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 2007






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April 29, 1999. Brill's Content reports that Jerry Falwell did not initiate speculation about Tinky Winky's sexual orientation. "At least a dozen media outlets had dubbed the character 'gay' months before" Falwell's National Liberty Journal (NLJ) issued his parents alert in February that the TV Teletubby "has become a favorite character among gay groups worldwide."

Last July Time magazine reported on transsexual behavior moving into the mainstream: "Even Teletubbies...features Tinky Winky, a boy who carries a red patent-leather purse." Last December People magazine wrote that "gay men have made the purse-toting Tinky Winky a camp icon." And in January The Washington Post declared that Ellen DeGeneres and her girlfriend Ann Heche are "Out" and Tinky Winky "In" as the new gay icon.

April 28, 1999. In the sports section of the Sacramento Bee today there was a very humorous quarter page ad for the X-Files, the Fox Alien Network's popular fictional paranormal program. The ad copy reads

Since the X-Files premiered on FX...
reports of
alien abductions
are up 68%

We think not

Next follows information about when the show is on TV. The ad concludes

please watch responsibly

I'm glad to see the people at Fox have a sense of humor, something a few skeptics could do with a bit more of.

February 22, 1999. The Op-Ed page of The New York Times featured "Stop the Flying Saucer, I Want to Get Off" by Lawrence M. Krauss. Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University and is the author of such books as The Physics of Star Trek. He was displeased to find that NBC recently featured a two-hour show entitled "Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us?" which listed Whitley Strieber as one of the producers. According to Krauss, "NBC presented Mr. Strieber as both an 'expert' source and a journalistic interviewer." Strieber is hardly an unbiased, disinterested party when it comes to UFOs and alien abductions. The show should help boost the sale of Mr. Strieber's books as well as increase NBC's ratings.

Krauss complains that the NBC show made no effort at scientific credibility and used "yellow journalism" to suggest that there is credible scientific evidence that people have been abducted by aliens and experimented on. We have come to expect such sensationalism from the Fox Alien Network, but not from NBC. Krauss asks "is it any wonder that the border between sense and nonsense becomes blurred?" when major networks produce such drivel and pass it off as if it were real science. "Mountains of statistics suggest that the public is far more susceptible to scientific nonsense than political nonsense," says Krauss. Thus, while the general public has been very good at discerning what is and what is not important in such sensational stories such as the Monica and Bill soap opera, we should not expect a similar degree of discernment regarding scientific issues.

February 19, 1999. "Studies linking faith, healing may be flawed" reads the headline from Reuters Health News out of New York. The story is based on an article in the February 20th issue of the British journal The Lancet. Dr. Richard Sloan and colleagues at Columbia University in New York City contend that a close review shows that the research linking faith and healing is seriously flawed.

For example, a number of studies have reported that devotees of various religions -- Catholic priests and nuns, Trappist monks, and Mormon priests -- have lower illness and mortality rates than the general population. But Sloan and his colleagues point out that all of these groups "are inclined to codes of conduct that proscribe behaviors associated with risk'' such as drinking, smoking, sexual activity, and psychosocial stress. Avoidance of these risks may influence their overall health to a much greater extent than simple religious belief, the team suggest.

Another widely-reported study found that regular churchgoers had lower risks of illness and death over a given time than individuals who did not attend church. However, the New York researchers note that the study omitted one important consideration -- the fact that ill-health may prevent many individuals from attending church in the first place. (Yahoo News)

Dr. Sloan and his team acknowledge that faith can help patients deal with illness, but caution that "linking religious activities and better health can be harmful to patients, who already must confront age-old folk wisdom that illness is due to their own moral failure.''

February 4, 1999. The Sacramento Bee, "'Psychic' didn't see her arrest coming," by Art Campos (page B1). It was refreshing to read a story about a psychic and the police that wasn't about the latter hiring the former to help solve a crime. In this story, the psychic was arrested by the Rocklin (CA) police and charged with defrauding two people out of some $13,000 worth of property. Bonnie Urich (a.k.a. The Psychic Bonnie) told the people she needed things like their jewelry to "cleanse" them of evil spirits. When she was arrested she was packing her bags and had pawned nearly $5,000 worth of jewelry.

The Psychic Bonnie's scam was to tell people who came to her for a reading that somebody had put a curse on them or that evil spirits had entered their possessions. She not only had clients bring in items for "cleansing", she even took them shopping for items she said were needed for the ceremony.

The Psychic Bonnie had been arrested four months earlier by the Rocklin police on a warrant out of Sacramento for fraud. Police Capt. Bill Hertoghe was quoted as saying: "If she didn't see that one coming with her psychic abilities, we figured she wasn't going to see this one either."

