REALLity Checklist -- 1996 in Review

by David Bloomberg

"News is a consumer product, like sausage. Be careful what you swallow." -- Unk.

Like any other year, 1996 had its ups and downs. Sometimes the media did a great job, and sometimes they needed to go back to the basics. When the media wasn't messing around, different portions of our government were. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights.

*Best ExposÚ Award

Dateline NBC has recaptured this award for 1996 for their features of two great segments in February (they also won in 1993 and 1994, but Frontline barely beat them in 1995). One featured the Quadro Tracker, essentially a dowsing rod that the manufacturer claimed could find everything from drugs and guns to golf balls.

Quadro sold over 1,000 of these devices to schools and police departments, with price tags from $400 to $8,000! When the devices were scientifically studied and found to be worthless, the vice president of the company merely replied that the scientists didn't know what they're doing and needed to "open their mind." He then launched into a babble of meaningless pseudo-scientific nonsense.

James "The Amazing" Randi appeared to show what the device really was, and also appeared as the focus of the second piece later that month. During that second interview, Randi uttered the phrase that you will now find on our masthead. The reporter asked the standard question of just what is the problem with people believing things not supported by science. Isn't it just good-natured fun? He replied, "It's a very dangerous thing to believe in nonsense."

Several of Randi's older exposÚs were mentioned, such as that of "faith healer" Peter Popoff and his help in preparing Johnny Carson for Uri Geller's appearance. I think these need mentioning every so often, to remind people who may have forgotten or who were too young to remember.

As part of this segment (and part of what earned this "Best ExposÚ Award" from me), Dateline sent out staffers with hidden cameras to random "psychics." They found that (as Bruce Walstad discussed at our meeting this month) the predictions they got tended to be so general, they can't be wrong, such as, "You feel comfortable with it all, and you don't feel comfortable with it." In one case, they sent three staffers to the same tarot card reader, and were told all three times that she found "negativity" which required them to buy various items from her for a large sum of money (again, just as Walstad discussed).

The most impressive part of this exposÚ, as far as the public should be concerned, was when they took Randi to a college class. Several weeks beforehand, they had asked students to submit specific data about their birth date, time, location, etc. Randi came in and was introduced as an astrology expert, and handed out what he said were individualized horoscopes. The students all rated the accuracy quite highly (8 of 12 ranked it at 4 out of 5; the other 4 ranked it at 5). Then Randi had them hand the horoscopes to the person behind them. When they started reading the other horoscopes, they found that all of them were exactly the same, with only a few sentences, taken out of "real" horoscopes, in different order. Unfortunately, the True Believers in the room weren't convinced.

The story ended on this note. Randi said that people's willingness to believe is far greater than his ability to persuade, but that won't stop him from trying.

*Worst Research by the National Media Award

In an ironic twist, NBC managed to win this award as well as the one above. On Feb. 25, NBC showed an anti-science program called The Mysterious Origins of Man, hosted by Charlton Heston.

Mysterious Origins purported to put forth science, while only putting forth creationist nonsense. Indeed, it was so bad that it even got a half-page story in Science, one of the top scientific journals in the world.

This show even put forth stuff that most creationists have agreed is bunk! The show claimed to present good evidence from "a new breed of scientific investigators." In fact, all we saw was old garbage presented by creationists. As one paleontologist said, "this is just reviving stuff that has already been debunked." Here's an idea: Maybe we can get Dateline to do an exposÚ on the entertainment division!

*Worst Research by the Local Media Award

The Illinois Times, an independent weekly that has, in the past, written good articles on topics such as creationism, really blew it big time this year when they published an article supporting the claims of once-respected virologist Peter Duesberg, who says it's not HIV, but rather bad living, that causes AIDS.

Duesberg's claims have been thoroughly debunked by the scientific community. However, Duesberg uses this to claim a conspiracy against him and managed to convince at least Mark Anderson, who wrote this article originally for the Springfield (Massachusetts) Advocate . Unfortunately, the Times seems to think that anything on AlterNet must be good to print.

As I noted when this article was originally printed, the Illinois Times did a great disservice to its readers by publishing this nonsense. As AIDS spreads, do they really want to spread the myth that it's not communicable?

*Worst Political Move Award

This award has to go the Natural Law Party -- a political party for disciples of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi and practitioners or Transcendental Meditation who believe they can solve all of the country's problems by meditating. These guys held a press conference on October 22 to show off their "Yogic flying." (Anybody who has actually seen these people "fly" know that they are doing no such thing -- they're hopping around on a mat with their legs crossed.)

While they try to hide their nonsense in carefully-worded statements about how they plan to solve all our problems, this press conference showed them for who they really are. Their worst claims are that their methods are scientifically proven. They even call their hopping and meditating "scientific technology of consciousness." But when they bounced around at the press conference, it was plain for all to see that they would perhaps be a better fit in a rubber room.

*Worst Coverage Award

We all remember the news splash when it was revealed that Hillary Clinton talked to dead people. The vast majority 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 (and it obviously didn't). But WICS Channel 20, ever at the forefront of newscasting, took a different (might I be so bold as to say "dumber") angle. They opened their news on that June day with the Hillary story, and then went to an interview with Springfield "psychic" Marla, shown in full regalia with tarot cards placed carefully in front of her. She helpfully 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.

For this incredibly stupid piece of non-journalism, I have given this award to the station that calls itself "NewsChannel 20." In case you were wondering, there was, of course, no skeptical viewpoint given -- not even a 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 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 (okay, some would say it'll be just as accurate). When I hear people talking about the dumbing-down of America, this has got to be what they mean.

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