REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Well, this month we have still more overflow from last month, because there was overflow from the month before! Maybe someday the media will give me a breather, but not yet. In fact, I suspect there will be more overflow for next month.

Bad Data Causes Cancer

More bad news for proponents of the idea that electromagnetic fields (EMFs) cause cancer: a federal probe found that the main scientist whose data had been used faked at least some of the crucial evidence (New York Times, 7/24). Whoops!

According to the probe, the scientist eliminated data that did not support his conclusions. According to one of the investigators, "If he hadnít gotten these results, nobody would have paid any attention" to the claims about EMFs causing cancer.

Earlier studies had not found that EMFs could not be linked with cancer, as some had claimed, and the media have often uncritically reported (see "REALLity Check," Vol. 4, #11, Nov. 1996). This finding puts another stake through the heart of such claims.

Music to My Brain?

And also in the realm of claims that canít be backed up, the New York Times reported that the so-called "Mozart Effect" may fall into the same category.

This effect, which has also been promoted uncritically in the media (hmmm, I see a pattern), was supposedly that playing classical music for 2-year-olds makes them smarter. In fact, both Georgia and Florida governments were so taken by this claim that all new mothers in the former get classical CDs paid for by the taxpayers, and all state-run schools in the latter must play classical music for toddlers every day.

While I have nothing against Mozart (although I play Rush, Pink Floyd, and Queen for my toddler), I was a bit, well, skeptical of these claims. It seems I was right. The Mozart Effect was actually studied on college students, not toddlers, and the "effect" (better performance on a specific spatial imagery task) lasted only a few minutes. To make matters worse, the studies never actually involved brain research, only behavioral tests. Finally, attempts to reproduce the results have failed. Hoo-boy, thatís a lot of strikes against it.

So I guess Iíll just stick with classic rock instead of classical.

He Mustíve Had a Good Lawyer

This headline from the State Journal-Register (8/27) was just too good to pass up: "Court clears God of sending threats."

It seems that James and Janice Peterson, in Lake County, sent threatening letters to judges and other officials. But they appealed because they said they were just sending Godís message Ė after editing them for grammar and spelling. I guess English isnít Godís first language, so he needed a little help in that department.

Again: No Evidence

In yet another blow against those claiming Gulf War Syndrome is a physiological (rather than psychogenic) disease, yet another presidential panel said they cannot find any reason for the illness, according to an AP article in the Chicago Tribune (8/28). Furthermore, they ruled out the use of depleted uranium in some U.S. weapons as a possible cause.

Of course, the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veteranís group, immediately denounced these findings as an "incomplete whitewash and failure." I wonder if it was a "failure" because it didnít agree with their preconceived notions about depleted uranium.

Pretty much the best recommendation they came up with was to track claims of symptoms and try to correlate them with possible genetic explanations. This might show, they said, why some people got sick while others did not. Iím all for this, but I still think the politicians are dancing around the most obvious answer because of the perceived stigma involved in saying this is a psychological problem and should be treated as such, at least until there is some actual evidence showing otherwise.

Slow News Day

What do you suppose the top news was in Bloomington, IL, on September 13? Crime? A huge hurricane? Politics?

Nope. Their top news story, at least according to the web page of The Pantagraph, was about the late Greta Alexander. They never explained why -- it wasnít the anniversary of her death; nobody made any new predictions based on her writing; etc. But there it was, in all its credulous glory.

The article, by Nancy Steele Brokaw, didnít break any new ground. Weíve been here before, folks, and weíll probably be here again.

As usual, Brokaw recited the standard catch-phrases. "She aided police departments and search parties across the nation." "Greta rarely received pay for the police work she did." Etc. She even quoted a police officer who said "Greta Alexander has extraordinary psychic powers. That statement is based on facts." Alas, Brokaw didnít talk to any skeptics. The closest she got was admitting that Greta "was not always successful" in helping the police, giving one specific example in which she "offered little concrete help." But that example was quickly passed over and ignored.

The article noted, among other things, what a nice woman she was. Fine, I have no problem with people being nice. But that really doesnít have anything to do with whether or not she had psychic powers.

It also noted she had appeared on the TV shows Sightings and The Other Side. While true, I wouldnít exactly describe either of these shows as paragons of media or investigative standards.

Unfortunately, as long as people continue to make claims about her, we must continue to point out the flaws. To some, this will look like weíre speaking ill of the dead. But as long as they prop up a dead person as an example of great mystical powers, we must continue to point out the flaws in their arguments. So I wrote a letter to the Pantagraph (a copy will appear on www.reall.org). Iíd appreciate it if any of our Bloomington/Normal-area residents can keep an eye out for any responses that letter might spark.

