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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August 14, 2005. One headline reads: Psychic's crystal ball burns down his flat in unforeseen blaze. Another reads: Psychic fails to predict great ball of fire.

But the young botany student being blamed by the Edinburgh fire department for causing the fire denies that it was sunlight shining through the ball he left on a windowsill that started the blaze in his tenement building. He blames faulty wiring. How does he know? The plug on his computer was burned. A friend, also a psychic, backed him up: "I don't think it was the crystal ball. I have had crystal balls on my windowsills for years and nothing happened."

August 13, 2005. Can you memorize 52 playing cards in less than 33 seconds? Ben Pridmore can. He's the current World Memory Champion. Will he be dethroned? Check the BBC for news of the current championship matches being held at Oxford University.

July 24, 2005. It's been three months since Centre County (PA) District Attorney Ray Gricar disappeared without a trace. Almost immediately, psychic vulture Carla Baron swooped in to offer a lending beak to break the case. You'd think with her great powers the case would be solved by now. Not so. But the police still have hope that since they can't find Gricar, Baron will. She told police early on that Gricar had been tailed by a tan or brown vehicle for days or weeks and that she "believes someone leaned into the passenger side window of [Gricar's] Mini Cooper while smoking a cigarette to coerce Gricar from his car" and into the other vehicle*

Bellefonte police officer Darrel Zaccagni said that details such as "the cigarette ash on the floor and the search dogs circling as if Gricar got into a vehicle, were pre-reported, but he gives Baron the benefit of the doubt considering the other unreported details she's provided." He doesn't say what those details might be. Baron claims Gricar was forced into the back seat of the brown vehicle and that they traveled for five or 10 minutes on a highway "before ending up at a location connected with freight - either a warehouse or other facility with large bay doors." Baron says Gricar was killed by more than one person.*

"Baron also provided investigators with details of the neighborhood where she believes Gricar was taken because "he stumbled onto something." She didn't rule out drug trafficking, and said Gricar's work interfered with the kidnapper's business arrangements, one she suggested has gone on for years."* Even with all these great psychic tips, the police have been unable to do anything except rule out Gricar's girlfriend Patty Fornicola as being involved in Gricar's disappearance by giving her a polygraph test at her request.

Baron is the "official psychic spokeswoman for Court TV" and will star in a new series called "Haunting Evidence." The new show promises to be every bit as fair and balanced as its hit show Psychic Detectives. It will undoubtedly be more successful than this real-life circus she's administering to in Pennsylvania.

"Gricar was last heard from April 15, when he called Fornicola to tell her he was driving on Route 192 at about 6:30 p.m. The following day, Gricar's red and white Mini Cooper was found near an antiques market in Lewisburg, about 60 miles from his home in Bellefonte. His cell phone was found inside the locked car and has not been used since the call to Fornicola."* He was near retirement and had no history of mental problems. However, his brother committed suicide in 1996.*

July 21, 2005. The 13th meeting of the Skeptic's Circle in online. Orac takes over from St. Nate.

July 14, 2005. There is an interesting article in the Guardian on Live Blood Analysis, another bit of quackery in the alternative pharmacopoeia. This dangerous garbage is promoted mainly by an M.D., but is popular among chiropractors.

further reading

From Samuel Homola: "Live blood analysis--also called live cell analysis, nutritional blood analysis, and Hemaview--is done by placing a drop of the patient's blood on a microscope slide and using a glass cover slip to keep it from drying out. The slide is then viewed with a special microscope that forwards the image to a television monitor that the practitioner and patient can view. Although certain blood characteristics (such as the relative size of the red cells) are visible with this setup, live-cell analysts invariably misinterpret other things, such as the extent of red blood cell clumping and changes in the shape of the cells that occur as the blood sample dries. The results are then used as a basis for prescribing supplements."

July 1, 2005. If you find Tom Cruise the least bit annoying, check out Anne's Anti-Quackery & Science Blog. Actually, there is a lot more on this site than comments on the inanities of spoiled celebrities.

