REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

I've got articles, papers, and snippets all over my desk here, so it must be time for another column. There have also been several TV shows of interest, but I won't address them here. One, the John Stossel report on junk science, will be shown at our February meeting; another, The Unexplained episode on "psychic detectives" is covered partially by Gary Posner's articles of this issue and last, and an additional portion will be covered in greater detail in a future article by me.

Science in the Courtroom

A federal judge in Oregon made a ruling that, if upheld, could reverberate throughout the country. According to Science (1/3), he ruled last month that evidence linking autoimmune disorders to silicone breast implants is too weak to be presented in front of a jury.

The method Judge Robert E. Jones used to decide whether or not to exclude the evidence could (hopefully) be used as a model for other cases involving scientific evidence. Since Jones knew it was likely that both the plaintiff and defense would call a number of "experts" to make scientific claims to the jury, he put together an independent panel to sift through the evidence before the trial began. He cited the 1993 Daubert v. Merrell Dow Supreme Court decision calling on judges to be "gatekeepers" to screen out testimony based on faulty science. The panel was made up of four scientists with no previous connection to breast implant cases, and included an epidemiologist, a rheumatologist, an immunotoxicologist, and a polymer chemist. He instructed the panel to determine whether the "experts'" opinions were supported by good scientific data and acceptable scientific methods.

The result was that Jones excluded "any expert testimony concerning a general causal link between silicone-gel breast implants" and systemic illness. He noted that an epidemiologist who has testified numerous times in support of breast implant plaintiffs was presenting claims that were not peer-reviewed. He called one of the claims of the plaintiffs -- that they suffer from a new disease called "atypical connective tissue disease" -- "at best an untested hypothesis."

I should note that Jones is not finalizing his decision until another scientific panel investigating similar cases (appointed by Alabama Chief Judge Sam C. Pointer) concludes their investigation; however, he has said he is "unlikely" to change his mind. If he doesn't change his mind, the plaintiffs' lawyer have already indicated that they will appeal, saying, "His role is not to judge whether the experts are right." Well then who should? If not an independent panel assigned by the judge, should a possibly scientifically illiterate jury decide which claims are backed by science and which are baloney? I think our jury system is great, but should they decide matters that are best left to the scientific method? Not in my opinion.

Anderson's Psychic Fixation

Columnist Jack Anderson seems to be completely hung up on "psychics." He wrote three columns (12/23, 12/30, 1/8 -- all appearing in the State Journal-Register) addressing the claims of the $20 million debacle paid for by our taxes (see also "REALLity Check," Vol. 3, #10).

While Anderson at least admits there were failures in these columns, he mostly ignores them and tries to sing praises about the alleged successes. The first may be the best, and actually almost led me to believe he was recanting his earlier support for such nonsense. He made statements like, "The CIA has said that psychic spies never proved to be of any use, but the log reveals that the CIA was the unit's second biggest employer," and "It was the Secret Service that begged the unit for help in thwarting a perceived threat from the elusive Carlos the Jackal, who was usually employed by Libya or other hostile Middle Eastern countries. … the unit failed to locate Carlos."

His second column in the series, however, looked almost like he hadn't read the first, let alone written it! He discussed a case of a kidnapped U.S. Army general and the use of "psychics" to help find him. He says that three "psychics" were consulted, and one supposedly gave almost exactly correct information (he ignores the other two), but, alas, the information was not sent up the line quickly enough and the information was only verified after the general was released. Why do I suspect there is more to this story? It sounds suspiciously like the "psychic detectives" who use 20/20 hindsight to claim their predictions were correct after a body has been discovered.

He gives similar information about the unit's use during the Iran hostage crisis. He says the "psychics" gave some information that later turned out to be true. What was this information? One piece was that one of the hostages was in a poor mental state. How is that psychic? Did they expect all the hostages to be cheerful and upbeat? More importantly, how is it helpful? It isn't. There are several other examples of such nonsense, in which Anderson makes the obvious look as if they are great successes.

But even here, we see some amount of Anderson being of two minds. After citing this as a supposedly great success, and claiming that the "psychic spy" unit had several "hits," he notes that "the information never led to the recovery of a single missing person." So what is his point? I'm honestly not sure. Why harp on the few supposed hits and ignore the misses while, at the same time, admitting even those "hits" were useless?

