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
ęcopyright 2006





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May 30, 2005. The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has offered the Smithsonian $20,000 to not show a Discovery Institute's film on intelligent design. Another condition of the offer is that the Smithsonian not accept the $16,000 donation from the religious folks in Seattle. An article about the Smithsonian's pact with the devil appeared in The New York Times.

Randi writes in an update of his latest newsletter:

Please send an e-mail to addressed to Mr. Randall Kremer, Public Affairs. Tell him of your concern over this situation. And, you might add that the JREF is willing to donate $20,000 to the Smithsonian Institution if they agree to give back the "Discovery Institute" $16,000 and decline to sponsor the showing of the film. And the JREF will not require the Smithsonian to run any films or propaganda that favor our point of view...

update (June 2, 2005): Tommy Nguyen of the Washington Post writes:

The controversy over the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's decision to allow a documentary based on "intelligent design" -- the theory that life is so meticulously complex that a divine intelligence must have designed it -- to be played at one of its theaters ended in compromise yesterday: The film will be shown, but the screening fee required by the museum (in this case, $16,000) won't be accepted and the museum will withdraw its customary co-sponsorship.

A museum spokesperson said: "We have determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research."

The film in question is called "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe." It's based on a book by Guillermo Gonzalez, an Iowa State University astronomy professor. The book is published by Regnery, which calls itself "the leading conservative publisher in America."

Bob Park identified the Crowell Trust (set up by the founder of Quaker Oats) as the source of the money for the film. The website for the Crowell Trust states: OUR MISSION: The teaching and active extension of the doctrines of Evangelical Christianity through approved grants to qualified organizations.

The co-author of the book is Jay Richards, vice president of the Discovery Institute. According to Park, they acknowledge financial support from the Templeton Foundation.

The screening hasn't been played up on the Smithsonian website, but the site had this:

June 23, 2005
Smithsonian Institution Premiere of The Privileged Planet

The Director of the National Museum of Natural History and Discovery Institute are happy to announce the national premiere and private evening reception for The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe, 6pm Thursday June 23, 2005.

The documentary showing will be in the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Insitution, Washington D.C.

The reception following will be in the Smithsonian Institution's Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.

Attendance is by mailed invitation only.

Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, said he was disappointed with the Smithsonian's distancing itself from the film and its sponsors. Randi, on the other hand, was very satisfied. See his response at

On a related note, the Discovery Institute announced today that "an article by molecular biologist Jonathan Wells, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, has just appeared  in Rivista di Biologia / Biology Forum, one of the oldest still-published biology journals in the world. Wells's article uses intelligent design theory (ID) to formulate a testable hypothesis about centrioles, which are microscopic structures in animal cells whose function is not yet understood." In a press release, the Discovery Institute gloated: "For the second time in nine months, an article explicitly applying intelligent design theory to scientific research has been published in an internationally respected biology journal -- despite Darwinists' claims that this never happens."

The fact is that the ID folks have been explicitly applying their belief to scientific issues right and left, but is it scientific research? As Richard Dawkins says in "Creationism: God's Gift to the Ignorant":

The creationists' fondness for "gaps" in the fossil record is a metaphor for their love of gaps in knowledge generally. Gaps, by default, are filled by God. You don't know how the nerve impulse works? Good! You don't understand how memories are laid down in the brain? Excellent! Is photosynthesis a bafflingly complex process? Wonderful! Please don't go to work on the problem, just give up, and appeal to God. Dear scientist, don't work on your mysteries. Bring us your mysteries for we can use them. Don't squander precious ignorance by researching it away.*

According to the Rivista di Biolgia website, it "publishes researches in the fields of Theoretical Biology, in its broadest sense. It aims at going beyond specializations, discussing, before a multidisciplinary audience, biological subjects of general interest."

May 1, 2005. May 5th has been declared a National Day of Reason as a countermeasure to the federally supported National Day of Prayer. Some oppose the latter because it is not inclusive. According to the National Day of Prayer official website,

The National Day of Prayer was created by an act of Congress and is, therefore, intended for all peoples of faith to pray to the God of their understanding.

However, our expression of that involvement is specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage and those who share that conviction as expressed in the Lausanne Convenant. If peoples of other faiths wish to celebrate in their own tradition, they are welcome to do so, but we must be true to those who have supported this effort and volunteered their time to promote it. National Day of Prayer is not a function of the government and, therefore, a particular expression of it can be defined by those who choose to organize it. This is not a church/state issue.

