Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge

In Mass Media Funk, you will find articles about news stories, magazine articles or TV programs of interest to skeptics, which do not pander to the public's appetite for the occult and supernatural.

Note: because many of the sites linked to here are newspapers or magazines, it is impossible to maintain the links.

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September 3, 2003. Over a year ago I wrote about some parents of children with autism who believe that the disorder is caused by mercury in vaccines. My position was, and still is, that both the evidence and the argument for claiming there is a significant causal link between mercury in vaccines and autism are very weak. A new study published in Pediatrics magazine claims that there is strong evidence from a study in Denmark that thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative that used to be commonly used in vaccines, is an unlikely contributor to the development of autism.

Danish researchers examined data on 956 children diagnosed with autism from 1971 to 2000. They said the autism incidence rate climbed steadily from less than one child per 10,000 in 1990 to nearly 5 per 10,000 in 1999, seven years after thimerosal was removed from vaccines in Denmark.*

"Thimerosal has been eliminated from childhood vaccines in most industrialized countries," said lead author Dr. Kreesten Meldgaard Madsen. "If indeed thimerosal was an important cause of autism, (autism rates) should soon begin to decline in these countries."

Dr. Robert Byrd of the University of California, Davis, who has studied a surge in autism cases in California, said the Danish study won't settle the question because it used only data on hospitalized autistic children until 1995 and then added outpatients after that. According to Dr. Byrd, this change in data collection confuses the issue of whether there were any changes in the autism rate itself. Even so, Bryd is well aware that autism rates continue to rise around the world while the use of mercury-based vaccines decreases.

Mark Blaxill of Safe Minds (Sensible Action for Ending Mercury-induced Neurological Disorders) goes much further than Bryd and accuses the authors of the study of manipulating "the incidence of autism in an attempt to clear thimerosal-containing vaccines of any role in the etiology of the disease."* Why would these scientists intentionally manipulate data to exonerate thimerosal? Because, says Blaxill, pediatricians, the ones who read Pediatrics, administer vaccines and he thinks they want to stop the movement to eliminate thimerosal from vaccines. Many pediatricians are no longer administering thimerosal-based vaccines because such vaccines are being phased out on the off-chance that the mercury in such vaccines is harmful. However, Blaxill believes that it is damning that two of the authors of the study work for the Danish manufacturer of thimerosal vaccines and Pediatrics didn't mention this. Nor did they mention that it gets advertising revenue from manufacturers of vaccines. Personally, I think it most appropriate that someone who works for a manufacturer of a product that has been claimed to be harmful would be involved in a study on the effects of that drug. I could understand Blaxill's complaint if  the researchers had found that as thimerosal decreased so did autism but they refused to publish the study. Also, the fact that manufacturers of vaccines advertise in Pediatrics seems to be a pretty lame reason for only publishing articles that support the claim that vaccines are detrimental, which is what Blaxill seems to be suggesting. As to the point about disclosure, I think Blaxill is right and I contacted his organization for the names of the two doctors and the company they work for. Melissa Sneath of Safe Minds informed me that the two doctors are Anne-Marie Plesner, M.D., Ph.D. and Peter H. Andersen, M.D. They work for Statens Serum Institute. I contacted Statens Serum Institute and Dr. Peter Andersen, of the Department of Epidemiology, responded. He claims that Statens hasn't used thimerosal in their vaccines for children for over ten years.

Since 1992 our own vaccine production has been free of thimerosal, i.e. since 1992 no Danish child has received a thimerosal-containing vaccine recommended within the childhood vaccination program. The vaccine used against hepatitis B contained thimerosal until 2000, but this vaccine is not a part of the recommended schedule and has been given to very few children at risk.

Dr. Andersen also informed me that Dr. Plesner was a consultant in the Dept. of Medical Affairs at Statens at the time of preparing the paper. She has since left the Institute and now has a position in the County Medical Office within the municipality of Copenhagen.

Dr. Andersen also sent me a copy of a paper recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (2003; vol. 25, no. 2, pp. 101-106) that concluded:

The body of existing data, including the ecologic data presented herein, is not consistent with the hypothesis that increased exposure to Thimerosal-containing vaccines is responsible for the apparent increase in the rates of autism in young children being observed worldwide ("Autism and Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines Lack of Consistent Evidence for an Association" by Paul Stehr-Green, DrPH, MPH, Peet Tull, Michael Stellfeld, MD, Preben-Bo Mortenson, DrMedSC, Diane Simpson, MD, PhD).

According to the authors of the study, they compared "the prevalence/incidence of autism in California, Sweden, and Denmark with average exposures to Thimerosal-containing vaccines" for the period covering the mid-1980s through the late-1990s. (If you would like a copy of this article, write to me at, replace the AT with the @ sign.)