June 28, 2005. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union released a document critical of the Bush administration's treatment of scientific freedom. "Science Under Siege: The Bush Administration's Assault on Academic Freedom and Scientific Inquiry" is a 42-page report on concerns brought to the ACLU's attention by many academics and scientists regarding Bush's "hasty and poorly thought out response to the terrorist attacks" of 9/11. His response, according to the report, "is doing unnecessary harm to our nation in the name of furthering national security." The report, however, goes much further than just concerns about the Bush Administration's attempts "to impose growing restrictions on the free flow of scientific information, unreasonable barriers to the use of scientific materials, and increased monitoring of and restrictions on foreign university students." The report also expresses concern about local governments that are attempting to discredit evolution and the teaching of evolutionary science by supporting "intelligent design."

In the opinion of many scientists and academics, the Bush Administration's policies on science should be seen in "the context of its broader environment and public health agenda." Doing so "makes it clear that these so-called 'security measures' are in fact extensions of a particular attitude towards science and scholarship - one that appears to have more to do with manipulating science to serve a specific political agenda than with protecting the nation against terrorism."

Specifically, the ACLU report addresses the following issues regarding the Bush administration's repressive policies toward science:

. The control of information - including overclassification, the growing reliance on the categorization of some information as "sensitive but unclassified," outright censorship, prescreening of articles prior to publication, and interference with peer review.

. Restrictions on individuals - including increased monitoring of foreign university students, the exclusion of foreign students from access to research projects, and restrictions of foreign students and scholars from entry or reentry into the United States for study.

 . Restrictions on materials and technology - such as increased restrictions on "select agents," including materials commonly used in basic scientific research, as well as proposals to expand export control regulations to apply to technology and equipment used in fundamental research.

Because the report does not stick to the assault on science but includes a sweeping attack on the Bush administration's response to the threat of terrorism, it will probably be seen by most conservatives as having no merit. They will most likely classify it as "politically motivated." It may well be, but that fact isn't enough to cast reasonable doubt on the charge that the administration has overreacted in its suppression of freedom in the name of national security.

In March 2003, Bush issued a lengthy executive order that gave classification powers to "several federal agencies that previously lacked it, including the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Each of these agencies funds research in a broad range of scientific areas, much of it carried out on university campuses." Bush's executive order "declares that 'unauthorized disclosure of foreign government information is presumed to cause damage to the national security.' In short, Bush flipped the presumption of openness to a presumption of secrecy, thereby encouraging rather than counteracting the unfortunate tendency of government agencies to keep information hidden from the public."

The Bush order "allows officials to classify information for up to 25 years if the classification is merely warranted by 'the sensitivity of the information.'"

The priorities of government funding have changed as well. While the Pentagon's budget for computer science research keeps rising, the budget for university researchers has been cut nearly in half. Also, "the government has funneled millions of federal dollars into the construction of at least four new, high-security "biosafety level 4" laboratories for the conduct of research on the most dangerous and exotic pathogens, while funding for basic microbiology and genetics research at universities has declined."

Then there's the 2002 Homeland Security Act that established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and "created a tremendously broad and vague category of data called sensitive homeland security information (SHSI). "The Act required the President to implement procedures for identifying such information and allowed for the establishment of limits on the use and reuse of SHSI given to states and localities."

According the the ACLU: "The creation and widespread use of various terms to label and control so-called 'sensitive' information represents a major extension of the government's power to hide its activities and information. This is a power that strikes directly at the principle of open government that democracy depends upon."

In 2003, the Treasury Department "declared that American publishers could not edit works authored in nations that are targets of trade embargoes, including Iran, Sudan and Cuba, with violators facing fines of up to a million dollars or prison terms of up to ten years." The world's largest professional society - The American Chemical Society - imposed a moratorium on such editing and publishing, "but resumed normal publishing three months later, risking possible fines and imprisonment. Many publishers pointed out the obvious contradiction the rule presented by cutting off opportunities for people living in sanctioned countries from having access to real intellectual freedom, as well as the rule's disservice to cross-cultural communication." Our government continues to ban any "collaborative interaction" between our scholars and any "author in a Sanctioned Country."

What is the cost of all this secrecy and is it offset by the benefits of creating a nation more secure against the threat of international terrorism? The ACLU and many scientists think the cost is high and the benefits negligible. The only thing that's certain, however, is that we'll get used to more secrecy, which will make it easier to expand to other areas, limiting even further the freedom of inquiry. There's some irony here but it's probably pointless to talk about it.