However, there are many who do not believe in the properness of prayer (no matter who's included)  for philosophical reasons--some religious, some not. The goal of the new event is to celebrate reason "to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship." The day of reason should also try to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to political freedom posed by religious intrusion into the public sphere of the vigilant protection of our constitutional rights.

To the atheist, to pray is to talk to yourself. For some believers, prayer is an affront to God: it is to ask Perfection to change.

April 26, 2005. It was reported today by the BBC that thousands of toads are mysteriously exploding in northern Germany. Their little bodies swell to the point of bursting and their entrails are then propelled for up to a meter (3.2ft). This mysterious occurrence in Hamburg's Altona district has scientists baffled but I am sure that this was all predicted in the Bible or by Nostradamus and that it portends something really important. It is only a matter of time before some expert appears on the scene to read the messages in the entrails or to reveal what passage in Scripture or the quatrains mentions the exploding toads of Altona.

update (May 15, 2005): This time the scientists beat the prophets to an explanation. Frank Mutschmann, a Berlin veterinarian, tested specimens from the Hamburg pond and concluded that crows are pecking out the frogs' livers. "Based on the wounds, Mutschmann said, it appears that a bird pecks into the toad with its beak between the amphibian's chest and abdominal cavity, and the toad puffs itself up as a natural defense mechanism. But, because the liver is missing and there's a hole in the toad's body, the blood vessels and lungs burst and the other organs ooze out, he said." (Matt Surman, Associated Press).

March 17, 2005. Noreen Renier claims to be a psychic who helps solve crimes. She's been working on a missing person case for over a month and so far has advised the police in Buchanan, Berrien County, Michigan, that she sees a snake and some numbers. The 56-year-old woman who is missing hasn't been seen for over three months. According to the South Bend Tribune:

Officer Dave Capron of the Buchanan Police Department said his interview with Renier was the only time the Police Department has ever consulted a psychic.

"The family paid for the psychic," Capron said.

"Whether it turns up anything, we don't know at this point," he said.

Before Capron and the sheriff's detective talked with Renier, they consulted other police departments that used Renier in missing person cases.

Police in Cass County used Renier to help investigate a crime there, Capron said.

"The psychic doesn't solve the crime but gives police information to fit into the puzzle and solve the mystery," Capron said.

Capron is a bit skeptical but he said any information is better than empty leads.

Capron is mistaken if he considers "I see a snake and some numbers" as information. The Tribune continues:

Capron said Renier isn't sure if it means an actual snake, a river, or if it's simply the letter "s" she is envisioning.

Also Renier gave police some numbers, but Capron said they don't know if the numbers reflect addresses, highway exit signs or something else.

What Capron and his fellow officers in Cass Country should do is some research on subjective validation, the process whereby people assign meaning and significance to disconnected or coincidental pieces of data. If and when this investigation concludes, somebody ought to be able to shoehorn the snake, a river, the letter "s", or the numbers to fit the facts. This will appear to validate the psychic's "vision." But it's actually a scam or a sham or both.

March 17, 2005. James Van Praagh has written a TV show series for CBS about a medium who gets messages from the dead, but his psychic show isn't like the NBC hit "Medium." He says his psychic doesn't solve crimes but is a "ghostbuster who helps the dead cross over into the light." The new show will feature Jennifer Love Hewitt. Says Michael Logan: "If Van Praagh's series resurrects Love Hewitt's career from the dead, that'll be a marvel in itself." Van Praagh had his own show for a few weeks a couple of years ago, "Beyond with James Van Praagh," but it didn't generate as much viewer interest as WGN had hoped for and it was cancelled shortly after it got started. He never did explain why nobody from the other side told him that his show would flop.

March 17, 2005. Skeptics haven't taken over the WWW but we're getting stronger. Have a look at The Fourth Edition of the Skeptics' Circle (SC), which features several articles on medical quackery, some articles on critical thinking, a few on creationism, and a couple on the paranormal, including a series on Allison Dubois, alleged psychic medium and model for the hit TV show "Medium." The SC will introduce you to Richard Rockley's Skeptico. Be sure to read his challenge to astrologers. (Did Bill Maher really say that vaccines don't prevent disease? Yes, he did. Even worse, he buys into the toxins theory of illness: "Why are we sick? What is the main thing we do to ourselves? Eat....people get sick because of an aggregate toxicity, because their body has so much poison in it from the air, the water....And even the food people think is good for them is bad." Does this man know nothing about genetics, viruses, bacteria? Is he really as ignorant as he claims?)

March 17, 2005. Cardiologists studying thousands of patients over several years have found that taking 400 units of Vitamin E daily is of no benefit in reducing heart disease or cancer. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The disheartening results indicate that taking the supplement may increase the risk of heart failure.

