REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Batman, Robin, and Mary

I'd like to start this month's column with a brave story of true heroism, the type we don't often get a chance to talk about in these pages. This is a story of a true icon taking action and tackling a problem when so many others just like her would only stand around and cry.

So, "What happened?" I hear you ask. Well, according to the AP, in a Chicago Tribune article (5/16), a teenager in Connecticut was allegedly trying to climb onto the roof of a parochial school, trespassing, which could have led to other allegations had he been successful. But thanks to the quick actions of a 400-pound Virgin Mary statue, he never had a chance. The teen slipped while attempting his climb, hit the statue, and the statue toppled onto his legs, pinning him there until the police arrived.

So many Virgin Mary statues seem to be crying about society these days, it's nice to see one take some action!

Was it OJ's?

Speaking of crying Virgin Mary statues, Nature (4/20) reports on one in Rome which is weeping tears of blood. A Cardinal there immediately proclaimed it a miracle, but a city magistrate wasn't so sure, so he confiscated it for testing. Doctors at a Roman hospital confirmed that the red liquid is indeed blood, and that it came from a male. The Cardinal has said that it is therefore obvious that the statue is weeping the blood of Jesus. The magistrate was unconvinced by this leap in logic, and has asked the FBI to carry out DNA tests and compare the tears with the blood of the statue's owner.

More news as I receive it.

Inquiring Minds (at Harvard) Want to Know

Nature also reports (5/4) that Harvard University has apparently begun an investigation into John Mack, the professor of psychiatry who thinks his patients have been abducted by aliens.

There have been rumors of this sort floating around for a few months now, but they had been rather difficult to verify. Now Nature says that a purported draft report from the investigating committee criticizes Mack for failing to require physical evidence and saying he was "professionally irresponsible" to lend credence to the abduction tales. Other critics have gone further (myself included), saying he has apparently abandoned scientific objectivity and may have caused the memories himself through his "co-creative" hypnosis sessions. Several newspapers across the country have reported similar stories.

"Theories" in Alabama

It appears that Alabama's state board of education needs to do some learning of their own. Specifically, they need to learn what the scientific term, "theory" means. I can only presume they really haven't a clue, because otherwise they would not have recently adopted science teaching guidelines which specify that teachers and textbooks must emphasize that evolution is only a "theory" (Science, 4/7).

In September, the board will be selecting textbooks under these guidelines, and many concerned scientists fear that they will pick creationist textbooks (such as Of Pandas and People) now that the guidelines have been loosened.

Unfortunately, Alabama is not the only state in which things like this have happened. In at least one portion of Louisiana, teachers have been instructed to read a disclaimer before discussing evolution. And, closer to home, as I mentioned in my Chairman's column, there are still districts here in Illinois which teach creationism, though they are generally quiet about it. Even though we haven't had much in the way of articles about creationism lately, it's still here and shows no signs of going away.

McMartin Movie

HBO helped strike a blow against irrationality this past month, by airing its dramatization of the McMartin preschool trial, Indictment: The McMartin Trial. This trial took six years and cost $16 million and ended up convicting nobody for the simple reason that there was no evidence.

Unfortunately, this lack of evidence didn't stop the prosecutors from pushing ahead with the trials, and this movie portrays the lead prosecutor as being blind to the facts while pushing ahead with the accusations.

Most of the articles I have seen reviewing this movie have indicated that it is mostly sticks to the facts, which I applaud. Documentaries galore can be put forth on a given subject, but nothing seems to attract public attention like a movie. Too many times these "based on a true story" movies are used to promote unscientific causes, such as facilitated communication, alien abductions, and, of course, repressed memories.

I'm sure HBO will continue to air Indictment for a little while, at least, so keep your eye on the TV listings if you haven't seen it yet.

Are You Getting Sleepy?

ABC's Primetime (5/31) took a brief and, frankly, almost meaningless look at hynposis (in fact, I'm probably giving it too much space here for what it was worth). I say it was almost meaningless because, from an investigatory journalism point of view, well, it wasn't really investigatory.

First, they sent in a staffer who wanted to quit smoking. The hypnotist went through his session and then taught her some basic "self-hypnosis" methods to help when he wasn't around. The reporter then related that 27 percent of people who go to hypnotists are still smoke-free after two years, and said it was "slightly better" than those who used other methods. Now I don't know about you, but 27 percent doesn't exactly sound like a stunning success rate to me.

They went on to say that hypnosis had even less success with such problems as eating disorders. They attributed this lessened success to the complexity of an eating problem. For smoking, the hypnotist can simply say, "Stop smoking." For an eating problem, they cannot say, "Stop eating," but must tell the person to "eat right," which brings in a host of complications.

Next, a hypnotist "put under" the reporter himself. He was filmed going through different suggestions, such as suppressing his sense of smell (the hypnotist put a bottle of ammonia under his nose and he said he couldn't smell anything), suppressing his concept of the number three (she had him count to ten, and he skipped three), and suppressing his sense of pain (she had him stick his hand in a chest of ice-water, but he said he felt nothing). Then she implanted a post-hypnotic suggestion to say "February" instead of the word "three." So, when she brought him out and asked him what 5 - 2 (five minus two) was, he said "February" and couldn't understand why everybody was laughing at him, until it wore off in about 10 minutes and he saw himself on tape.

So, what did this whole thing tell us? Not much. Early in the piece, they mentioned that stage hypnosis is a big entertainment craze in Britain now and showed a guy supposedly being hypnotized with a mere finger snap, but they never mentioned it again. Well, I was at such a show once, a number of years ago. I knew several of the people picked from the audience to be "hypnotized" in much the same way. To "prove" that they were hypnotized, the hypnotist took a lighter and held it under their outstretched hands. In turn, each of them yelped in pain, until the last one. With this one apparent success, the hypnotist ended that part of the show. I talked to each of the participants I knew, and they all said that they merely went along with what he and the audience expected them to, none of them wanting to ruin the show. The last one, the apparent success, added that he wasn't any more hypnotized than the rest, but he did have callouses on his hand, which prevented him from feeling the burn of the lighter as much as the others had.

The reporter mentioned in passing that hypnosis has been used recently to "recall" memories of the past, and also added a warning at the end of the story, reminding viewers that not all hypnotists are trained in therapy, and that they should be careful to see only those who are. Well, at least there was one meaningful sentence in the story.

The Other Side of the Story

Will Miller, the host of The Other Side, NBC's daily dose of nonsense packaged as a half-hour talk show, has left the show because he was tired of the sleaze, according to the Chicago Tribune (5/11). To my knowledge, NBC hasn't commented on the future of the show, which I've heard has pretty low ratings. If it goes off the air, it will help restore some of my lost faith in the general public.

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