There is even more irony in the administration's restrictions on foreigners who are students and scholars as we claim to be spreading freedom around the world. Too much freedom is dangerous, apparently.

The most troublesome of the ACLU's three-pronged attack on the Bush administration's policies is in the area of restrictions on materials and technology. The ACLU admits that "unlike restrictions on publishing or on basic scientific inquiry, government regulation of dangerous agents and materials can be justified." The problem is that many agents and materials that can used for bioterrorism or for weapons of mass destruction can also be used for beneficial purposes. Forming rational policies that protect us from abusive research and yet allow scientists of good will to explore and inquire as they see fit will never be easy.

June 27, 2005. I've just returned from a long weekend at a "folk festival." On my returning, I opened an e-mail addressed to "feedback" from the widow Karen Grant. Apparently, Ms. Grant thinks I'm a church [the Church of the Good Feedback?] and has willed me $5.5 million dollars to continue the Lord's work. (The official letter is printed below.) I need some time to let this sink in.

I put "folk festival" in quotes because back in the 60s when I went to hear "folk music" it meant an acoustic sing-along to tunes at least 100 years old. We called it a hootenanny. These days the song might only be a few hours old yet it might sound almost eternal. The only thing that is the same about a modern and a 20th century folk fest is that everybody badmouths the government and there are a number of folks stumbling around with illegal smiles. Where I just came from they talk about resistance and freedom fighters rather than insurgency and terrorists. Several folks were wearing T-shirts that read


I can tell you those shirts did not have a picture of Donald Rumsfeld on them. There was an old man walking around in Oud - Middle Eastern lutean Uncle Sam costume carrying the stars and stripes (the stars were in the shape of the peace sign) and a placard that read GIVE ME BACK MY COUNTRY! One musician joked that he might become "a person of interest" to the government because he plays the Oud.

This was not Bush-Cheney Land, for sure. From the audience response you could safely bet that no singer or group of musicians was going to be boycotted for not agreeing with the way our government has responded to 9/11. Karl Rove is the one in need of therapy, according to these folks.

There was a lot of badmouthing of fundamentalist religions, as well, but there was plenty of spiritual woo-woo, too. Sunday morning my wife dragged me to a tent to hear some music and it turned out to be about 200 folks singing all kinds of gospel music. It was very upbeat, universal, inter-denominational, and irritating. I couldn't bear to watch that many happy people singing songs about how thankful they are for all that Jesus or some other god has given them. Look at that duck eating a live fish I wanted to scream! That's intelligent design at work! Animals eating each other alive! There would be no point though. Discussion of anything was out of the question this weekend.

One morning I took a walk down to the creek and saw a naked woman doing some sort of strange dance in slow motion. Was she trying to pull some chi into her chai? I don't know but the sight wasn't unpleasant. About fifty hearty souls were led in Yoga exercises near my blanket. I think I overheard the leader tell her minions to draw their kundalini into the fire above their third eye. I tried to visualize it but got distracted by the giant ant trying to bite a hole in my ankle.

None of the music was acoustic, either. At least it was not what I call acoustic. When folk musicians do an acoustic set that means that they use electrified acoustic instruments rather than electrified electric instruments. And just about anything counts as folk music today. I heard an awful lot of what I would call "country music" at this folk festival. I heard blues, bluegrass, jazz, and rock. If there is a common thread it is that the music expresses feelings and emotions, and tells stories about people who did things great and small and whose stories carry lessons and morals and gems of beauty about the joys and anguish of human existence. There were, of course, songs about love & death and war & peace, but there were also songs about horses and motorcycles and bullies. One of the best songs I heard all weekend was by Steve Seskin called "Don't Laugh at Me," a song that has become a movement thanks to Peter Yarrow. One of the funnier songs was called "When men grow breasts," written by David Lindley.

The weekend was not without its humorous moments. Donovan, the sixties pop star, has reappeared but he seems to have been reincarnated as "a Scottish Austin Powers" (as one of the singers from England aptly put it). Everything is still grooovy. Donovan has a new song out called "I'll yin your yang if you yang my yin" (or is it the other way around?).

Now to the letter regarding the inheritance received by the Church of The Skeptic's Dictionary. The subject line of the e-mail reads: "Last Wish." (Note: To be fair, I have not edited the letter.)


