REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

Teen Angel

Lisa Anderson, of the Chicago Tribune, took up half of a page of the main news section (not Tempo) to report on the Audrey Santo "miracles" (3/23). In all of that space, you’d think she could have talked to at least one skeptic. You’d be wrong if you thought that.

Audrey Santo is a 15-year-old girl who has been practically comatose ("paralyzed and incommunicative") since late 1987, when she almost drowned. In 1991, the family said a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe started oozing oil, and the miracles haven’t stopped since.

Now people trek to the Santo residence in hopes of getting healed and seeing miracles. Last summer, according to Anderson, 10,000 people showed up on the 11th anniversary of her injury. The family made a special window into her room so people could see her, which troubled even the local bishop by creating a "spectacle."

But, as I said, Anderson didn’t seek out any skeptics. The closest she came was talking to people within a church investigation, which found no evidence of fraud. But, of course, that panel didn’t have any skeptics familiar with this type of "miracle" either (they used theologians, psychologists, and doctors).

When are people going to learn that an investigation looking for fraud has to incorporate people who actually have experience in that area? When are journalists going to learn that just because somebody conducted a supposed investigation doesn’t mean they can be lazy and not bother talking to anybody else? I forwarded a copy of this article to CSICOP (the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), because I know Joe Nickell (one of their investigators) has experience in this area. He wrote a letter to the Tribune immediately, but I never saw it published. Maybe next time they’ll remember to talk to somebody like him, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Supporting the Unscientific

The Springfield mayoral election is over, but it brought with it a bit of news that might interest REALL members. Challenger Allan Woodson (who lost) was the topic of a front-page article in the State Journal-Register (3/21), discussing his support for an unproven method to supposedly remove pollutants from coal before it is burned.

Why is this of interest to us? Well, from the description, this sure sounds like fringe science to me!

Two Springfield residents, MacDonald Pine and Don Palmer (you might recognize the latter name – he’s written over 400 letters to the editor of the SJR in the past 10 years, often spouting strange things including this invention), say their process cleans coal before it goes to the power plant. They patented it in 1984 and it has been rejected as unproven and risky by the industry. Palmer said they couldn’t give too much information about it because they were afraid somebody might steal it (meanwhile they said they would sell the technology to CWLP for $1, so I guess they’re afraid of losing that dollar). They claim they built a working prototype in the early ‘80s, but don’t seem to have any evidence to back up that claim.

Instead, they repeatedly cited their patent as evidence that it works. Unfortunately, as a spokeswoman from the patent office told the SJR, "To get a patent, a person has to fill out a form, pay a fee and wait one year while we check to make sure no on else has a patent on the same thing. We don’t do any experiments or anything like that to see if it works."

Pine apparently believes they are the target of a conspiracy, saying the oil companies are against him. He also just didn’t get the concept of a patent, as evidenced by his statement, "Why would it be patented if it was risky?" Palmer wrote a follow-up letter to the Illinois Times in which he said he was quoting a reference guide about government as if to counter the patent office spokeswoman; he then asked Illinois Times readers who they would believe, the woman from the patent office or this quote. I have an answer for him, but he’s not going to like it. The words, "I just don’t get it" should be tattooed on his forehead.

Woodson did come out after the article and "clarify" his position, saying he would investigate this technology to see if it actually does work if the money is there. Hmmm, what a great idea! Maybe he should have thought of that before publicly stating his support.

Beware the Herb Craze

Most of the articles I see on herbal remedies and other "dietary supplements" tend to go along the lines of giving anecdotes about how they worked wonders for somebody and ignoring their potential problems. Not so with Tony Cappasso’s story in the State Journal-Register (3/29).

Capasso talked to several doctors who pointed out many of the same problems we at REALL, and other similar groups, talk about. Herbals are not regulated by the FDA, have no guarantee of safety or even of being effective, etc. Local doctor Gerald Klingler was quoted as noting, "Most of the [herbals] have never been tested in any scientific way. Their claims to effectiveness are all anecdotal." Exactly right, Dr. Klingler!

Cappasso noted that the best advice is, "Buyer Beware." I would add that the reader should beware as well, because for every good column like Cappasso’s, there are probably 10 or more pushing the supposed effectiveness of these "supplements" and quoting pro-supplement advocates like Andrew Weil rather than objective doctors and scientists.

Junk the Junk

The Supreme Court took another step against junk evidence in the courtroom in March when they issued a unanimous decision applying the same rules they had previously issued for scientific testimony to other forms of testimony as well.

Previously, they had said that judges could serve as a "gatekeeper" when it came to determining whether or not a scientific "expert" could testify (including such factors as whether or not the expert had related findings reviewed by peers and accepted in the field). This decision recognized that juries could be swayed by unscientific nonsense coming from somebody called an "expert." By extending the same rules to other "experts," such as in engineering, the Court apparently recognized that junk could come from more than one place.

Defending Evolution

The National Science Teachers Association released a joint statement by 23 textbook authors stating they "find it unacceptable that school districts considering our books for adoption would be encouraged to choose one book over another based on the perception that teachers should avoid the topic of evolution."

The National Center for Science Education noted that some school districts are specifically looking for books that are "soft" on evolution or have disclaimers saying that evolution is "just a theory." These types of incidents made the textbook authors, including the president of the National Academy of Sciences, decide to launch a campaign to defend evolution education.

Here in Illinois, there have not been as many reports of anti-evolution activity, though the state Board of Education did specifically remove the word "evolution" from the state’s science standards (see "From the Chairman," June 1997, V.5, #6;). We need to continue to be on the lookout for these types of actions. If you become aware of anti-evolution and/or pro-creationism activities in Illinois public schools, please let us know immediately!

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