REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

I have so much stuff — and so little time — that I hardly know where to begin. So I'm just going to put in as much as we have room for, and we'll catch up with the rest next time.

NBC: National Bull**** Channel?

If you didn't see NBC's presentation of Confirmation: The Hard Evidence of Aliens Among Us? (2/17), consider yourself lucky to have saved two hours of your life. This is the type of show that makes me want to adopt the motto, "I watch this trash so you don't have to." (I wanted to use a somewhat harsher word than "trash" to describe it, but Editor Bob strongly suggested I consult a thesaurus and use an alternate to the one I had originally proposed.)

The first segment of the show actually almost seemed half-decent, which lulled me into a false sense of security. It dealt with a video taken of a UFO over Mexico City, one which has been supported by a TV host there. Several skeptics were given decent air time to explain why it was likely a hoax (the flying saucer wobbled a bit, as it would if suspended on a string; it's simple to make such a video on a desktop PC; etc.). All in all, that video was pretty effectively called into question. I almost fell off the couch.

But no sooner did they debunk the video than they presented 50-year-old grainy photos that were supposedly examined and could not be debunked. I suspect that first segment was probably there only as a token acknowledgement, because it was about the only time in the show when a skeptical attitude was displayed.

Next up was a 1991 video shot from the space shuttle, showing some light flashed and objects moving around. Unfortunately, this "UFO sighting" was debunked literally years ago. If you go to, you will find two charts showing that the zig-zag dots of the shuttle flight "are exactly what space experts inside and outside NASA have always said they were: routine nearby small sunlit debris hit by the expanding exhaust of a shuttle steering rocket triggered randomly by the computer autopilot which was steering the spaceship." The show did acknowledge that skeptics had put forth this explanation, and even talked to Buzz Aldrin, who was similarly skeptical, but then they gave more air time to several "experts" who pooh-poohed that explanation and said it cannot be explained except as alien spacecraft and possibly a Star Wars weapon system firing at it!

Later, we got Roswell. They had the author of the official Air Force report closing the case, but then they went on again to feature "experts" who said things like "Only one thing in the entire world makes sense" — that one thing, of course, being an alien spacecraft.

When they moved on to discussing alien abductions, they interviewed the hotshots in the field: John Mack, Budd Hopkins, David Jacobs, and of course, Whitley Strieber (he was a co-executive producer of the show!). The problem is that these guys have been shot down time and time again with their claims, and none of that was mentioned. They also presented a false dichotomy, asking if the abduction stories were true or lies — this leaves out the most likely explanation of false-memory implantation and misunderstanding of waking dreams. As before, skeptics were given a few seconds to mention these things, but then the narrator kept right on talking about how the abductees were hypnotically regressed, etc.

The "big deal" this show was supposed to bring to the table was an alleged alien implant, surgically removed from an abductee. First there was some wild speculation about the implant, and then they took it out. They found it was mostly iron, and even mentioned that it might have been a fragment of a knife or tool. But then they said that X-ray diffraction could not figure out what material structure it was. They finished by saying other tests may determine it, but of course they didn't bother to actually do those tests for this show (might accidentally solve a mystery, and we can't have that).

In a second discussion of an implant — this one looking more like a piece of glass — they had much the same result, with the lab saying it was "unexplainable" and that it raised more questions than it answered. Well, I have a degree in a materials science area (ceramic engineering), and I've worked with electron microscopes, X-ray diffraction, etc. In fact, I worked extensively with glass samples. I cannot imagine a decent lab writing a report like this one unless they were not given enough sample to properly analyze. The whole thing sounds fishy to me.

The final segment was on a sighting by a number of Ohio police officers. It sounded impressive, but the descriptions given were pretty much what one would expect from a bright star or planet close to the horizon — it appears to move, seems to change color, etc. Other aspects made it seem spookier, but there's not a whole lot we can make of those claims. The astronomer/skeptic showed for this segment summed it up fairly well in saying they saw something they didn't understand, and then got over-excited and jumped to conclusions about it. Unfortunately, his few seconds were overshadowed by the simulated UFOs and recreations.

Indeed, their use of "dramatic recreations" was one of the biggest problems throughout the show. At the beginning, they aired a disclaimer that they used actual footage where available, but recreations otherwise. The problem is that they never noted, when showing a video clip, which it was. Thus they showed army personnel scrambling during the Roswell segment, UFOs hovering in the sky during the Ohio segment, etc. While the Ohio one was pretty obviously a recreation, it still gave form and shape to a sighting that was not nearly so clear; and the Roswell scramble almost certainly never happened the way they showed it.

