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 2005





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December 7, 2005. Update on Paul Mirecki. He was attacked by two white men in their thirties who made reference to his Internet insults of Christian fundamentalists.

December 1, 2005. Update on class in ID mythology at UK: Class cancelled. It seems that Paul Mirecki, the head of the Religious Studies Department, had designed the class primarily to insult "fundies," as he referred to fundamentalist Christians in an e-mail.

"This will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category mythology," Mirecki wrote. KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway called Mirecki's words "repugnant and vile." Twenty-five students had signed up for the course.

Mirecki, who is the faculty adviser to the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics, also made sarcastic comments about conservative Jews and Catholics. He apologized and asked forgiveness from those he might have offended. Pat Robertson has asked for Mirecki's head and has warned Kansas that if anything bad happens there, they can blame Mirecki for bringing down the wrath of God upon them.

November 22, 2005. "Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies" is the title of a new course to be offered by the religious studies department at the University of Kansas next term. The course is in response to the recent vote by the Kansas state Board of Education, which adopted new science teaching standards that treat evolution as a flawed theory and intelligent design as an alternative flaw.

November 5, 2005. There are very few certainties in this life but one of them seems to be that if the government calls a law The Clean Air Act the air will probably get dirtier. Anything called The Tort Reform Act or Class Action Fairness Act is unlikely to have any interest in tort reform and is probably designed to protect corporations from being sued while protecting the right of corporations to sue as they see fit.* So, what are we to make of a bill called The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act (the FAIR Act--isn't that clever?)? The bill is sponsored by Patrick Leahy, the highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter. Is this bill just a fancy way of pretending to help the victims of years of abuse by mining companies while actually making sure that those companies don't get sued too badly for all their wrongdoing? Many people in Libby, Montana, seem to think so.

The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act establishes a $140 billion privately financed trust fund that would compensate asbestos claimants who agree to give up their right to sue. That sounds like a lot of money, but the extent of the asbestos poisoning is so vast that even that huge amount wouldn't begin to pay for the damage that has been done over the past forty years. The bill also caps liability for companies that made or sold products containing asbestos. Companies routinely declare bankruptcy to avoid having to pay out huge settlements because of lawsuits. To avoid paying out on asbestos claims scores of U.S. companies have filed for bankruptcy.* More than 250,000 asbestos-related suits have been filed against just one company, W. R. Grace & Co.* The company has closed its mine in Libby and has declared bankruptcy, restructured itself, and continues to make about $1.4 billion in sales per year.

Last February, W.R. Grace & Co. and seven current or former executives were indicted in federal court in Missoula, Montana, for breaking environmental laws and conspiring to cover up what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has described as the biggest environmental disaster to human health it has ever faced.

According to the EPA,

W.R. Grace and its executives, as far back as the 1970's, attempted to hide the fact that toxic asbestos was present in vermiculite products at the company's Libby, Montana plant. The grand jury charged the defendants with conspiring to conceal information about the hazardous nature of the company's asbestos contaminated vermiculite products, obstructing the government's clean-up efforts, and wire fraud. To date, according to the indictment, approximately 1,200 residents [out of a population of about 3,000] of Libby have been identified as suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality.

A mortality review, which compared death rates for residents of the Libby area with those in Montana and the United States for selected diseases associated with exposure to asbestos found that for the 20-year period examined (1979-1998) mortality from asbestosis was approximately 40 times higher than the rest of Montana and 60 times higher than the rest of the United States.* Another report claims that asbestos from the now-closed vermiculite mine on a mountain near Libby has killed 192 people and left at least 375 with fatal diseases. Thousands more who live or grew up in Libby are expected to die from asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades.* The asbestos fibers contaminated not only workers at the mine, but also their families when they brought home the asbestos fibers on their clothing and in their hair. Even local ball fields and an athletic track were contaminated from fallout and fill.

Grace shipped its asbestos contaminated vermiculite, called Zonolite® Attic Insulation, to 42 states. The product is in the walls and attics of millions of American homes. (Note: not all vermiculite is contaminated with asbestos.*) Our government has responded by protecting the ones who made and shipped the Zonolite® when it should be trying to protect the millions of people who are affected by it every day: firefighters, plumbers, construction workers doing remodels or demolition, and so on, not to mention all the people living in those homes. Our government won't even spend a few bucks to notify us of the problem. The EPA had planned to put notices in hardware stores across the country and have representatives go on talk shows to spread the word about the potential dangers of Zonolite. They've been ordered to do no more than post some information on their website. To find out about the asbestos danger, we have to see a movie with John Travolta ("A Civil Action"), read a newspaper, watch "Nightline", stumble upon some blogger's site, or go to the EPA's web page on vermiculite. The worst thing you can do if you suspect you have Zonolite insulation is to try to remove it yourself. To do so could be hazardous to your health. The EPA recommends the following:

If possible, leave the insulation undisturbed. Asbestos fibers will not become airborne if the insulation is well contained. If the vermiculite is sealed behind wallboards and floorboards or is isolated in an attic that is vented outside, the best approach to avoid exposure to asbestos is to keep the vermiculite in place. If a ventilation system within the attic disturbs the material, it may be appropriate to have the air tested in your home.

