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In This Issue
From the Editor -- Bob Ladendorf
From the Chairman -- David Bloomberg
Covering Science -- Stephen Peterson
REALLity Check -- David Bloomberg
The Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land (REALL) is a non-profit educational and scientific organization. It is dedicated to the development of rational thinking and the application of the scientific method toward claims of the paranormal and fringe- science phenomena.
REALL shall conduct research, convene meetings, publish a newsletter, and disseminate information to its members and the general public. Its primary geographic region of coverage is central Illinois.
REALL subscribes to the premise that the scientific method is the most reliable and self-correcting system for obtaining knowledge about the world and universe. REALL not not reject paranormal claims on a priori grounds, but rather is committed to objective, though critical, inquiry.
The REALL News is its official newsletter.
Membership information is provided elsewhere in this newsletter.
Board of Directors: Chairman, David Bloomberg; Assistant Chairman, Prof. Ron Larkin; Secretary-Treasurer, Kevin Brown; Newsletter Editor, Bob Ladendorf; At-Large Members, Prof. Steve Egger, Wally Hartshorn, and Frank Mazo.
Editorial Board: Bob Ladendorf (Newsletter Editor), David Bloomberg (electronic version editor), (one vacancy).
P.O. Box 20302
Springfield, IL 62708
Unless stated otherwise, permission is granted to other skeptic organizations to reprint articles from The REALL News as long as proper credit is given. REALL also requests that you send copies of your newsletters that reprint our articles to the above address.
The views expressed in these articles are the views of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of REALL.
My son Scott, an eighth grader, is showing more and more signs of skepticism and critical thinking as he delves into the worlds of science and pseudoscience. When he was watching TV the other day, he scoffed at the commercials proclaiming that the "real" psychics - who are also "certified" - are with the group being advertised. Just call them anytime. Another day, Scott started asking about the ends of the universe and how long has the universe existed, what was out there before the Big Bang, etc. I told him - briefly - what was presently known about those issues, but his questioning sent me back to sources to refresh my knowledge. It also made me think about the ever shifting status of knowledge as science continues its quest for constant updates through testing. His questioning also reminded me that many others his age may not be as fortunate to be exposed to such knowledge.
As our cover story relates, the media often report uncritically on alleged paranormal occurrences, and that many of the reporters are insufficiently trained in science to be able to ask the right questions about these claims. Stephen Peterson's article is a reminder of the constant struggle critical thinkers face with media matters. It also says to me that the education of our young (the future thinkers and reporters) is as important as ever.
Starting with this issue, I have included a new column on "Sources" to help you keep up with some of the best references on particular topics. I hope you find them useful.
/s/ Bob Ladendorf
REALL E-mail Contacts:
Bob Ladendorf: email@example.com (Note: 1st 8 are letters)
David Bloomberg: firstname.lastname@example.org
Another hectic month here at REALL headquarters (okay, we don't really have a "headquarters," but my computer room at home sure feels that way sometimes). Depending on how our timing goes, you may still have a chance to volunteer to help out at the Illinois Science Teachers Association conference (the one I've mentioned in every newsletter for the past two or three months) on September 29 and 30. Call me if you're interested!
Also on the calendar - we have a meeting on Monday, Oct. 2, at the Lincoln Library (normally, as you probably know, our meetings are on the first Tuesday, but we had to change this one due to scheduling conflicts). This meeting will feature a video about the Alpha Project, probably the best "sting" operation ever performed by skeptics. Since the "stinger" is a magician, it will also feature some magic and should be quite enjoyable.
If anybody is interested, I received a flyer announcing the Illinois FMS (False Memory Syndrome) Society's Fall Conference on October 7 in Des Plaines (a Chicago suburb). I was originally planning to attend, but have too many other conflicts that weekend. The keynote speaker will be Dr. Richard Ofshe, nationally known author of Making Monsters. Other speakers will be Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory; Eleanor Goldstein, author of Confabulations and True Stories of False Memories; the Barrs (Roseanne's parents); a recanter; a local therapist; and a volunteer representative from the FMS Foundation. The cost is $25 per person or $40 per couple, and includes a box lunch. For more information, call 708-980-7693 or 708-827-1056.
That's all for now -- see you at the meeting!
/s/ David Bloomberg
Milton Rothman's article "Scientific Illiteracy in the Press" (Skeptical Briefs, March 1995) was right on target in its assessment of the sorry way in which the press handles stories on scientific subjects. I say that with some sadness because I myself am a working reporter and see examples of this scientific ignorance among my colleagues on a regular basis. I think, however, that it is not particularly surprising that so many journalists are scientifically inept. Reporters, their editors, and their publishers are no more literate in the sciences than are individuals in any other particular group of people, excepting scientists, of course, and even then some so- called scientists display little understanding of the core philosophy undergirding science and its methods. How could it be otherwise?