My name is Mrs. Karen Grant I am a dying woman who have decided to donate what I have to you/ church. I am 59 years old and I was diagnosed for cancer about 2 years ago, immediately after the death of my husband, who had left me everything he worked for. I have been touched By God to donate from what I have inherited from my late Husband to the you for the good work of God, rather than allow My relatives to use my husband hard earned funds ungodly. Please pray that the good Lord forgive me my sins. I have asked God To forgive me and I believe he has because He is a merciful God. I will be going in for an operation tomorrow morning.

I decided to WILL/donate the sum of $5,500,000(five million five Hundred thousand dollars) to you for the good work of the lord, and also to help the motherless and less privilege and also for the assistance of the widows according to (JAMES 1:27).

At the moment I cannot take any telephone calls right now due to the Fact that my relatives are around my health status and me. I have adjusted my WILL and my Executor is aware I have presently deposited in a strong trunk box, and lodged. the box in a coded Security company changed my will; you and he will arrange for the change of ownership of the funds as it is whose name is withheld basically on security and confidential purposes and would only be released to (you).

I wish you all the best and may the good Lord bless you abundantly, and Please use the funds well and always extend the good work to others. Contact my Executor Simon William with this specified email with your full names contact telephone/fax number and your full address and tell him that I have WILLED ($5,500,000.00) to you and I have also notified him that I am WILLING that amount to you for a specific and good work. I know I don't know you but I have been directed to do this. Thanks and God bless.

NB: I will appreciate your utmost confidentiality in this matter until the task is accomplished, as I don't want anything that will jeopardize my last wish. And Also I will be contacting with you by email as I Don't want my relation or anybody to know because they are always around me.

Regards, Karen Grant

If anyone will help me collect my inheritance I will share 30% of it with them as long as they first deposit some obscene sum in my Nigerian bank account.

June 22, 2005. Pennsylvania is the latest state to consider legislating intelligent design (ID) into the science curriculum. Republican Tom Creighton introduced a bill that would change the Public School Code to "allow any school to teach intelligent design."  Creighton calls intelligent design "the idea that life is so complex it must have been created by an intelligent designer."

Getting this bill passed may not be a slam dunk, however. When the bill was introduced by co-sponsor Republican Sam Rohrer, the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Basic Education, he gave instructions to the other members of the committee to limit their questions of the seven panelists called to testify. Democrat Daylin Leach told the group that the issue needed scrutiny that Rohrer was unlikely to give it.

Another subcommittee member, Republican Ron Miller, said the bill is likely to get hung up in committee because of pressure from critics. The main criticism is that ID is an attempt to introduce religion in science class.  Janice Rael, president of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, testified before the committee that the supporters of ID "are activists who are struggling to impose their particular religious viewpoint on us all."

ID propagandist Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, testified that ID "is an argument based on empirical, physical data." That's true, of course, but so is the idea that aliens built the pyramids. Being based on empirical data hardly makes something scientific, much less worth spending precious classroom time on.

Two recent high school graduates also testified that there are flaws in evolutionary theory. These qualified experts might have done better to testify that there are flaws in evolution or God's creation, take your pick.

update: The folks at the Discovery Institute have come out against Creighton's bill, claiming they "strongly oppose any effort by the government to mandate the teaching of intelligent design (ID)." They prefer instead, they say, that the Pennsylvania state legislature "encourage schools to teach students about scientific criticisms of Darwin's theory as well as the evidence favoring the theory." They have no chance of getting evolution excluded from the curriculum (that will have to wait until the next faith-based generation), so they push on with their "fairness" argument. Legislators, they say, "should protect the academic freedom of teachers and students to study all of the scientific evidence relating to Darwin's theory." Same old stuff. Push on and hope the dumb legislators won't notice that nobody has put a harness or muzzle on science and that biology teachers teach natural selection because it's the best science at present. Maybe the Discovery folks realize that if a legislature can mandate teaching ID, it can mandate not teaching it.

further reading

H. Allen Orr's article on ID, recently published in the New Yorker (May 20, 2005), is available online. It's very good and deals not just with the motives of the ID folks, but with the science as proposed by Behe and Dembski.

Taner Edis's article on Dembski's science is one of the best short articles on the subject. It, too, is available online. (Edis dismisses Behe's "irreducible complexity" argument, as I do, as little more than an argumentum ad ignorantiam.)



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