The third column details a "psychic" supposedly foreseeing the 1987 bombing of a U.S. Navy frigate in the Persian Gulf by an Iraqi plane. Again, Anderson admits that "most -- if not all -- of the spy unit's work turned out to be a complete failure," but again he goes into a case that is purported to be a "eerily accurate."

This particular "psychic" had tried four times previously to predict the future -- all were failures. The report does seem to discuss what could be a missile hitting a warship. But there are numerous questions here. The first is about whether we can rely on the date of the report. There have been cases of "psychics" back-dating their "predictions" and certainly we cannot rule this out without further investigation (which Anderson, of course, does not provide). Beyond that, even if he and his superiors were absolutely honest, so what? In order to accurately rate this prediction, we have to look at the whole picture, not just this little piece. We know that he had failed to accurately predict the future in four previous tries. What had he said then? Did he predict horrible accidents then as well? What about all the other "psychics" in this unit? Why didn't they predict this event?

All in all, Anderson has again ignored or glossed over many facts in singling out supposed successes to write about. This project went on from 1978 to 1995. They made thousands of predictions which turned out to be false. I wonder, if I got a group of random people together over a 17-year time period and told them to make predictions about various things, how many they would get right just by chance. If I say here that I foresee an airplane crash, and one occurs somewhere in the world in the next week or two, does that make me psychic? If I told Jack Anderson, I bet he'd write a column about it…

Scientologist Buys Anti-Cult Network

In an ironic twist caused by the nation's court system, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) has been bought by one of the groups that they fought the most (Chicago Sun-Times, San Jose Mercury News).

CAN, headquartered in Barrington, Illinois, ran the best-known hotline about cults for worried family members. But as CAN became more influential, its foes started to fight back. Scientologists fought CAN with a number of lawsuits because of CAN's claims that Scientology is a cult. When one of those suits succeeded and won $1.8 million, CAN had to file for bankruptcy.

As part of the filing, CAN's logo, post office box, and telephone number were all sold to the highest bidder, who just happens to be a Scientologist. The buyer said he is working with people "united in their distaste for CAN" and plans to reopen the group so it "disseminates the truth about all religions."

As an attorney who had represented CAN notes, "People will still pick up the CAN name in a library book and call saying, ‘My daughter has joined the Church of Scientology.' And your friendly CAN receptionist is someone who works for Scientology."

Even worse, the next item that could be auctioned off are 270 boxes of CAN files stuffed with confidential information about current and former cult members, efforts to get them out of the cults, etc. Another lawyer who has frequently represented Scientologists is trying to purchase these files.

A former Scientologist who was a church spokesman for 20 years, before he quit and became a critic of the group, said, "Scientology will pay anything to get their hands on those files. We always figured that CAN was the nexus for all the rest of the problems [Scientology had]. So the idea of getting the files is similar to the KGB being able to buy the files of the CIA."

Free Speech or Fraud?

Alsip, Illinois, is the latest Chicago suburb to ban fortune-telling. Other suburbs with such bans include Des Plaines, Schaumburg, and Waukegan, where they say the bans shield against fraud (Chicago Tribune, 12/12)

Such bans pit the idea of public protection against free speech arguments, though none has been challenged to a high enough court to get a precedent-setting ruling. Dorothy Oja, chairwoman of the Los Angeles-based Association for Astrological Networking, claims that the cities "always lose" in court, and wrote a letter to the Alsip village attorney, citing a "string of victories" and a case currently pending in California. She went on to say, "Just because you fear something or don't like something personally doesn't mean it doesn't have a right to exist. The law protects all kinds of speech."

Anybody who knows me at all knows that it would be hard to find a stauncher defender of the First Amendment. However, I must take issue with Ms. Oja's claim that about the law protecting "all kinds of speech." The law, or rather, the First Amendment, does not protect fraud. And, unless "psychics" can come up with some evidence to back their claims, taking money and claiming to tell the future is just that -- fraud. An ACLU spokesperson said, "Telling fortunes is lawful." If somebody could actually tell a fortune, I'd agree. If they can't, it's just a bad con game. Last time I checked, con games were not legal.

Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled in May (in a case about beer and liquor prices) that the government generally cannot ban the truthful promotion of legal products. That's fine with me and I agree completely with that ruling. So, my opinion is that when "psychics" can prove that their claims are truthful promotions, then they should be regarded as being the same as any other business. But as long as they peddle products that cannot stand up to scrutiny, they should not be able to hide behind the First Amendment as a shield for their fraudulent nonsense.

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