REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Now that I’ve done two columns in a row, I’m on a roll!

Skeptical of the Shoving Psychic

Dateline NBC, where they usually take a good skeptical look at extraordinary claims, took on my nemesis from the Downey show — "psychic detective" Dorothy Allison (1/11). [See "Don’t Push Me, Lady!" in The REALL News, Vol. 3, #3, March 1995.]

They did point out a number of flaws with her claims, but I felt they didn’t close it very well (this is a complaint I frequently have with shows that like to keep things "mysterious" even when the evidence shows the mystery is solved). She claims to have found more than 250 bodies and helped solve thousands of cases, including the Atlanta child murders. She claims she gave the name "William" (the killer was Wayne Williams), but skeptics have pointed out that she gave over 40 names, and there is no recorded evidence that "Wayne" or "William" was even in that list! Her response to Dateline was just that skeptics are "making money" knocking psychics and have never done anything for humanity, so who cares what they say. Well, she told us (as an aside, if we’re making money doing this, can somebody please tell me why pro-psychic books are huge sellers while skeptical books can barely be found?).

Dateline put Allison to a basic test. She claimed that she could use an object belonging to somebody to get information about them. So Dateline gave her a ring and told her nothing about it. She said she saw the number "48" or "84," something about a union hall or Elk Lodge, and said the owner of the ring had been suffocated. The problem is that the owner had her throat slashed, the 48/84 claim had popped up in another case Dateline was looking at where she was involved (they even had her on videotape telling the police that they should look for those numbers) and, unbeknownst to Dateline (obviously), Allison had used the Elk Lodge line on the Downey show when she appeared with me and Bruce Walstad! She seems to just use the same clues over and over again, looking for a retrofit hit.

What is retrofitting? Dateline had CSICOP’s Joe Nickell on to explain how so many psychics manage to appear to get hits without actually doing anything. He explained that they give out lots of clues (as Allison does) and then wait for the body to be found or case to be solved. Then, they point out how their clues supposedly fit. People remember the "hits" and ignore the misses, and a reputation is born! (A great book for anybody interested in this is Psychic Sleuths, edited by Nickell. It addresses a number of cases and looks at specific cases that were supposedly solved by psychics. Central Illinois’ own Greta Alexander has a chapter devoted to her, as does Allison.)

As I noted, the end of the piece left a little to be desired. They went back to the first case Allison ever "solved," in which she had predicted a missing boy’s shoes were on the wrong feet. Lo and behold, they were. Nickell was asked how that could be explained. He simply responded that everybody gets lucky once in a while. This is true, but I think it should have been explained better (I have no idea if he did explain it more and they cut him off.) As he mentioned earlier, Allison gives out a number of clues in hopes of getting a hit. That isn’t just luck, it’s bending the odds in your favor. And that’s exactly what she wants.

The show pointed out that Allison doesn’t accept money for helping the police, as if that somehow made it all okay. But even if she is sincere in her beliefs that she has some amazing powers, sincerity is not evidence — and evidence is what she is lacking.

Skeptical Trek

Skeptics often attack fictional programs that seem to promote the paranormal (though I think this is often a waste of time that would be better spent on programs that purport to be non-fiction). So it’s nice to be able to point to a fictional show that dealt very well with the non-fiction issue of recovered memories.

The show is Star Trek: Voyager (2/25), and it managed to incorporate a good deal of the recovered memory phenomenon into a single show. To summarize briefly, a female crew member started acting strangely; the doctor ran some tests and decided she might have some repressed memories. He regressed her and she "remembered" being stunned, confined to a medical table, and being tested and violated (not sexually, but this was probably meant to be a metaphor) by a man the crew had been dealing with recently. The logical Vulcan security officer pointed out that there had historically been many problems with recovered memories, but the doctor assured him this was true and continued treatment of the woman (including some "treatment" meant to bring about more certainty in her memories and anger at the person she has accused — sound familiar?).

The accused said that in his culture, just being accused would mean it would be assumed he’s guilty (sounds very similar to the way accusations of molestation are reacted to in our culture). When evidence was collected suggesting that her story might be true, he escaped. During the chase, it turned out that all the evidence pointed to his being innocent, but he ended up accidentally blowing up his own ship and getting killed.

