REALLity Check

by David Bloomberg

A History of Skepticism

Those of you in the Springfield area are probably aware of the State Journal-Register’s series, "A Springfield Century." In it, current SJR reporters (by far mostly Doug Pokorski, but occasionally others) take a look back at stories from 1900 onwards.

The June 20 story, written by Pokorski, looked back to an article that appeared on the same date in the Illinois State Journal in 1913. This article, by Octavia Roberts, took a skeptical look at fortune tellers.

Even then, Roberts wondered why so many people wanted to have their fortunes told. And she found her answer in a startlingly honest fortune teller who said, "I tell everyone what they want to hear." If only today’s "psychics" were so forthright!

Roberts further explained that the fortune teller talks about the subjects of most interest to the customer – the life of that customer! "No wonder there have been fortune tellers since the beginning of the world," she says.

I was glad to see not only that a reporter had been skeptical even then, but that the skepticism was brought forward to today’s reader.

Unfortunately, it was run two weeks after SJR reporter Dave Bakke included an unexplained remark about the late Greta Alexander in an article about an unprosecuted attack (6/6). Near the beginning of the story, Bakke said, "Before psychic Greta Alexander died, she was consulted by [the victim]. Alexander’s theory was close to what the police investigation eventually revealed. But psychic vibrations aren’t evidence."

He certainly got the last part right, but never explained what the supposed theory was, what was actually said, etc. It was just sort of left hanging there, automatically implying to the reader that it was as true as anything else in the article, but never supported with a shred of evidence. Frankly, it was a rather strange piece in an otherwise normal article. Perhaps Bakke should have consulted with Ms. Roberts.

No Surprise

In the category of "news that isn’t news," a Chicago Tribune article noted that yet another report has concluded that silicone breast implants do not cause systemic diseases like lupus, connective tissue diseases, etc. (6/21).

This one was put out by The Institute of Medicine, the medical arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and therefore has some amount of prestige behind it. It follows reports from other scientists, including panels appointed by federal judges in Alabama and Oregon.

The Today show, on NBC (6/22), even discussed this non-news, with Katie Couric talking to two doctors, one who agreed with the report and one who danced around her opinions. Couric seemed to be doing her best to get one of them to come out against the study. The doctor who was dancing avoided directly answering Couric’s questions about the systemic diseases, and kept coming back to the localized problems (breast scarring and hardening, problems with mammography, etc.) – which nobody really is arguing against. That doctor eventually finished by making a classic illogical statement about how Dow Corning had settled instead of fighting to prove their innocence, as if this had any bearing on the facts of the cases. The simple fact is that Dow Corning had already lost several suits and had no reason to believe the future juries would be any better at distinguishing cause and effect from chance; it was thus in their financial interest to settle (indeed, they had already declared a form of bankruptcy when it happened) rather than continue to fight – even if they knew they were right. The travesty is that the courts moved too quickly for the science, and juries decided in favor of the poor sick women and against the big evil corporation.

NBC’s chief science correspondent, Robert Bazell, addressed this fairly well in his segment before Couric’s interviews. First they showed an actress who said she knows her implants caused her lupus, so there. But Bazell pointed out that it’s simply not that easy – that you can’t base such a cause-and-effect statement on a single case, but must look at the statistical rates of disease in those women with implants and those without. Those studies show no greater incidence of these types of diseases in women with implants. Just because two things happen to a given person does not mean one caused the other (correlation is not causation).

Considering how little useful information was passed along by Couric’s interview, I was glad to see Bazell’s good report come first.

Later, the Tribune’s editorial folks got into the act, (6/25). They noted, "If the nation’s civil courts relied always on rational thought, empirical evidence and scientific fact to determine the validity of legal complaints, then the newest findings of an expert scientific committee would certainly signal the end of litigation over the medical risks of breast implants." They further stated, though, that if that were the way courts worked, the "outrageously expensive and badly misguided" suits would have stopped years ago.

The Tribune also went a step further in listing some of the costs of these claims, including: women who want silicone breast implants (whether for simple enlargement or after a mastectomy) either cannot get them or have a very difficult time getting them due to a 1992 FDA moratorium; Dow Corning was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1995; many women with these diseases may not have sought proper treatment because they believed their ills to come from the implants; and the financial effects on implant makers may deter future development of lifesaving medical devices, especially those made with silicone.

The editorial ended by noting correctly, "this has been about law, not medicine – and certainly not justice."

No Worry Dolls, Be Happy

The Chicago Tribune also reported on a court case that mostly deals with church-state separation, but also deals with the teaching of superstition in the classroom. Surprisingly, I agreed with every part of the ruling!

It started off as one of those silly cases of parents claiming a game is "satanic." In this case, the game in question was Magic: The Gathering. Several parents complained about that game, and then brought other problems at the school into the mix. Among those things were yoga lessons, teaching about a Hindu god, selling "worry dolls," and Earth Day rituals at an altar.

The judge ruled against the parents on Magic and yoga (somewhat to the dismay of the parents who were certain the game taught some weird satanic religion), but for them on several others. The main one of interest to us is the use of "worry dolls" – small stick and yarn figures made by students in class and then sold in a school store as a way to keep bad dreams away.

The judge said, "The business with the worry dolls is a rank example of teaching superstition to children of a young and impressionable age."

Hooray for the judge!

Valid HTML 4.01! Valid CSS!