So where was the "Hard Evidence"? It wasn't there. It simply didn't exist. None of what they showed was "hard evidence" at all. But, as they usually do with these shows, they left it up to the viewer to decide at the end. Of course I have no problem with leaving it up to the individual, but how can somebody make a rational decision based on the baloney this show provided?

If you want to share your opinion on this show with NBC, I encourage you to write to: NBC Viewer Relations, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112.

And If Anybody Knows Hoaxes…

It almost seemed like some sort of weird mirror universe. NBC shows a program I'd expect from FOX, and FOX has one that exposes hoaxes instead of promoting them as real! Maybe the year 2000 really does spell the end of the universe and this is one of the signs?

The World's Greatest Hoaxes (12/28/98) may have been a sign of the apocalypse, but not for any of these reasons. Hoaxes was simply a bad show.

In case you didn't see it, you're probably wondering how it is that a show exposing hoaxes could possibly earn my ire in this column. It "exposed" Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, UFO photos, and the Alien Autopsy film. So how bad could it be?

The problem is that this production used the same style as those shows made to promote the very type of nonsense they "debunked" here. Indeed, it was made by the same people who brought us the show about the Alien Autopsy (strangely, they didn't mention that in discussing that particular hoax). There was so much potential here, and they blew it.

For example, in the Alien Autopsy segment, rather than address all the problems skeptics have brought up regarding that film, they instead focused on a little-publicized separate video that was put out by the same person. This one was supposedly a preliminary autopsy done in a poorly-lit room, before the other autopsy done in a bright white room. They found one of the people who appeared in this other film and he exposed everything. Great! But then they essentially said that since the first one is a hoax, it's pretty obvious the second is as well. I happen to agree, but that certainly won't convince many believers. Instead of focusing on this other film, they should have simply gone after the well-known one and picked it apart to show exactly how we know it's a hoax.

Of course, one might suggest that they should have done that before airing their first production promoting that film as real…

A Bad Year?

St. John's Hospital, here in Springfield, announced their 1998 Employee of the Year in a large State Journal-Register ad. The employee they honored was Linda Boston, program director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

Of all the people who work at that hospital, couldn't they have found somebody who doesn't promote pseudoscience as part of her job?

Sure, the Center doesn't promote nonsense in all of its programs; some of them are harmless enough. But last time I checked, they still offer Therapeutic Touch and other questionable "treatments" as well. It's bad enough to have a hospital allowing such unscientific practices – but to honor the person in charge of doing it? If I were a doctor there, I'd be insulted.

Get the Point?

Both the Chicago Tribune and the Illinois Times featured articles on acupuncture (both 2/11). The Tribune's article was the second of a four-part series on alternative medicine — in the Tempo section, of course. The first part, on dietary supplements, wasn't too terribly horrible and probably wouldn't have even been mentioned here had it not been for Part 2. But that second article, and the one in the Times, both made the same mistake — they accepted at face value the National Institutes of Health (NIH) press release on acupuncture (see "REALLity Check Special Report," Nov. 1997, Vol. 5, #11).

As a reminder, the acupuncture report was actually issued by the Office of Alternative Medicine within the NIH; that office has come under heavy criticism for being biased in favor of alternative medicine and against proper scientific studies. The report was put together by a planning committee and consensus panel that were both heavily weighted with proponents of alternative medicine rather than unbiased, objective observers. The report came from a three-day meeting of presentations, with no balance given in the form of inviting researchers with opposing viewpoints. Finally, the audience often cheered when the presenters attacked the scientific method — the method on which medicine is based, and the method acupuncture proponents should be striving to use to prove their claims.

The Illinois Times article was even worse, though, because the author made several statements as if they were fact, when they are actually far from it. For example, "if your Ch'i is blocked, you're not going to have a good day. Acupuncture restores the body's energy flow…" There is no evidence that this "Ch'i" even exists, let alone that its flow can be blocked! Simply put, Ch'i is a nice philosophical concept, but there is no scientific or medical evidence supporting its existence. So it certainly shouldn't be showing up in an article stated as if there is no doubt about its existence.

All in all, both articles were kind of pointless.

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