Until there are better methods to analyze for asbestos in vermiculite, and to know what that means in terms of risk, it is best to assume the material may contain asbestos. If you decide to remove the vermiculite home insulation, use accredited, licensed asbestos removal professionals. Use of a "negative pressure enclosure" technique will prevent asbestos fibers and dust from escaping from the attic into the rest of the home. Do not attempt to do this yourself. You could spread asbestos fibers throughout your home, putting you and your family at risk of inhaling asbestos fibers. (EPA)

Last June President Bush responded by appointing lawyer and engineer Granta Y. Nakayama as head of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), the enforcement division of the EPA. At the time of his appointment, Nakayama was serving as a "Partner for Environmental Law and Product Safety" at Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm in Washington, DC, that is representing Grace in its troubles with the federal government. The Senate confirmed Nakayama on July 29, 2005. Nakayama's law firm helped Grace file for bankruptcy and restructure so it could continue in business.

In January, in his state of the union address, Bush forewarned us: "Justice is distorted, and our economy is held back by irresponsible class-actions and frivolous asbestos claims -- and I urge Congress to pass legal reforms this year." Is a translation needed?

The "Nightline" report was especially disturbing. The evidence is strong that the executives at Grace knew about the dangers of their product as far back as the 1960s, even before they bought the vermiculite mine in Libby. They suppressed evidence not only about their product but about the health of their employees. For more than thirty years they knowingly sent out a dangerous product that would be used in somewhere between 15 and 30 million homes across America. True patriots, these fellows. And true patriots the politicians who are stepping in the protect such kinds from suffering serious financial consequences for their assault secret attack upon millions of Americans.

Grace's company slogan is "Enriching Lives, Everywhere."

further reading

update: May 9, 2009. W.R. Grace acquitted in Montana asbestos case ("A jury Friday acquitted W.R. Grace & Company and three of its former executives of having knowingly exposed mine workers and residents of Libby, Montana, to asbestos....Federal prosecutors had accused the mining company and its executives of exposing Libby's 100,000 residents to asbestos for decades, resulting in more than 200 deaths and 1,000 illnesses. The product covered patches of grass, dusted the tops of cars and drifted through the air in a hazy smoke that became a part of residents' daily lives ." The indictment said W.R. Grace tried to "defraud the United States and others by impairing, impeding, and frustrating" the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies once they launched an investigation in 1999.)

update: June 21, 2009 . Asbestos emergency declared in Libby, Montana ("The EPA declared a public health emergency in Libby, Mont., after decades of asbestos-related diseases and deaths in the tiny community. Hundreds of people there have died and thousands have been sickened by a poisonous legacy of mining. W.R. Grace & Co. and its officials were acquitted in May of charges that officials knowingly concealed the dangers of mining asbestos-contaminated vermiculite. The company supplied more than 70% of U.S. vermiculite, a mineral used for insulation, from 1919 to 1990.")

update: September 25, 2009. Mesothelioma Risk Reduction: Asbestos Cleanup Underway at Montana Golf Course "Work crews garbed in white protective suits and filtered breathing masks are digging up substantial amounts of topsoil polluted with the mineral vermiculite from part of a golf course near the small town of Libby, Montana. While the older portion of the course is undergoing an extensive decontamination operation, investigators have not detected any problems on the newer part of the course at the Cabinet View Country Club."

October 28, 2005. "Behe Disproves Irreducible Complexity" is the title of an article recommended by Bill Rozell. Ed, who evaluates Behe's testimony in the Dover trial, comments on Behe's responses to cross-examination from Mr. Rothschild regarding Behe's paper (with David Snoke) "Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Feature that Requires Multiple Amino Acid Residues":

In other words, even under the most absurd and other-worldly assumptions to make it as hard as possible, even while ruling out the most powerful sources of genetic variation, an irreducibly complex new trait requiring multiple unselected mutations can evolve within 20,000 years. And if you use more realistic population figures, in considerably less time than that. It sounds to me like this is a heck of an argument against irreducible complexity, not for it.

The paper in question is one that William Dembski declared  "may well be the nail in the coffin [and] the crumbling of the Berlin wall of Darwinian evolution."

So much for prophecy by pious frauds who mislead the faithful into thinking intelligent design is new, scientific, and contrary to evolution,  when it is an old philosophical argument that can be reasonably accommodated to the scientific theory of natural selection.

For an alternative view on the societal effects of believing in a creation story that conflicts with natural selection see "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" from the Journal of Religion & Society.

September 27, 2005. The Skeptic's Dictionary was featured on our local public radio station, KXJZ. Listen to the interview before it vanishes into cyberspace.

September 15, 2005. The lawsuit against the Dover Area School Board for requiring biology teachers to present "intelligent design" as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution will move forward. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III denied Dover's request for summary judgment to throw out the case filed against the district by 11 parents over the intelligent design requirement.

The trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 26 in Harrisburg federal court.

In other court action, a federal judge declared the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance with the words "under God" in public schools unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that the pledge's reference to one nation "under God" violates schoolchildren's right to be "free from a coercive requirement to affirm God." Karlton said he was bound by precedent of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 2002 ruled in favor of  Michael Newdow that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools.

