REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Kernel of Truth?

The Chicago Tribune, Tempo section (of course), graced us with another one of their non-investigations into a heated topic (11/30). This time, it was recovered memories.

The author devoted most of the article to psychiatrist Dr. Bennett Braun, Director of the Dissociative Disorders Program at Rush-North Shore Medical Center in Skokie, Illinois. Dr. Braun is quite adamant that his patients have undergone violent abuse and then forgotten it. Not only that, but they tell stories of huge satanic conspiracies, in which babies and adults are murdered, but no evidence is ever left.

The article did present the opposing viewpoint, with quotes from False Memory Syndrome Foundation director, Dr. Pamela Freyd, and well-known (in his field) psychologist Dr. Richard Ofshe, who just wrote a book which devotes a good amount of space to Dr. Braun. However, the author should have done a better job of drawing conclusions, rather than just writing things down and leaving them hang.

For example, the author writes, "If Braun's patients are to be believed, a vast conspiracy by baby-killing devil worshippers has gone undetected in this country. ..." But what he doesn't do is point out how ridiculous this is, only saying that "such claims draw sharp skepticism." Perhaps I expect too much, or perhaps the author expects people to make that conclusion themselves, but I think the article would have been much better if he had drawn together all of the facts and actually come up with a conclusion.

As for Braun's claims, the article ends with quotes from him, one of which is, "It would be hard to make up this much of [the events]. Somewhere there's a kernel of truth. If 10 percent of the stuff I hear is true, we're in trouble." The problem with this statement, which most of you have probably already caught, is that there is absolutely no evidence that even 10 percent of the stories are true!

So where is that "kernel of truth"? The article opened with a story, told as if true, about one of his patient's "recovered memories" of seeing her father (who had abused her) murder her uncle (who had also abused her) and then helping him dismember and bury the body. If Dr. Braun bothered to check and see if: the woman had an uncle who disappeared in the proper time period or if a body was buried in the place she claims, the article doesn't say. However, considering that he is quoted as saying "most therapists don't trust the police," I somehow doubt it. If only he or other similar therapists would find some evidence for their claims, he wouldn't fact the "constant criticism" described in the article.

Alas, that evidence has not been forthcoming...

Misfortune Hunters

Dateline NBC, which has repeatedly shown itself to be a good investigator of alternative medicine claims, had a story on fortune telling scams (12/6). Most of the information was similar to that given by 48 Hours some time ago, when they featured Detective Bruce Walstad.

Walstad wasn't featured on this one, but the police expert said he doesn't think there is a single honest fortune teller, and that many act as fronts for various scams, such as the one featured, the curse removal scam.

Essentially, Dateline sent in a producer with a hidden camera and showed a fortune teller requiring $1,200 to rid the woman of a curse. The money was supposed to be buried in a cemetery by the fortune teller, but Dateline cameras caught her outside her house shortly thereafter, counting the cash. When Dateline went to ask for the money back, she ran out the back door, though they did get it back from her father after a long discussion.

In their four-month investigation, almost every fortune teller found some sort of problem with the undercover producer that only their skill and the producer's money could solve. They generally give their "clients" (more accurately, "victims") strange tasks to do to help get rid of the curse. As the expert (and Walstad before him) pointed out, if the victim does these strange things, the fortune teller knows she's got one hooked, and starts reeling in the victim.

The reason this scam has stayed around through the decades, ripping people off of thousands of dollars, is that many people are too embarrassed to call the police after they realize they've been taken. Hopefully, this story will encourage a few to realize that anybody can be scammed, and they will report it and take a few of these fortune hunters off of the street.

More Misfortune

Speaking of scams, faith healing evangelists are still around. Carl Sagan wrote an article for Parade (12/4) in which he wrote that if faith healing doesn't work, "belief in [it] is pernicious and dangerous."

So, the question is: Does it work? Sagan uses Lourdes as an example, where miraculous cures are supposed to occur. The Roman Catholic Church has authenticated 64 miraculous cures there in 136 years after approximately 100 million people have visited. Sagan points out that the odds involved in getting cured of, for example, cancer are actually somewhat less than are statistically suggested due to the rate of spontaneous remission.

Sagan goes into other stories, including a hoax purposely perpetrated in Australia to show how easily people can be taken in even when clues to a scam exist. Even after the hoax was exposed, many still believed in the false healer!

However, in Cambodia it's a different story. The Associated Press, in a Chicago Tribune story, reported that angry Cambodians mobbed a hotel at which a Texas evangelist was staying after he failed to produce the faith-healing miracles his ads had promised (11/27). Rev. Mike Evans had been heralded as being able to cure blindness, paralyzation, etc. Thousands of Cambodians came from remote regions, some selling their housing materials and livestock for the journey, to be cured of various serious illnesses.

The police eventually dispersed the mob without injury -- or at least without further injuring those who were already hurt by the evangelist's claims. Evans claimed he didn't know what the ads promised and blamed the riot on the Khmer Rouge, saying they were upset about his success. It takes a lot of chutzpah to stand up in the face of massive failure and declare victory, but if history has shown us anything, it's that people will buy his line of nonsense and continue to send him money without thinking critically about his claims.

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