January 25, 1999. Newsweek, "Unmasking Sybil." In 1973, Flora Rheta Schreiber's Sybil was a best seller. It's the story about a woman with sixteen personalities created in response to having been abused as a child. The book had a tremendous impact on psychotherapy. Before Sybil, there had been only about 75 reported cases of multiple personality disorder (MPD). Since Sybil there have some 40,000 diagnoses of MPD, mostly in North America.

Sybil has been identified as Shirley Ardell Mason, who died of breast cancer last year at the age of 75. Her therapist has been identified as Cornelia Wilbur, who died in 1992, leaving Mason $25,000 and all future royalties from Sybil. Schreiber died in 1988. Three documentaries and several books about the case are now in the works. The bottom line: Mason had no MPD symptoms before therapy with Wilbur, who used hypnosis and other suggestive techniques to tease out the so-called "personalities." Newsweek also reports that, according to historian Peter M. Swales (who first identified Mason as Sybil),
"there is strong evidence that [the worst abuse in the book] could not have happened."

Dr. Herbert Spiegel, who also treated "Sybil", believes Wibur suggested the personalities as part of her therapy and that the patient adopted them, with the help of hypnosis and sodium pentothal. He describes his patient as highly hypnotizable and extremely suggestible. Mason was so helpful that she read the literature on MPD, including The Three Faces of Eve.

January 17, 1999, The Daily Mail (UK). The British newspaper The Daily Mail reported today that the inept forgery of a filmed alien autopsy, which was shown to more than 10 million people in August 1995 on the Fox (Alien) Network, was an inept forgery made in a barn by Milton Keanes, karaoke producers. The Roswell tent footage was shot in a barn in the village of Ridgmont, Bedfordshire, by video producers Keith Bateman and Andy Price-Watts. Chicken guts were used for the innards. (Submitted by John Atkinson)

November 11, 1998. JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) devotes their latest issue to "alternative" therapies. In addition to noting that some 40% of the U.S. population spends some $27 billion on "alternative" treatments, JAMA reports that some of these therapies actually work. Perhaps the most surprising claim is that moxibustion is 30% more effective than doing nothing in getting a breech fetus to turn. JAMA also reports that a traditional Chinese herbal remedy for bowel problems seems to be effective for irritable bowel syndrome.

The statistics regarding how many people spend how much money are based on a survey of "16 alternative therapies, which included relaxation techniques, herbal medicine, massage, chiropractic, spiritual healing by others, megavitamins, self-help, imagery, commercial diet, folk, lifestyle diet, energy healing, homeopathy, hypnosis, biofeedback and acupuncture." The data were compiled by David M. Eisenberg, M.D., of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and his colleagues. They surveyed 2,055 adults by telephone in 1997 and compared the results to their similar 1990 telephone survey of 1,539 adults. Eisenberg reports that the "use of at least one of 16 alternative therapies increased from 33.8 percent in 1990 to 42.1 percent in 1997. The therapies that saw the largest increase in usage included herbal medicine, massage, megavitamins, self-help groups, folk remedies, energy healing and homeopathy."

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has never seen an alternative therapy he did not admire, was quoted by Susan Okie of the Washington Post as saying about the survey: "The fact that nearly 50 percent more people visit alternative medicine practitioners now than in 1990 is astounding." Harkin must use an "alternative" calculator. Neither Harkin nor Eisenberg suggest that this increased use of "alternative" therapies might have something to do with the increasing number of poor people who do not have health insurance and the perception that such therapies are cheaper than traditional medicine.

Two "alternative" therapies found not to be effective in double-blind controlled studies were chiropractic for tension headaches and the herb Garcinia cambogia for weight loss.

November 8, 1998. The Davis Enterprise reported today that UC Davis and Wake Forest researchers have published a study that explains how amputees "feel" pain in 'phantom limbs.' Nerve cells in the brain that no longer receive information from a limb shrink to about half their previous size. Meanwhile, nearby nerve cells that generally carry information from other parts of the body fill in the vacated space. "Thus, a touch on the face could result in feeling in the phantom limb." The researchers, Edward Jones, director of the UCD Center for Neurosciences, and Tim Pons, professor of neurosurgery at Wake Forrest School of Medicine, published their finding in the  November 6, 1998, issue of Science. In a a previous study, Jones found that there is increased activity in brain cells that carry pain messages and that are adjacent to areas no longer receiving information from a limb.

Jones and Pons found that the effects are progressive over time and take place over many years. Their hope is to "be able to plan strategies for preventing post-amputation pain and for recovery of function after nerve damage."