(More information on studies of Gretaís claims can be found in my article: "Greta Alexander's Legacy: An Objective Look at Her Claims," September 1998, Vol. 6, #7.)

The Business Side of Risky Business

The State Journal-Register reported that the final lawsuit against Monsignor Norman Goodman has been dropped (9/14).

As Iíve reported previously ("Risky Business," October 1998, Vol. 6, #8; "REALLity Check," August 1999, Vol. 7, #8), Goodman, former pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Lincoln, IL, had been accused of with molesting a number of altar boys. They had sued him, using terms like "recently recovered memories" to describe the case. When I pointed out, in a letter to the State Journal-Register and the Lincoln Courier, that use of repressed memories in such a trial is risky, at best, I was contacted by somebody close to the case who claimed that the accusers had always known theyíd been abused, but just hadnít realized the psychological affects. To me, it always looked like a way to slip around the statute of limitations, and a judge apparently agreed, dismissing all but one of the cases.

Now that final case has been dropped. In doing so, Fred Nessler, the attorney for the plaintiffs, noted "all the plaintiffs received a sizeable settlement from the diocese." Maybe Iím jumping to conclusions, but that looks to me like heís saying it was all about the money, not proving these things actually happened.

The diocese did, indeed, settle out of court. Alas, as we have seen too many times before (witness breast implant cases), just because somebody settles doesnít mean they are admitting guilt. Goodman has continually insisted upon his innocence, and, when talking to a reporter for this story, even referred to the false accusations made against Cardinal Bernardin a few years ago.

The few times Iíve been contacted by those associated with this case on the plaintiffís side, they have been less than helpful. At first, I received nasty messages on the REALL answering machine. Later, I got an e-mail which made claims about how they had "proven" their case (referring apparently to the settlement with the diocese) and offering to debate me, but then not responding when I took up the offer and asked some questions. Even the person familiar with the case could not explain to me how the complaint could claim "recently recovered memories" and yet not be a recovered memory case.

But now that the suit is dropped, weíll never get to see the evidence, whatever it may have been. Some will presume Goodman to be guilty, and, according to his statements quoted in the article, he recognizes this. We, however, can only point to other cases of repressed memories and note that the scientific evidence is not on their side, and they chose to be vague in their filing and finally drop the one remaining suit because they already had gotten their money.

Another Repressed Memory Court Case

Speaking of repressed memories, our far-West correspondent, Randy Alley, sent in an AP article from the Seattle Times (9/3) about a case practically in our backyard. The article reported that a jury in Wisconsin awarded $850,000 in damages to a woman for false memories of her childhood implanted by a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Juan Fernandez III, was found negligent in his care of Joan Hess, who said he led her to believe she had more than 75 personalities and was sexually abused by a cult, including her parents, as a child. Of course, she also supposedly had sex with animals, saw babies killed and eaten, the whole nine yards. Hessí attorney said, "In my view, there is no defense for this kind of therapy." MSNBC further quoted him as saying, "If that means that this is now a message that this stuff has to stop, I hope the message is delivered." Well, I hope so too, but that message has been sent numerous times and some people still keep sending it back marked, "Return to sender."

Who Knew?

Randy also sent a short blurb from the same paper, same date, on a woman who worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, and who pleaded no contest to using her bossís phones to make $120,000 in calls to a psychic hotline. Yes, you read it right -- one hundred and twenty thousand dollars!

She was placed on five years probation and required to pay $98,000 restitution (Iím not quite sure how $98,000 makes up for $120,000, but Iím not a lawyer).

She said she made about 2500 calls to the hotline in a two-year period. Apparently, nobody ever mentioned handcuffs in her future.

Nursing and Nonsense

I have to admit, I was a little shocked to see the State Journal-Register featuring an article in their "Health" section on nurses who use "mind/body" methods (8/30). After all, this is the same paper who took St. Johnís Hospital to task for their use of unscientific methods like this. In looking more closely, I saw that it wasnít written by anybody on the SJR staff, but was distributed by the Religion News Service. Hmmmm... And the big photo at the top of the story showed people performing Reiki ("a form of therapy using healing touch") on a guy. All in all, it didnít look good.

Most of the article focused on nursing schools that are teaching spirituality. In fact, a good part of it really didnít say anything too terrible. It talked about integrating spirituality, such as meditation or religion, with treatment. Ok, nothing much there to complain about.

Ah, but it also discusses an alternative therapy class, which the teacher said would "connect commonly practiced alternative and Eastern medical techniques -- such as acupuncture or Reiki... -- to their religious roots." I think they lost me there. I mean, either the stuff works or it doesnít, no matter what its "roots" are.

But, as we should all expect, the article didnít bother to really discuss whether these treatments actually work or not. Itís apparently more important to connect them to their religious roots than to scientific medicine.

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