil, others consider good. Good and evil are relative terms, not absolutes. Fanatics seek absolutes. Those who think in terms of Good and Evil are dangerous people. They will lead us down the road to perdition. Unfortunately, our nation is currently led by several such fanatics. It is not an accident that some of them are deeply religious. Worse, they enjoy the support of a majority of our citizens. It is also not an accident that many, if not most, of these supporters are driven by deep religious zeal. An atheist wants to cry out in such times: God help us! But, of course, we can't. We can only help ourselves. There are no gods to come to the rescue. Fortunately, most religious people are not fanatics and if the absolutists are to be stopped, it will have to be with the help of many deeply religious people. Atheists are too small in number and we have no organized voice that carries any weight in this country. It is unfortunate, but I believe it is true that only religion can save us from religion.

If you missed "Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero," look for it to air again on September 11th and 12th. Check your local PBS station schedule for the exact time and date. In the meantime, there is a Web site for the program. The interviews with Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete and Kanan Makiya resonated with me. These and several other very interesting interviews are posted.

September 1, 2002. Peggy Orenstein has an article in today's New York Times Magazine on the raw-food diet fad. She pays a lot of attention to Roxanne's, a raw-food restaurant in Larkspur (Marin county, about a 15-minute drive up 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge that connects San Francisco to Marin). It's one of the "in" places to dine in the Bay area; reservations must be made a month in advance for the privilege of eating food that has not been cooked. For some mystical reason, food may be heated to 118 degrees and still be considered raw at Roxanne's, which is run by Roxanne Klein, wife of Michael Klein who made his fortune in data communications. Mr. Klein hasn't eaten cooked food in five years, is a vegan who eats honey, and subsists on about 800 calories a day (he says). Roxanne has been a vegan for 10 years and also hasn't eaten cooked food in five years. Orenstein describes Michael as gaunt with muscular arms. She describes Roxanne as making Kate Moss look fat. The Kleins claim they are the poster children for health and good living.

I haven't dined at Roxanne's, and probably never will, but I know several people who have. They gave it mixed reviews. The food was interesting, they said, and most of it was tasty. But the service was not what one would expect when paying something like $70 each for dinner (with wine). Why, you might ask, would anyone want to spend that kind of money to eat raw food? Well, why not? If the food is good and tasty, the wine of high quality, the service excellent, and the ambiance pleasant, who cares whether the soup is hot?

On the other hand, the raw-food craze seems to be based on some pseudoscientific notions. The Kleins think that eating raw food will ward off aging and disease. They seem to take literally the words of one of the raw-food pioneers, T. C. Fry, who claimed ''All the diseases of civilization -- cancer, heart disease, diabetes -- are all directly attributable to the consumption of cooked food.'' Fry took the proof for that claim to the grave seven years ago when he died at age 70. (It is said, however, that he was in perfect health when he died and didn't look a day over 60.)

Mr. Klein believes that cooking food destroys a food's natural enzymes and minerals, and depletes it of protein and vitamin content, while concentrating pesticide residues. Orenstein contacted David Klurfeld, a professor of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University in Detroit. He says that aside from a slight loss of some vitamins, cooking food is not detrimental and provides many benefits, such as making food taste better and sterilizing it in the bargain. According to Klurfeld, heat ''denatures'' a food's proteins, changing their shapes in ways that improve digestibility. The enzymes in a raw vegetable, says Klurfeld, "are specifically tailored to that food and even left intact rarely assist the human body."

Orenstein notes that one of Roxanne's multipurpose vegetables, the lowly parsnip, contains "small amounts of light-activated carcinogens, whereas the cancer-fighting nutrient in tomatoes is released only when cooked."

Well, I'd like to write more about this interesting topic, but from the smoke blowing by the study window I surmise that the barbequed ribs are done, well done.

August 21, 2002. Ginkgo biloba has long been touted by "alternative" medicine merchants as an aid to memory, attention, and related cognitive abilities. However, clinical studies have failed to support the claims of ginkgo manufacturers that improvement in memory, etc., will occur in as little as four weeks. Today, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published the results of a "six-week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group trial" on ginkgo biloba.* The results?

...ginkgo did not facilitate performance on standard neuropsychological tests of learning, memory, attention, and concentration or naming and verbal fluency in elderly adults without cognitive impairment. The ginkgo group also did not differ from the control group in terms of self-reported memory function or global rating by spouses, friends, and relatives. These data suggest that when taken following the manufacturer's instructions, ginkgo provides no measurable benefit in memory or related cognitive function to adults with healthy cognitive function.

Of course, the test was biased, done by researchers who have no faith in ginko, and whose negative energy undoubtedly affected the outcome.

This is not the end of ginkgo by any means. Currently, the National Institute on Aging is partially funding a five-year study on ginkgo, in which the participants will take twice the recommended dosage, i.e., 240 milligrams per day. If at first you don't succeed....

In 2001, ginkgo sales reached $41 million.*

According to Gina Greene,

The herb is thought to improve blood flow to the brain which may account for its reputation as a memory enhancer. It's also believed to improve mood, reduce anxiety and stress, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and headache. Ginkgo has also been used to increase circulation to the limbs and in the treatment of asthma. Serious side effects are rare but ginkgo could affect blood clotting.*

For those who are looking for some safe ways to improve their memory, consult the list of memory tips.





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

larrow.gif (1051 bytes) The Skeptic's Refuge

More Mass Media Funk rarrow.gif (1048 bytes)