by David Bloomberg
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.