REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

$ubliminal Me$$age$

CBS News (11/8) with Dan Rather had a short feature on subliminals. Yes, that's right -- another subject that we figured had died a while ago rears its nonsensical head yet again. So what if scientific tests have shown "subliminal messages" to have no effect? So what if there isn't any positive evidence on their side? They have personal anecdotes!

The story began with interviews of a few people who are making money off of subliminals -- by selling tapes, video games and whatnot. They tell us that the subliminals use high technology methods to bypass the senses and go straight to the brain. No, I haven't figured that one out either.

Next, they continued discussing the subject as if it were scientifically valid and worried about the possibilities of using this technology for mind control. Of course, if the technology doesn't actually do anything...

Finally, they got around to mentioning the old "Eat popcorn" hoax (where a theater owner claimed to have flashed that phrase during movies and said his sales went up -- but it was later found that the entire thing was a hoax) and talked to a guy who said that nobody has proven that subliminal messages work. Ah, finally, a scientific skeptic, right? Wrong. This guy sells subliminals, too. He puts supposedly subliminal church music on the Muzak tracks played in some department stores, claiming that this puts people in a holier state of mind (or something like that), which makes them less likely to shoplift. Essentially, his claim boils down to: Their subliminals don't work, but mine do. Sounds remarkably similar to the claims we often hear from psychics and the like: That other guy is a fake, but I'm the real thing.

Unfortunately for all of them, none has proven their case yet.

Wenatchee Witchhunt

On the same night, Dateline NBC devoted almost its entire hour to looking at claims of a huge child abuse conspiracy in Wenatchee, Washington. Unfortunately, the entire story should seem unsettlingly familiar to longtime readers of this newsletter and those familiar with the false memory problem.

The basic story is that the police have arrested almost 40 people and charged them with a variety of sex crimes against children. These charges all stem from the original claims of one young girl, who just happens to be the foster child of the police officer (Det. Perez) who "found" this huge conspiracy -- a conspiracy that supposedly engaged in these activities for many years before this detective was rotated into the sex crimes department. Strangely enough, according to the show, many of the people who were arrested had recently questioned the methods of the investigation.

To summarize the entire story here is difficult, but I'll do my best. This all began with the arrest of about 10 adults, most of whom were retarded, illiterate or "low-functioning." All of these either plead guilty or no contest, and so the accusing children were never cross-examined (it seems likely that one of the first accused did, in fact, molest a child, but that was not addressed in much detail). One who confessed has a history of psychological problems and recanted the very next day, saying she had been bullied into her confession. However, that confession is still being used in trials against other supposed sex ring members. From then on, the investigation/persecution grew almost exponentially, in much the way the Salem witch trials did.

The star witness, D.E., a 10-year-old girl who is Det. Perez's foster child, took him on a tour of the town, pointing out houses that were supposedly used in the huge sex ring. One of those houses belonged to a man who has helped many foster children over the years. D.E. claimed he would have the other sex-ring members over, would dismantle the bunk beds to make them singles, and would line up all the foster girls to have sex with all the adults. The problem is that Dateline talked to a number of the girls who were at his house when all of this was supposedly occurring, and they say none of it ever happened. In fact, they accuse D.E. of being a liar and say she has falsely accused others of sex crimes in the past.

Speaking of false accusations, another girl accused her foster father of being part of this sex ring, but the next day told a social worker that she was pressured by the detective and had lied to him. When the social worker reported this, he was arrested for tampering with a witness, and later became wanted for supposedly being part of this sex ring!

What about the evidence? Surely this detective couldn't arrest all these people without evidence, right? Wrong. As previously noted, the charges are all based on the word of a couple young girls, including those who have made false accusations in the past. In fact, Det. Perez didn't even tape his interviews with the girls; he just wrote down some notes several days later.

Perez's methods here seem to leave something to be desired. As has been shown in several studies, if you repeatedly question a child about something that never happened, the child may eventually falsely claim it did, indeed, happen. I am, frankly, somewhat surprised that this type of trial is still going on today. But it shows that just because we think a subject has been adequately explained doesn't mean others won't ignore that explanation.

There is some good news here. When one of the accused made it to trial, the jury was astonished at the lack of evidence presented, and acquitted the defendant almost immediately. The accusing girl couldn't give any details or descriptions, didn't know the supposed crime scene, etc. In response, the prosecutors dropped other charges in another case, but they still apparently decided to ignore reality and continued on with other cases. Indeed, another jury convicted a poor, non-English speaking Mexican who could not afford a lawyer that could properly point out the lack of evidence (now, it seems to me that any lawyer should be able to do that, but...). In general, so far whites with good lawyers who put up a fight were found not guilty, but others under worse circumstances have been found guilty, and the prosecutions are continuing.

In response, one of the accused (and acquitted) is suing, and some Washington officials have asked the U.S. Attorney General's office to investigate possible official wrongdoing. Hopefully, such an investigation can straighten out this mess, and those who decided to turn Wenatchee into Salem will be punished. Meanwhile, though, numerous people who are probably innocent of any wrongdoing have been sent to prison because of a failure to take a rational look at extraordinary claims.

Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!