Of course, ten years ago this same journal advised us to take 400 units of Vitamin E daily. (See  Rebecca Voelker's article "Recommendations for antioxidants: how much evidence is enough?" JAMA Vol. 271, No. 15, April 20, 1994, pp. 1148-49.) Much of the support for the recommendation came from an American study of female nurses that found that those who had a high intake of vitamin E lowered their risk of heart disease by 34 per cent. Are we to assume there were flaws in the earlier study? Could the X chromosome have had anything to do with the earlier study's results?

March 16, 2005. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Archbishop of Genoa and a possible successor to the Pope, has been appointed by the Vatican to debunk Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The novel is a pack of lies, says the Church. Mary Magdalene didn't have Jesus's child, among other things.

March 11, 2005. Detective Wayne Bird of the Williamsburg, Kentucky, police department admits that he spent months researching psychics before hiring one and paying her $650 to do a reading. How helpful was the psychic? She told Detective Bird that the body of a man who has been missing for about five years may be near a river or stream. In a TV interview, Bird says that they got an anonymous call from a man in Michigan who says he killed a homeless man in Williamsburg in November of 2000. Even with all the information, police still haven't located the body. I guess you get what you pay for.

March 2, 2005. Another scientific study has found no evidence for a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, according to New Scientist and the

further reading

February 21, 2005. Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening report in the British Journal of Psychology that "even a relatively small amount of verbal suggestion can cause a large number of people to confidently report a psychokinetic metal bending after-effect."

They report that if an audience is told that a spoon is bending, a high proportion of them will believe that it is, even when it isn't. Two groups of students were asked to watch a videotape of a psychic (actually a magician) bending a key. The video ended with a 60-second close-up shot of a motionless key. One group was told that the key was still moving; the other group was not. Forty per cent of those who were told the key was still moving said that the key was still bending, compared with 5 per cent of the other group.

According to the Times Online, "the researchers conclude that eyewitness testimony about the genuineness of such phenomena is shaky and therefore cannot be used to support the existence of the paranormal."

February 21, 2005. LiveScience reports that speakers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that President Bush is stifling science. Scientists in key federal agencies are being ignored or pressured to change study conclusions to support Bush policy positions. The 2005 federal budget has significant cuts in spending on basic research. We are reducing our investment in science education. There are stiff new restrictions on obtaining visas, which will reduce the number of foreign-born science students entering the American research community.

The Bush administration has cut scientists out of policy-making processes on environmental issues. According to Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, issues on global warming that have achieved a firm scientific consensus are being questioned by Bush policy makers. Widely accepted research is being ignored or disputed by the Bush administration, she said. Under Bush, she said, questioning proven science has become more important than finding ways to cope with global warming.

Neal Lane of Rice University, a former director of the National Science Foundation, said "there is quite a consensus in place that the Earth is warming and that humans are responsible for a considerable part of that'' through the burning of fossil fuels. However, the U.S. doesn't "have a policy right now to deal with what everybody agrees is a serious problem.''

Kurt Gottfried of Cornell University said that a survey of scientists in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that about 42 percent said they felt pressured to not report publicly any findings that do not agree with Bush policies on endangered species. He said almost a third of the Fish and Wildlife researchers said they were pressured not to express any views in conflict with Bush administration policies.

White House spokesman Ken Lisaius responded to these criticisms by saying that "The president makes policy decisions based on what the best policies for the country are, not politics. People who suggest otherwise are ill-informed.''

Also, we shouldn't forget that it is President Bush who plans to send men to the moon and Mars to investigate the man in the moon and the face on Mars.

February 16, 2005. The second meeting of the Skeptics' Circle has come to order. Check it out.

In case you missed the first meeting, it's posted here.

February 12, 2005. What some thought to be a chupacabra in New Mexico turned out to be a mummified ocean skate.


February 12, 2005. Last October and November, the BBC produced a three-part series on atheism, the history of disbelief with Jonathan Miller. Of course, the program hasn't aired in the U.S. and may never air here because of our overwhelmingly faith-based culture. Apparently excerpted from the series are several half-hour conversations with notable atheists: Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, and Arthur Miller, who died last Thursday. Lucky for us, the interview with Arthur Miller is available on-line. It is refreshing to hear an intelligent adult talk like one.
[thanks to David Martin]

February 11, 2005. A scientific study published by the British Medical Journal has found that St. John's wort is just as effective as Paxil in treating moderate to severe depression and it has less severe side effects.

further reading



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