There are approximately 100,000 new amputees every year in the U.S. alone.

(For those who like their science straight: the article is called "Thalamic and Brainstem Contributions to Large-Scale Plasticity of Primate Somatosensory Cortex." The abstract reads: "After long-term denervation of an upper limb in macaque monkeys, the representation of the face in somatosensory cortex expands over many millimeters into the silenced representation of the hand. Various brainstem and cortical mechanisms have been proposed to explain this phenomenon. Reorganization in the thalamus has been largely ignored. In monkeys with deafferented upper limbs for 12 to 20 years, it was found that the brainstem cuneate and the thalamic ventral posterior nuclei had undergone severe transneuronal atrophy, and   physiological mapping in the thalamus revealed that the face and trunk representations were adjoined while the normally small representation of the lower face had expanded comparable to the expansion in cortex. Reorganization of brainstem and thalamic nuclei associated with slow transneuronal atrophy is likely to be a progressive process. When coupled with divergence of ascending connections, it is likely to make a substantial contribution to representational changes in cortex. ")

further reading

Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee (Quill/William Morrow, 1998).

Nova - The Mind - From Ramachandran's Notebook

October 31, 1998. James Randi has announced that he will pay Howard Sidman, Arlen Specter, or anyone else $1,000,000 if they can prove the DKL Lifeguard works. Randi thinks that DKL should be charged with fraud. He is not the only one. Dr. Keith Conover has written to the FBI about the device and has been told that the case has been turned over to the Federal Trade Commission. You can add my name to the list of accusers.

I have tried to get a copy of the LAW report from DKL for several months, but they refuse to respond to my requests for this and any other information. Nevertheless, I recently obtained a copy of the so-called "independent double-blind testing by the LAW Group" of the LifeGuard, which is supposed to be DKL's response to the Sandia Labs test. The test gives new meaning to the terms "independent" and "double-blind." The LAW Gibb group was paid by Howard Sidman to watch him and his partners conduct a demonstration of his dowsing gun. It is no wonder that the report has not been distributed to the news media. In fact, the report is being distributed on an interactive CD which notes: "Warning: This CD is for distribution to public safety professionals only." I suppose Sidman believes that such professionals would be too blind to see that they are being hoodwinked.

One of the astounding discoveries LAW made was that the LifeGuard "contains electronics." These electronics have no power source and don't do anything important, but they are there.

Some of the tests bore no resemblance to how the device is advertised. It was placed on a tripod and hooked up to a computer which used DATAQ« software. LAW "verified" that used this way the device can "detect a human signal." Nothing was mentioned about detecting heartbeats at 500 meters, which plays a big role in their advertising claims.

Not one of the studies resembles a double-blind test, unless you count the blind (DKL) leading the blind (LAW) as a double-blind test.

October 30, 1998. JustNet announced the results of a detailed physical analysis by Sandia Labs of a DKL Model 3 LifeGuard™ device to determine if it could function as advertised. "The results of Sandia's analysis conclusively demonstrate that the LifeGuard™ Model 3 device can not possibly function as a passive long range detector of human heartbeats based on the scientific principles of dielectrophoresis....A summary of Sandia's findings indicate that the passive circuit, attributed to detecting heartbeats based on dielectrophoresis, is actually a non-functioning, open circuit. Additionally, this circuit includes a component composed of human hair glued between two small pieces of polystyrene. There was also no discernible feedback mechanism or drive to move the antenna located at the front of the device that would cause it to point toward a beating human heart." According to the Sandia report, "the only available sources for causing the motion [of the antenna] are (1) operator motion, (2) gravity (gravity makes the antenna rotate when the handle is tilted even slightly), and (3) wind." The complete report is available at in Adobe Acrobat format.

October 21, 1998. London, Associated Press. Cannongate Books, Ltd, of Edinburgh, Scotland, has published twelve individual books of the King James version of the Bible, called the Pocket Cannons, some with introductions that would make any skeptic proud. For example, novelist Will Self introduces the Book of Revelation by referring to "its vile obscurantism" and calls the text "a guignol of tedium, a portentous horror film." Louis de Bernieres introduces the Book of Job by referring to God as "a frivolous trickster." Grove Atlantic has bought the American rights to the Cannongate Books, which plans twelve more books in the series next year. The books should sell well, as the offended are already demanding withdrawal of the "blasphemous" books.

galaxy.jpg (2504 bytes)October 21, 1998. The Hubble Heritage Program is underway. Some 130,000 space shots from the Hubble Space Telescope are being released on the Internet at





ęcopyright 2002-1999
Robert Todd Carroll

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