REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Editor Bob said to me, “David, we haven’t had a REALLity Check in a little while, so this one had better be pretty long.” Bob, being an editor, didn’t want to hear any excuses. Luckily for me, two events occurred and made certain that this column would be long enough to make him happy: Independence Day exploded into movie theaters and made aliens the “big thing” again, and Hillary Clinton talked to dead people. It figures – when in doubt, rely on movies and politics.

Slow News Day?

Actually, to me the big news wasn’t that Hillary Clinton talked to dead people – they’re probably more interesting than most of the politicians in Washington, D.C. Instead, what I found interesting was the way it was covered in the media.

Most of the media ran stories about the claims that Hillary held “seances” and Hillary’s counter-claims that it was just part of a psychological exercise and she didn’t really think she was talking to the dead. Some talked about how her generation was into that “New Age” thing, so it wouldn’t hurt her husband’s chance of re-election. But Channel 20, WICS, ever at the forefront of newscasting, took a different angle. They opened their news on that June day with the Hillary story, and then went to an interview with Springfield “psychic” Marla. Marla, shown in full regalia with tarot cards placed carefully in front of her, told us about how it had been her experience that one cannot talk to the dead immediately, but must go through several sessions of seances to get to the point at which Hillary was said to be.

Come on! Certainly the station that calls itself “NewsChannel 20” could have found some actual news to broadcast that day! There was, of course, no skeptical viewpoint given – no hint that perhaps this Marla might not be basing her little discussion on facts and evidence. Her bit was aired as if they had been talking to a legal expert at the O.J. trial or an aerospace expert after a plane crash. Did anybody really care what this “psychic” thought about Hillary’s doings? Next, I suppose we’ll be seeing an astrologer giving the weather forecast.

Media Blitz

As I mentioned earlier, Independence Day caused a media blitz not just about the movie itself, but about extraterrestrials and the paranormal in general. I can’t address everything here, but let’s look at how some of the major media outlets responded.

Newsweek’s July 8 issue featured “America is Hooked on the Paranormal” as the cover story. I feared the worst (in other words, a story worthy of the Chicago Tribune Tempo section). I was happy to find out that I was wrong. There were actually two articles plus sidebars together covering various aspects of the paranormal and what Americans think about it. The first, “Alien Invasion!” mostly talks about some of the current crop of claims without really taking a point of view – until the end of the article, that is, when the author finally inserts his opinions on the matter. I’m happy to say they seem to coincide nicely with mine:

“There is a psychic toll. Listen to the young woman who told the International UFO Conference and Film Festival in Mesquite, Nev., that she was abducted by aliens and sexually ‘probed,’ that the little men ‘took eggs out of me’ and gave her a ‘very detailed sponge bath.’ You think, this poor woman is crying and could use some serious couch time. Then it turns out it’s taken six regression-therapy sessions to recover these so-called memories. Scary.”

He goes on to say:

John Horigian, a Boston software salesman who moonlights as paranormal investigator and debunker, says, ‘There are definitely lunatics out there, but if all these claims are hoaxing and lying, we’ve got a serious pathology affecting this country.’ He’s right. We do.”

The second article, “Is There Anything to It? Evidence, Please.” looked good from the title alone, and it holds up pretty well on further scrutiny. It opens by noting, “At least a scenario like that of Independence Day would not violate any of the laws of nature [apparently, the author forgot about the law of gravity, which the alien spacecraft seem to be breaking as they hover over major cities in the movie]. In contrast, claims in other fringe realms, such as telepathy and psychokinesis, are credible only if you ignore a couple or three centuries of established science.” She goes on to quote Carl Sagan explaining how “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The article looks at the best evidence for telepathy, psychokinesis, and UFOs, and what problems there are with each set of that evidence. She did a very good job of looking at both the pro-paranormal and the skeptical sides, talking to James “The Amazing” Randi, Ray Hyman, Susan Blackmore, and Joe Nickell. Suffice it to say that even the “best” evidence for each of these phenomena have serious methodological and scientific errors – something that is all too often not mentioned in media reports about the paranormal.

USA Today (July 5-7) took a slightly more humorous approach, searching for a plan of action in case aliens do come and invade us. The answer: Call 9-1-1. Neither the U.S. Government nor the United Nations has any plan on what to do if aliens come calling. As Air Force Lt. Col. Mack McLaurin, who is in charge of handling UFO inquiries for the Pentagon, says, “How can we develop a plan to guard against something we can’t even prove exists?”

Of course, many UFO believers insist that the government does know They exist, and the article touches on that a little by using a bit of sarcasm about the military continuing to deny that they have captured aliens. As a side note, I must admit that I got a little perverse pleasure when the UFO-lovers were among the first to get incinerated by the aliens in Independence Day.

Scientists at the Planetary Society noted that it is highly unlikely that aliens will be dropping in to visit us. “It’s so much easier to send information than schlep around the galaxy in a ship that uses more energy than our entire civilization,” one said. Another scientist noted, “The odds are pretty slim of somebody building a starship simply for the purpose of coming here and blowing up the White House.” That’s right. They’re much too busy making patterns in corn fields to go around blowing things up!


George Franklin was convicted of murder in 1990, based solely on the “recovered memory” testimony of his daughter. Briefly, his daughter said she suddenly recalled witnessing him kill a friend of hers when she was a young girl (the girl's body was found, bludgeoned to death, but the case was never solved). It was a fairly famous case, and the first one to put recovered memories in the spotlight. Last year, his conviction was overturned (“REALLity Check” Vol. 3, #4), but Franklin remained in jail while prosecutors decided whether to retry him or not. The problem for them was that evidence built up that therapy, and possibly hypnosis, were the cause of the memories. Finally, this month, they decided not to retry him and let him go after taking away six years of his life.

Recently, more scientists have been studying ways to differentiate real memories from false ones (Newsweek, 7/15). One experiment showed that different areas of the brain are active when a subject is remembering something correctly than when they are falsely remembering something. However, these are just one-time word tests, while the false memories generated by poor therapy often gets thought about over and over, thereby implanting sensory data about it in the mind and probably making it appear more “real” in such a test.

So, we’re back at the beginning. Is there a way to differentiate real memories from false ones? Not now. Which means the court system needs to recognize this problem and use actual evidence instead of relying solely on “recovered memories” to convict people.

One Final Note

On a non-paranormal note, I am sending in a letter to Newsweek and ending my subscription to that magazine. I have been a subscriber for many years now and was happy to see the way they covered the Independence Day paranormal blitz (see above). However, no sooner did they do this than they turned around and slapped the public in the face.

As many of you have probably heard by now, “Anonymous,” the author of the loosely fictional book Primary Colors, turned out to be a Newsweek writer. When it had been suggested that he was Anonymous in past weeks, he lied and denied any involvement. Furthermore, it has been revealed that the editor of Newsweek knew that he was Anonymous and allowed him to use the pages of his magazine to lie about it. When they were questioned about the ethics of the situation, they came up with all sorts of excuses, including one about it only being “entertainment,” as if this made it okay. As you may recall, the networks frequently use this excuse as they air pseudo-documentaries about “psychics” or “mysterious origins” or whatever nonsense is on that month’s agenda. I don’t accept it from them and I won’t accept it from Newsweek. I certainly won’t send them my money to support such behavior.

Journalists should be expected to report the facts. The last person in the world I want to ever see lie is a journalist. Knowing full well that an author was lying, the editor allowed him to do so. How can we trust that editor, let alone the author?

I cannot. And that is sad, sad news.

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