REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Borderline Nonsense

Okay, I admit it, I once had a little respect for Jonathan Frakes, who played Commander William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation. How little I knew.

Frakes started eroding this respect when he hosted the alien autopsy show for Fox. Apparently, he also hosted a show about psychic detectives (how could I possibly have missed that one?). Now, any respect I might have had, for whatever reason I had it, is gone.

Frakes is the host of the new United Paramount Network (UPN) show, The Paranormal Borderline, and is quoted as saying, "I am the current paranormal spokesperson." While those of us here in Springfield won’t get a chance to see this awesome spectacle, perhaps those of you reading this outside our area might just have a chance to see yet another Unsolved Mysteries/Sightings/Encounters clone.

I admit, I’m writing about the show without having seen it. If I’m lucky, it’ll go off the air before I ever have a chance to see it, but I don’t believe in luck. Anyway, I’m basing my statements here on two articles from the Chicago Tribune (a frequent purveyor of nonsense themselves), one is an overall review and the second is a short blurb from the day it was to air.

According to the Tribune story, Frakes will introduce six stories about people who claim to have had supernatural experiences each week. The topics, as if we couldn’t already psychically predict them, range from alien abductions to vampires to psychic detectives tackling open police cases (I wonder if they’ll ever note the number of misses).

The producers of this show claim they are not "big believers" in any of this stuff. However, one says that he is amazed because so many people have "unusual stories that defy what we know about the world." Unfortunately, he seems to have never picked up a Skeptical Inquirer, or any other skeptical publication, which often features articles debunking those very stories.

The Tribune talks about a story featured in the first show. A woman claims to have been repeatedly abducted by aliens, but when she came forward with her story, she lost her job, her boyfriend, and most of her family. Apparently, these losses convinced the producers that she must be the real thing, as they say, "She has everything to lose and nothing to gain by coming forward." Apparently, they subscribe to the belief that if somebody is believable, what they say must be true.

The second Tribune mention of the show (by Steve Johnson) deserves to be quoted almost in its entirety:

"I’m holding in my hand a videocassette copy of this new series from the UPN startup network and I’m getting a very definite vibration about it. It’s a magazine series, in that it tells a number of different stories and treats them in a manner that purports to be reportage. It’s got a host, a man — yes, I can see him now — a large bearded man, perhaps a man who has appeared on ‘Babylon 5’ — no, wait, it’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation.’ It’s Jonathan Frakes, and he’s beaming. He’s very, very proud! Or perhaps that is a grimace of pain. Was he, by chance, abducted by the producers and forced to participate in this cruel experiment? No, it can’t be, because I’m getting an image of him at a bank cashing a large check. There’s more. ... Aha! It’s about putatively inexplicable things: alien abductions, livestock mutilations, psychic detectives and the like. I’m sensing lurid re-enactments with those embryo-looking aliens and lots of dry ice for atmosphere. My goodness, the tape is bending in my hand. It has to be a sign. I’m going to take this immediately to my crop circle."

My only question about this is why it was listed under "Best Bet," since the reviewer obviously didn’t think it was all that great.

Still More TV Nonsense

While UPN is just getting into the paranormal nonsense genre, NBC is making an art (certainly not a science) of it. On February 25, they showed a horrible program called, The Mysterious Origins of Man, hosted by Charlton Heston. Later in the week, they showed Ancient Prophecies 3 (at least I think that was the title). Frankly, I saw 1 and 2, and have no reason to believe 3 would be any better, so I skipped it. It was apparently Trash Week on NBC.

In many ways, the Mysterious Origins show was much worse than the Prophecies show could have been, in that it purported to put forth science, while only putting forth creationist rubbish (I’m using the thesaurus feature to try to find other appropriate adjectives besides "nonsense" for the rest of this article). Indeed, it was so bad that it even got a half-page story in Science, one of the top scientific journals in the world.

How bad was the show? Well, they even put forth stuff that most creationists have agreed is bunk! The Paluxy River tracks (tracks purported to be those of humans walking at the same time period as dinosaurs) were brought out as the main proof that humans have been around much longer than the horrible scientific establishment has been telling us. But even the leaders of the Institute for Creation Research have admitted, in what may be one of the only times they’ve let the facts interfere with their beliefs, that the tracks are not human footprints (they are actually partial dinosaur prints) and should not be used to support creationist "theories."

Also cited was the "Burdick Print," so called because it was first publicized by creationist Clifford Burdick, which is almost universally agreed to be a fake, carved by somebody in the 1930’s.

But none of these facts stopped the show’s creators. Indeed, the show claimed to present good evidence from "a new breed of scientific investigators." Baloney. All we saw was old garbage presented by debunked creationists, like Carl Baugh (I don’t have room to go into everything I know or have even forgotten about Baugh, but if you’re interested, contact me and I can dig through my files and send out copies of articles which debunk his claims, his supposed evidence, etc.). As one paleontologist told Science, "this is just reviving stuff that has already been debunked."

Several of the scientists interviewed by Science have been trying, unsuccessfully, to get a response from NBC. Science contacted NBC’s entertainment division (which is always the division that puts out these pseudo-documentaries that purport to be true), and a spokesperson said they had no statement because, as far as they knew, there haven’t been any complaints! A second spokesperson said the show was shown as an "alternative scenario" and not as fact. Uh huh. Sure. And that was made abundantly clear in the show, right? Wrong.