Journalism training in universities does not particularly encourage a knowledge of science as a tool in the reporter's working kit; thus reporters tend to be no more aware of the special rigors of science than do lawyers, CPAs, or dogcatchers, for that matter.
You would think that, since the press applies the skeptical razor to claims made by politicians (and, for the most part, does it well), it would make the same effort to examine critically the claims made by, say, psychics. Unfortunately, this often does not happen. As a rule, a newspaper's best reporters are not assigned to do the traditional Halloween haunted house story; this is most often handed to a junior reporter as a quickie feature assignment. Editors see these kinds of stories as "soft" news and use them as a way to liven up an otherwise drab issue, something "light" for those readers not interested in the latest doings of the city council or the Supreme Court.
Lofty assumptions about the role of the press in a democratic society aside _ and reporters and editors love to quote these assumptions _ media outlets are businesses, money-making enterprises that must cater to a fairly wide audience of readers/viewers. Scientists read the newspaper and watch the news, but so do believers in astrology or UFOs or ghosts, so provision must be made for them. No medium for the wide dissemination of information will long endure if it continually tells a significant portion of its users that they are stupid. So right in there with gardening tips and food preparation guides you find a daily horoscope or a wire service report telling of a psychic who located a cat lost in an airplane baggage compartment. A little something for everybody.
This is not necessarily a cynical attitude, merely a practical one, from the point of view of those whose livelihood depends on advertising dollars.
Those dollars depend on a demonstrated readership/viewership, and no media outlet will willingly cut off a significant source of its income. Newspapers and broadcast news outlets do take frequent, sometimes bruising stands that may cost them readers or viewers, but only when they perceive the stakes are high enough. For good or ill, the stakes in reporting scientific matters with consistent accuracy do not meet this test.
That is the fundamental problem with science and pseudoscience in reporting in the press. There is no perception of a need for a better public understanding of science sufficient to drive the press to take the necessary steps to provide it. That would require the wholesale re- education of thousands of journalists and editors, most of whom would frankly not see the need, and a fundamental restructuring of the journalism curriculum in hundreds of colleges and universities. But science as a prime story factor seldom crops up in the day-to-day reporting of most journalists, except for those who specialize in science. Such a reworking of the reporter's toolkit would simply not be cost effective. A science writer might need specialized training to write intelligently about the space program, but it makes little sense to publishers to retrain staffs of feature writers on the chance that one may write about the local palm-reader someday. On the other hand, no editor is going to re-assign a science writer from an article on new discoveries in astronomy to follow up on a UFO sighting in a pasture in the next county.
The mainstream press, to remain viable, has in some way to mirror the wider culture in which it operates. Thus a popular interest in UFOs will eventually be reflected in the media, and pretty much with the same amount of skepticism (or lack of it) demonstrated by the public at large. Frankly, the average reader does not want to be told that his latest enthusiasm is a lot of malarkey, at least not right away, and the media know this.
So we are left with a chicken-and-egg conundrum: do we first change the culture to appreciate science and its methods and let the media follow, or do we re-educate the media and hope the culture will follow? I don't know the answer to this, but I suspect all our endless harping on the scientific ignorance of the press will do little other than make us feel better for having gotten it off our chests. For all the accusations - right or wrong - of the existence of a "liberal press," the media are extremely conservative institutionally in being so slow to change the way they do business.
And don't expect things to get better any time soon, at least in the print media. This year, massive increases in the cost of newsprint have driven papers to cut staff, to reduce the amount of space given over to editorial content (the newshole), and to generally be reluctant to alter the traditional ways in which news is covered. An article that presents the skeptical view of a paranormal claim is more costly in resources than one that simply states the claim and lets it stand. Again, not perceiving a general need to do otherwise, newspapers will most often opt to take the easy, less costly way.
Thus I suspect that we will be complaining about their coverage of science and pseudoscience for a long time to come.
[Reprinted with permission from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). This article originally appeared in the June 1995 issue of CSICOP's quarterly newsletter, Skeptical Briefs.]
I've heard more than my share of rationalizations as to why one cherished pseudo-scientific belief doesn't hold up under examination, but this one takes the cake (well, at least for now). The Chicago Tribune (Tempo section, of course, which apparently means they don't actually have to look critically at the subject) had an article on astrology as practiced by those who follow the Hindu religion (8/31). As regular readers know, REALL takes no position on religious beliefs -- however, when anybody makes a testable physical claim, we'll step in and take a look.