Thus, the doctor (and others who supported the accusing woman) had to realize that they not only ruined an innocent person’s life, but pretty much killed him. At the end of the show, the doctor talked to the captain, saying, "In my enthusiasm to help [the accusing woman], I lost my medical objectivity. I became a self-righteous advocate and didn’t stop to think for one second that I might be wrong."

While accusations involving repressed memories have been on the decline, there are still those who have lost their objectivity and become self-righteous advocates. Luckily, there are others who look at the evidence, and we are currently winning most of the battles.

Post-Modernist Creationism

Discover magazine had a very good "Commentary" article by Matt Cartmill (March) about recent attacks on evolutionary theory not just by creationists (which is expected) but also by postmodernists. What is a postmodernist? Cartmill sums up the postmodernist view as: "Anybody who claims to have objective knowledge about anything is trying to control and dominate the rest of us."

Since they believe there are no objective facts, postmodernists say the choice between competing theories is always based on politics. This is similar to arguments made by creationists. It’s not only evolution that is under such attack — even DNA itself is accused of being a "myth" by some postmodernists!

You may remember Alan Sokal, the physicist who wrote an article of gibberish for postmodernist journal Social Text a couple years ago (it was reviewed and published, despite the fact that it meant absolutely nothing, which was Sokal’s whole point). Coincidentally, he was profiled in Scientific American (March), providing more information on the anti-science attitude displayed by postmodernists. As he says, "the idea is that there are no objective truths either in the social sciences but even in the natural sciences; that’s what’s most shocking — somehow that the validity of any statement is relative to the individual making it or relative to the social groups or culture to which that individual belongs."

Science, of course, is based on objective facts. It doesn’t matter who discovered the speed of light, for example — it is a fact that has nothing to do with politics or viewpoint. One example given in Scientific American is a postmodernist essay the author read about cold fusion, which suggested that cold fusion was rejected because its proponents didn’t have political power compared to the other scientists. Facts don’t seem to play a part, because, of course, to them all facts are relative.

Frankly, I find this all a bit scary. Right now it seems to be mostly confined to social scientists in ivory towers attacking scientists, but can you imagine what a science class would be like if these views were taken seriously? As the Discover article notes, "Trying to present all ideas impartially without judging them would mean the end of science education. Like it or not, science is judgmental. It undertakes to weigh all the conflicting stories and find tests that will tell us which one is the least unlikely. If no such tests can be found, then science has nothing to say on the issue."

That pretty much says it all.

Yes or No?

The UPI reported that a group of Canadian women got an out-of-court settlement for health damage supposedly caused by silicone breast implants. The article stated, "Silicone implants…may also lead to diseases such as lupus or schleroderma." Alas, just a few days later (2/6), Reuters reported the results of a Swedish study of over 10,000 women that found "no significant link between silicone breast implants and connective tissue diseases such as lupus, scleroderma, and fibromyalgia."

A while ago, we reported some information on breast implants here ("REALLity Check," Vol. 3, #12, and "REALLity Check," Vol. 5, #1). In the first case, it was because Discover magazine had an article discussing one of the main proponents of this supposed connection to these diseases and has testified to this effect in various trials. They showed that his claims are not backed by good scientific evidence. The later report discussed how some skepticism of such claims are finally entering the U.S. courts, as a judge decided that the evidence supporting a ling between implants and these diseases was not strong enough to present to a jury.

Now, the Canada case was settled out of court, so the company may have just felt it was easier, and perhaps cheaper, to pay a settlement rather than trying to fight it out (for example, Dow Corning just made a $4.4 billion settlement offer to creditors and breast implant claimants as part of bankruptcy proceedings). But as more and more studies come forth showing a "missing link" between silicone implants and these diseases, hopefully science will prevail. Too many of these types of cases (and by "these types," I include cases like those who claim their cell phones have caused cancer) have been decided not on the basis of science, but on a great deal of emotion and a lack of understanding of cause and effect. For example, if a woman gets implants and then contracts lupus, does that mean the implants caused the lupus? Not according to the recent studies or any scientific evidence of which I am aware. However, it seems that many people who contract diseases are eager to blame somebody or something. If you get a brain tumor, it must be the fault of your cell phone. If you get cancer, you must be living too close to electrical wires. If you have implants and get a disease, it must be the fault of those who made the implants!

The courts need to remember to take a good look at cause-and-effect, not to mention evidence, when looking at scientific matters. The media needs to help out by remembering to report the most accurate data available and not just seizing on whatever claim of the day is out there.

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