September 11, 2005. Today might be a good day to reflect on the key findings of the 9/11 Commission, including this one: "There was no operational link between al-Qaeda and ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein."

Today, like any day, is also a good day to reflect on how quickly lives can be turned around by forces great and small over which we have no control. We're all aware of what Hurricane Katrina has wrought. Every day, countless others have their lives irreversibly altered as well. Last Friday, I opened up iTunes to download the latest Skepticality program and found a short message from co-host Swoopy. Derek Colanduno complained of a headache, got very ill, and was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that there was bleeding in his brain. His prognosis is uncertain.

For those of you who don't know of Derek, he co-hosts Skepticality, a podcast devoted to reality-based programming. For those who want their science and thinking straight, rather than diluted by appeals to faith, wishful thinking, and other assorted cognitive illusions, Skepticality is for you. Obviously, the show will be on hiatus until the full extent of Derek's condition is known, which may not be for several weeks. If good will could cure, Derek would be back broadcasting tonight. Swoopy has been keeping his many friends and admirers informed of Derek's condition on their website.

September 8, 2005. President George W. Bush has declared a national day of prayer for the Hurricane Katrina victims.

Isn't it about time to move from a faith-based agenda to one that is reality-based?

September 5, 2005. The Australian Skeptics announced the winner of their annual Bent Spoon Award about three weeks ago. Good news travels slowly, I guess.

Every year since 1982, Australian Skeptics has awarded the prestigious Bent Spoon Trophy to the organisation or person who has been deemed to have been the "perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle" in Australia during the preceding twelve months

As this award was designed to rival the Nobels, the Miles Franklins, the Oscars and the Ernies in its impact on public awareness, hardly any expense was spared in the construction of the trophy. A piece of timber, which we had no reason to doubt was an off cut of gopher wood from the Ark construction site, was polished to a high gloss and thereupon was affixed a spoon, which, rumour suggests, may have been used at the Last Supper. The spoon, having been tastefully bent into a graceful curve, by energies that are, we suspect, unknown to science, is plated with gold by means of a deposition process long thought lost with the submergence of Atlantis.

Previous winners have included Jasmuheen, the lady who lives only on light, the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia, Australia's best-ever touring car driver, Peter Brock, the producers of the ABC television series "The New Inventors", and journalist Mike Willessee (the only person to be honoured with both a Bent Spoon Award and a Skeptical Journalism prize, although not in the same year).

In 2005, Australian Skeptics is both proud and saddened to announce that the winner is yet another ABC television series, Second Opinion. Each week this show presents an uncritical (and even encouraging) look at an aspect of alternative medicine, usually at the less scientific and more quacky end of the spectrum. It is significant to note that the program received the highest number of Bent Spoon nominations since the award was instigated.

As is the usual practice, the winners have been notified by telepathy and are invited to collect their trophy by paranormal means.

For more information please contact Barry Williams (02) 9417 2071

August 29, 2005. Think it's possible to teleport a human being like they do on Star Trek?

the computing-encoding of the entire contents of a human body would require 10 to the 28th (the number one followed by 28 zeroes) kilobytes of computer storage capacity. It would take 100 quintillion of the world's best commercially available hard drives "to store the encoded information of just one human being."

Also, "it will take more than 2,400 times the present age of the universe (about 13 billion years) to access this amount of data" from the computers ... "to heat up and dematerialize one human being would require . .. the energy equivalent of 330 one-megaton thermonuclear bombs."

Yet, our Air Force has spent tax dollars investigating such a device.

August 20, 2005. The 14th and 15th meetings of the Skeptics' Circle are up.

August 15, 2005. A company called Authentic Entertainment is making a film about the life of Edgar Cayce for the History Channel. The working title is "The Other Nostradamus." Sounds authentic to me. Stuart Chait, a producer of the program, said the film "will examine the effects of Cayce's work on history." Does that mean he will examine the effect of Cayce on gullibility and the increasing retreat into irrationality and magical thinking that beguiles our age?

Mr. Chait should consider doing a program on Emma King. He could call it "The Other Jon Edward" and he could examine the effects of King on history. Emma King is from Glenrothes in Fife, Scotland. She calls herself "one of the United Kingdom's most gifted psychic mediums." (What other kind of medium is there?)

The Galway (Ireland) Advertiser announced that she's going to set up a school for the psychic arts in Galway where she will teach such things as "creating harmony in your life, better awareness and understanding, dowsing, dream analysis, clairvoyance, numerology, tarot, psychometry and mediumship." Students who finish the course get a Diploma in Psychic Development and will be fully qualified to expostulate on the joys of magical thinking and self-deception.

King is the president of the Scottish Psychic and Medium Society. For such an eminent psychic there is precious little information about her on the Internet. I found a post from The Skeptic (UK) Digest that mentions King and claims that it costs £544 ($983) to take her psychic development course. It seems she's offered her psychic course in Glasgow, Dunfermline, and Edinburgh. According to The Scotsman, King is a 50 year-old mother of four and fishes competitively for Scotland.

update: Read about Emma's first graduating class!


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