In this particular case, for example, I won't address any of the article which dealt with religious beliefs, but will certainly take a good look at the claims made by astrologers. Unfortunately, those claims don't need much scrutiny before they fall apart. Indeed, the very first astrologer they quote, Dhruv Narayan Sharma, said that if there are any inconsistencies between a person's history and their astrological chart, "it's either because the calculations or readings are incorrect, or the individual may be mistaken about the exact time of birth." Of course. The thought that astrology itself might be faulty is not an option to him.
And if that rationalization isn't bad enough, we see one that's even worse a few paragraphs later. Pushpa Rao was discussing the astrological chart she had made for her newborn son. When she gave the astrologer the time of birth from the birth certificate, the astrologer "corrected" her and said that her son had to have been born a minute sooner, or else it would have been a daughter. Now, far be it from me to criticize such a high-caliber science, but I have a news flash for the astrologer: the sex of the child is not, repeat, not determined by the time of birth.
It seems to me that a journalist should be familiar with basic biological concepts such as this one, but this particular writer apparently chose not to make any attempt at looking at astrology from a scientific viewpoint. But then, like I said, it was in the Tempo section, so I guess that makes it okay.
Speaking of the Chicago Tribune Tempo section, an article focusing on Dr. Deepak Chopra (author of, among other books, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind), appeared there on September 13. Chopra is a promoter of Ayurveda (yes, the same type of "medicine" promoted by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, though Chopra severed ties with him in 1993). According to the article, "Every article on him ticks off the same litany of charges: He's a quack and a fraud getting rich off desperately sick people. The American Medical Association [(A.M.A.)] has feuded with him." Etc. Luckily, however, this is the Chicago Tribune Tempo section, so Chopra doesn't have to worry about actual critical investigation here! He merely gives the author a few quotes which supposedly explain everything, and she apparently takes them at face value.
So let's take a closer look. In one paragraph, he says, "Wealth? I have a lot right now, thanks to the success of my books. I don't want any more." Later, he says, "The fact is, I make a lot of money. But I haven't charged a patient for as long as I can remember. My sole income comes from my writing." Sounds great. Perhaps he could then explain why people coming to see him speak at the Gateway Theatre had to pay up to $50 per seat to seek enlightenment from him, as described in the very first paragraph of this same article.
What about the A.M.A.? Well, he says they don't criticize him anymore. But he also goes on to say that he is "ashamed" of his M.D. and calls doctors "legalized drug pushers." He is the executive director of the Institute for Human Potential and Mind Body Medicine, and they treat everybody from people with drug addictions to those with cancer -- using "herbs, mind-body techniques, bio-feedback." The article doesn't bother to mention if the efficacy of these methods have been tested at all. I guess that's just not the point here.
So what is the point? Well, Chopra just authored his first work of fiction (there's a straight line if ever I saw one). According to Chopra, "if you really want to tell the truth, you have to do it in fiction." He adds, "I'm exploring the so-called magical and miraculous and trying to understand that they're actually part of everyday existence, and the best media to explore that is fiction." I must say that I completely agree -- the best media to explore magic and miracles is in fiction, unless you have some scientific evidence to back it up, that is...
The UFO debate made its way to the State Journal-Register's (SJR) Science section (9/17). The SJR reports that Phil Klass, a well-known UFO skeptic, has been trying to get Representative Steve Schiff (of New Mexico) to admit that the acknowledge that a lot of taxpayer money has been spent on a General Accounting Office study of the famed Roswell, New Mexico, "flying disc" crash. The GAO found no evidence to support the claims of a crashed alien saucer, and, indeed, found that a (then classified) balloon-borne radar target was the source of the debris found those many years ago.
Actually, I'm rather amused that this story found its way into the "Science" section -- considering the way Schiff and the UFOlogical community is handling this, it would have been much more appropriate in the comics section.
And speaking of UFOs, the Chicago Tribune's Books section contained a review of Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind: Alien Abduction, UFOs, and the Conference at M.I.T. by C.D.B. Bryan (9/10). I must say that this review is of a higher quality than we can usually expect to see from anything fringe-related in the Tribune (see above for two such examples); the reviewer actually put critical comments in the article! (Perhaps that's because this review was written by a teacher at Washington University in St. Louis, not a Tribune Tempo writer.) In fact, at one point he criticizes Bryan for doing the very same thing I often say about Tribune Tempo articles: "Bryan's own respectful, even-handed approach consistently stops short of pushing the harder questions." But those harder questions need to be asked, and answered, in any serious look at a controversial topic.