It would be impossible to calculate how many lives have been saved by the products of Statens Institute and similar laboratories that manufacture vaccines. It is also impossible to discover who might be "especially sensitive" to thimerosal. However, the number of lives lost to diseases like measles because of parental fear of vaccinating children is calculable. For example, there were over 1,500 reported cases of measles in an epidemic in Ireland in 2000. Because of not being vaccinated, three children died.*

further reading

September 1, 2003. An anonymous reader sent me an article about a month ago by Mark A. R. Kleiman that appeared in Slate. Sorry, but I just now got around to reading it. It is an excellent analysis of how to deceive with statistics. It's called "Faith-Based Fudging:  How a Bush-promoted Christian prison program fakes success by massaging data." Kleiman's analysis provides a good lesson in critical thinking.

August 29, 2003. Ira Flatow's "Talk of the Nation" NPR show on science and pseudoscience is available on-line. Michael Schermer and Stuart Vyse are featured guests.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

August 26, 2003. Here's a couple of weird stats for you. The Arizona Republic mentioned the word "UFO" 133 times in1997. Five years later, the number had dropped to 15. Some might conclude that interest in UFOs has dropped and other, more pressing matters, are occupying the minds of Arizonans. Others think the aliens have just moved on a bit to the west.

On the other hand, The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization lists about 400 sightings of Bigfoot a year. They consider 10% of these to be credible, according to David Little of the Chico Enterprise.

I've saved the best stat for last. Martin Gardner at age 89 has just published his 70-somethingth book: Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?: Discourses on Godel, Magic Hexagrams, Little Red Riding Hood, and Other Mathematical and Pseudoscientific Topics. Michael Pakenham reviews it for the Baltimore Sun. Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science is the book that inspired me to become a writer about the pseudoscientific, the paranormal, and the occult.

Here's a stat question: How many magicians will it take to debunk David Blaine?

Finally, in the news: Donna Lynette Walker, the woman who claimed to be the long-lost daughter of an Indiana couple, is accused of having perpetrated an even more wicked hoax in the past: She helped a Washington state couple spend $10,000 to adopt a set of twins that didn't exist.
[thanks to Joe Littrell]

August 25, 2003. Prayer seems to have killed an 8-year-old autistic boy in north Milwaukee, according to CNN, and a 2-day-old infant in Indiana. In Australia, a naturopath, Reginald Fenn, has been charged with unlawfully killing an 18-day old infant with a heart condition because he prescribed natural remedies and advised against surgery. [Update: February 13, 2004: Fenn was convicted of manslaughter and was today sentenced to five years in jail, but the term was suspended because the 74-year-old Fenn is too ill with cancer to serve his time.] And I recently learned from Loren Pankratz, while attending the Skeptic's Toolbox (sponsored by CSICOP), about children who have been killed by doctors who blame the parents. Some of the most egregious offenses seem to have been committed at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, which is associated with Vanderbilt University. Professor Sir Dr. Roy Meadows, the medical doctor who started the Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy witch hunt, is also under investigation. Meadows is also one of the pioneers in the diagnosis of "cot death" or SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) as it is known in the U.S. How many of those diagnoses have been misdiagnoses? We may never know, but it is frightening to realize that so many people claiming to be protectors of children are sometimes the most grievous abusers of the young and old alike. Pharmaceutical firms share some of the blame for this abuse, especially those that promote powerful neuroleptics for infants that cause such symptoms as tardive dyskinesia.

Before those of you who feel your turf has been invaded or your profession has been unjustly accused of malpractice, please take a look at this site called M.A.M.A. (Mothers Against Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy Allegations) and read the articles listed there.
[thanks to Alison Bevage, Joe Littrell, and Grant Middleton]

August 19, 2003. Geoffrey Dean and Ivan Kelly have concluded another study on astrology and guess what they found? Astrology is rubbish. The study involved 2,000 babies born in London within minutes of each other in early March 1958.

Researchers looked at more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, mathematics and reading - all of which astrologers claim can be gauged from birth charts.

The scientists failed to find any evidence of similarities between the "time twins," however. They reported in the current issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: "The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success . . . but the results are uniformly negative."

Have astrologers welcomed the study, glad to know the truth about these matters? Hardly. "The findings caused alarm and anger in astrological circles yesterday. Roy Gillett, the president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, said the study's findings should be treated "with extreme caution" and accused Dr Dean of seeking to "discredit astrology." Duh.

But the time-twins study is only half of the hatchet buried in the head of astrology by this study.

Dr Dean and Prof Kelly also sought to determine whether stargazers could match a birth chart to the personality profile of a person among a random selection. They reviewed the evidence from more than 40 studies involving over 700 astrologers, but found the results turned out no better than guesswork. The success rate did not improve even when astrologers were given all the information they asked for and were confident they had made the right choice.

According to Dean, astrology "has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid and it has failed hundreds of tests." Other than that, it is a fine guide to determine whether today is a good day to get out of bed and look in the mirror.