National Center for Science Education Executive Director Eugenie Scott said NBC’s decision to air this show "illustrates that the position of evolution is very spongy in the population outside of the academy" and noted that she has received numerous calls for help from teachers dealing with students who saw this drivel and believed it (hey, certainly NBC wouldn’t show it if it weren’t true, right?).

One scientist found the situation ironic. He noted, "I’m sure in a few months Tom Brokaw will have a special on the deplorable state of science knowledge among American school children." Indeed, I have noted the difference between the news division’s repeated attacks on balderdash, mostly via Dateline NBC, and the entertainment division, which airs whatever absurdity they think will make them some more money. Here’s an idea: Maybe we can get Dateline to do an exposť the entertainment division!

Let’s Fire the Politicians Who Voted for This Instead

Tennessee has recently made news by apparently trying to out-do Alabama in the quest to be the worst. As you may recall, Alabama is doing all they can to keep science out of the science classroom, because the politicians there can’t seem to understand the theory of evolution. Tennessee has tried to make a bigger mess of their educational system, but luckily failed, at least for now.

The State Journal-Register (AP story) reported early in March that the Tennessee Senate was considering a law that would allow schools to fire any teacher who presented evolution as fact. The state attorney general was of the opinion that this law would violate the First Amendment, but that little point seemed to be lost on many Tennessee lawmakers. The sponsor of this bill, Sen. Tommy Burks, said he was introducing the legislation because constituents had told him the school was teaching evolution as fact — but Burks wouldn’t say where this was occurring. As usual with this sort of case, the bill would not have banned teaching evolution as "theory," but I have a sneaking suspicion that Sen. Burks doesn’t know the difference between teaching something as a scientific theory and a fact. Perhaps to point this out, the bill’s original lone opponent in the education committee proposed a satirical amendment that would also prohibit teachers from presenting the "heliocentric theory of planetary rotation" as fact (Science, 3/15).

Given the wide range of possible interpretations of a bill claiming teaching evolution as "theory" was okay, but as "fact" was not, it was feared that many teachers would just stay away from the subject to avoid any possible repercussions.

Well, later in March, the State Journal-Register (again with an AP story) reported that the bill was killed by the Senate. In that story, Sen. Burks was quoted as claiming his bill was just an attempt to clear up confusion because some overzealous teachers present evolution as more than a theory. He went on to say, "Do you believe that you descended from a lower species? I don’t." Well, it’s that type of convincing scientific evidence that we need to have in our classrooms, Senator! The senators who voted against the bill said they had not heard the complaints alleged by Sen. Burks and that science curriculum should be determined by scientists, not the legislature.

Science and rationality won this time, but if experience tells us anything, it’s that people like Sen. Burks won’t give up so easily…

Freeing Yourself From Science

The Illinois Times published an oh-so-helpful article in their special "Home Smart" (how ironic) supplement about how you can free yourself from the boundaries of rationality. Well, that isn’t exactly what they said, but they might as well have. The article was about "feng shui" (pronounced "fung schway"), of which the author says in the secondary headline, "If your home, health, or love life are in disharmony, feng shui can put them in order."

So, what is feng shui anyway? If it can do that much for you, it must be some sort of special therapy, right? No, don’t be silly — that might make sense! Feng shui essentially means rearranging your furniture.

Yep, that’s all there is to it. According to this article, "Are you chronically broke? The cure may be as simple as relocating your toilet." Sure. Then again, it may not, but heaven forbid something skeptical or rational like that should be mentioned in this article.

So how does this work? (For it is obvious that there is no doubt that it does, indeed, work.) Well, "Good feng shui enhances the flow of energy, or ch’i, while bad feng shui blocks or speeds up the loss of ch’i." Of course, they explain what this "ch’i" is, right? "Ch’i is human spirit or energy that unites human beings and their surroundings. There is ch’i in the atmosphere, in the earth, and within people." You’d think with all this energy flying around, somebody would have gotten around to scientifically measuring it. Alas, this article doesn’t bother with such technicalities, but I sure don’t remember hearing about it in any of my physics classes!

But obviously this stuff is powerful. Feng shui instructor Carol Bridges says you can do things that seem absurd (seem?), like tying red string on things, but, beware, "Those are the most powerful. You shouldn’t play with them." So if you have any red string lying around the house, please BEWARE! You don’t know what you might be doing to your ch’i!

According to this particular brand of pseudoscience, there are eight different "areas" in your house: wealth, fame, marriage, family (ancestors), children, knowledge, career, and benefactors. You’re supposed to superimpose a grid over your house or room floor plans to see how to arrange furniture to unblock your ch’i. Getting back to the problem of chronic money problems — according to this article, "If your toilet is in the wealth corner of your house, you may be flushing your wealth down the toilet." Ah. Is that the way it works? And here I thought it had to do with not spending more than you earn. Silly me. But, that isn’t the only cause of problems, nor the only cure. The article lists all sorts of silliness about how to improve your ch’i flow. Apparently, the reason pet fish die often is that they "absorb negativity, then they die" so you just get new fish to keep the negativity absorption going. Oh, and if you don’t want to move your toilet (which I imagine might cost a pretty penny – a difficult thing to justify if you’re chronically broke), eight red fish and one black fish are claimed as a cure for a lack of wealth.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And if you want to learn more, you can go to one of Ms. Bridges’ workshops – they only cost $180 for two afternoons. I wonder if they’ll guarantee that, by moving your toilet, you’ll get that $180 back?

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