For example, the reviewer notes that Bryan is impressed by the "'disturbing credibility' and consistency in the testimony of 'hundreds of individuals' who claim to have been taken to and examined in UFOs." Bryan has apparently failed to note that such consistency is hardly surprising when we realize how much of those stories have penetrated into our society, and how it is often the same patients of the same therapists who have the same stories. Indeed, the reviewer notes that "The likelihood of 'contaminated' imagination and imitative behavior seems considerable -- the possibility that reports of sightings and abductions could draw on extraterrestrial and spacecraft imagery of science fiction, TV and film." Perhaps he's read some of Martin Kottmeyer's articles. Perhaps C.D.B. Bryan needs to.
Ok, I've banged on the Tribune enough for one month. Now I must give them credit where credit is due. Of course, this one was a bit easier, and it didn't appear in the Tempo section, but at least it's a start.
The start in question is the urban legend relating to the "dying boy" (Craig Shergold) who wants to be in the record books for receiving the most postcards. As I described in my article in April's issue, this particular urban legend has mutated such that now some people are sending business cards instead of postcards, among other things.
The Tribune's front-page story describes how this legend has become even more widespread due to E-mail postings across various computer networks. It also goes into detail about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which has somehow been included in many of the versions of this legend (many people don't bother to call to check out the story, they just send a bag of cards to the Foundation; however, they have set up a special 800-number just to take calls about Shergold inquiries, which receives 500 calls on a slow month).
Just so everybody knows: Craig Shergold is fine; he has the world record and it will never be broken; he is now 16 and had the tumor removed successfully; he doesn't want any more cards of any type. If you know of anybody collecting cards for Craig, feel free to give them a copy of this article.
Editor's Note: Readers of The REALL News often may wonder what sources they can use to study an issue in depth. I continue to look for recommendations and will pass them on to you when possible. Any list is certainly not definitive, but I hope it provides a springboard for further study.
This month, I would like to feature books on evolution that have been recommended before by Michael Shermer, publisher and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine.
Evolution: The History of an Idea (1989) by Peter Bowler (University of California Press); Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution (1982) by Douglas Futuyma (Pantheon); Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (1985) by Langdon Gilkey (Harper & Row); Scientists Confront Creationism (1983) by Laurie Godfrey (ed.) (Norton); Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983) and Bully for Brontosaurus (1991) by Stephen Jay Gould (Norton); The Creationists (1992) by Ronald Numbers (Knopf); Darwinism Defended (1982) by Michael Ruse (Addison-Wesley).
If you have any source recommendations on a particular topic on science, as well as on paranormal and pseudoscience issues, please send them to me at REALL by mail or e-mail. (See above).
REALL would like to thank our patron members. Through their extra generosity, REALL is able to continue to grow as a force for critical thinking in Central Illinois. Patron members are those giving $50 or more. To become a patron of REALL, please see the membership form below. Patron members are:
|David Bloomberg, Springfield||Bob Ladendorf, Springfield|
|David Brown, Danville||John Lockard, Jr., Urbana|
|Alan Burge, D.D.S., Morton||Robert Smet, Ph.D., Springfield|
|Wally Hartshorn, Springfield||Edward Staehlin, Park Forest|
* Dungeons & Dragons Dangers Debunked
* Creationist Claims Examined
* Local Psychic's Claims Checked
We at REALL encourage letters to the editor about any article or topic covered in The REALL News. We want to make this a forum for all our members. (Letters may be edited if too long. Name, address and phone number must be included with the letter.)
If you have a computer and a modem, you owe it to yourself to participate in the skeptic message areas on the computer BBS networks. Here in Springfield, call The Temples of Syrinx at (217) 522-4707. David Bloomberg operates this BBS, which carries the FidoNet SKEPTIC, EVOLUTION, UFO, and FMS conferences, internationally distributed message areas for discussing topics of interest to skeptics. He is also carrying ParaNet conferences, all dedicated to UFO and paranormal topics. In addition, he has recently added several Usenet conferences, including Sci.Skeptic, the Skeptic Listserver, Talk.Origins, and various Alt.Folklore groups. You can also find a wide variety of skeptic, scientific, UFO, FMS, evolution/creation, and urban legend text files there.
The Temples of Syrinx -- (217) 522-4707
Wally Hartshorn has set up an unofficial REALL homepage on the Internet. To access it, go to:
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