The full text of their article is available online from the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

August 4, 2003. Santa Fe Municipal Court Judge Frances Gallegos is offering violent offenders an alternative to picking up trash (i.e., community service!): They can take a tai chi class complete with a Japanese-style tea service and meditation aided by acupuncture.* Mark De Francis, a doctor of Oriental medicine who works as a psychologist for the state Corrections Department, runs the program. He believes violent offenders can benefit from tai chi and meditation. No doubt they can, but picking up the trash doesn't seem like much of a punishment for a violent offender. Who wouldn't rather drink tea and exercise than pick up trash?
[thanks to Keldon McFarland]

Sometimes it seems like we live in an alternative world. Many schools across the nation are offering a controversial alternative to spending all of the school day in a public school. A program called Released Time Bible Education uses Protestant volunteers to tutor kids in the Bible while offering instruction in reading and other study skills. Defenders of the program argue that releasing public school students for an hour of religious instruction off-campus has many benefits, including a boost in academic performance and a reduction in juvenile crime. Critics say the program uses public schools to promote religion. They may both be right. A small study in Oakland, California, claims that just one class period per week for a year seems to have led to an increase in test scores in reading, language, and math.

reader comments

The increase in test scores for children involved in the Released Time Bible Education classes can probably be attributed to three things. First, the Hawthorne Effect, where performance increases, not due to any particular stimulus (e.g. bible education), but because there is an interest in seeing performance improve from authority figures.

Second, and closely related, is the self-fulfilling prophecy. The volunteers working with these students believe it works, so they probably work harder to make it work. Also, the parents who allow their children to do this, probably believe it works, and may be giving extra attention because of participation in the program or to school work at home. Not to mention if the children believe it works, they probably work harder while in the sessions.

Lastly, simple one-on-one attention, and the stimulation of being in a new environment. If you were taken out of a classroom you sat in all day long, listening to the same teacher and were placed in different room where you received special attention, no doubt you would perk up and pay more attention. Also, it is much easy for a teacher to educate 5-10 students, than 30.

I know there are a lot of "probablys" in my analysis, but I would rather bet on these "probablys" than on the notion that studying the bible makes children smarter or aids in education. How about this, cut out the bible education portion and continue teaching reading, math, and science instead. I bet you see those test scores rise again.

Morgan Sisk

reply: The Hawthorne Effect or the Somebody Upstairs Cares syndrome should be an entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary! Thanks.

No doubt being shown attention and being made to feel special are important to the success of programs like the Released Time Bible Education (RTBE) program. The kids and parents are highly motivated as well. They might think this may give them an edge and translate into more educational opportunities later. The parents might be hoping the Bible study will affect their child's character in a positive way, making their job easier.

If the kids weren't motivated or shown any attention, I wonder how they would perform? For example, what if they were given a free Bible and told to spend fifty minutes a day reading it. How would that work?

Morgan is right to suggest that if we want to identify the causal effect of studying the Bible we need to have a control group--motivated kids given special attention and extra instruction in small groups, but instead of reading the Bible they might read Harry Potter books. Or they might just take two groups of kids, one educated at school all day and the other educated in homes with small groups and volunteer teachers. They could both study the Bible to their heart's content. Which group, if either, would do better on the exit tests?

What I found most interesting about the RTBE study is that by reading the Bible the kids improved their math test scores.

another comment

The effects of RTBE may indeed be superficially due to The Hawthorne Effect, however, looking at RTBE from a systems point of view I doubt that the same effect could be reached by reading Harry Potter. This is simply because there is no group out there that is as motivated to share HP as Christians are to share the Bible. It seems that the main motivation for the volunteers teaching the students is their desire to share their faith.

As a "dim" I would like to see the "brights" get together and create a program to teach, maybe, the works of Carl Sagan and see what the results are. From a systems point of view I would expect the program to be a failure simply because the parents wouldn't be as likely to support the initiative.

I do find it strange that the RTBE students vocabulary scores were less than the average. I would expect that the students would encounter many words in the Bible that are not present in the usual grade 4 reading material. Perhaps the Bibles they are using are some easy reading version.

As far as giving the students a Bible and telling them to read it for fifty minutes a day goes, I think that the number that would follow through would be close to zero. According to George Barna less than half of all Christians read the bible even weekly, never mind daily  so I think the likelihood of grade four students reading the Bible without someone standing over is them nil.

What on earth are the "checking skills" the student excel at? Is that something that is needed at a supermarket?

Tim B.

July 31, 2003. Update: The Skeptic's Dictionary is available from Amazon for the low, low price of $13.97 + shipping.! (The retail list price is $19.95.) To order direct from Amazon click on this button

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The book should be available in your local bookstore soon. Ask about it and request your school and local library to order a copy as well. Thanks!

July 29, 2003. The states of New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah have renumbered highway 666 which runs from Gallup to Monticello. It is now highway 491. And it will stay that way until some group of people finds reason to be offended by the new number. There are many superstitions, but ones involving numbers are particularly irritating. Six is a lucky number to some people. The Navajos consider six to be an evil number. Three sixes, trismegistus! I'm sure some cultures find six to be a pretty nice number. I don't have anything against 4 or 9 or 1, but I'm sure those numbers are evil to some people. To think that there are adults who think numbers are good or evil boggles my mind. A few years ago, Arizona changed the number of the southern leg of 666 to US 191 because of the number's believed satanic connection. Revelation 13:18 says "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six." Nostradamus could not have been any clearer.





ęcopyright 2003
Robert Todd Carroll

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