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When the Media Tell Half the Story

Media Watch

C. Eugene Emery Jr.

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 21.3, May / June 1997

What a difference nearly three decades doesn't make.

Twenty-eight years after Chariots of the Gods? author Eric von Däniken brought pseudoscience to new lows by suggesting that our ancestors were too stupid to create the pyramids, Stonehenge, and other monuments without the help of space aliens, his ideas are alive and well thanks to a prime-time September 26, 1996, ABC-TV special, ”Chariots of the Gods? The Mysteries Continue.

The show suggested that there might be new information to support von Däniken’s theories that ancient drawings depict spaceships and our ancestors’ knowledge of the universe must have come from extraterrestrials.

The odd thing was that the program gave plenty of hints to suggest that von Däniken is a crank. Yet ABC chose to gloss over the problems.

One of the first hints came when von Däniken talked about the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, where the main ceremonial plaza with its huge flat-topped pyramids was supposedly laid out in a way that produced “a remarkably accurate scale model of our solar system,” complete with Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, three planets invisible to the naked eye.

If anybody at ABC had known anything about astronomy, they should have questioned several aspects of the “model.” First, if it was so accurate, why was the only big gap between Saturn and Uranus? (Answer: The layout wasn't intended to be a model of the solar system.) Why did von Däniken choose not to put a planet in the circle next to Uranus, which looked tailor-made to house a planet? (Answer: Then the “model” wouldn't fit right.)

And if space aliens really developed the solar system model, why is Pluto included? These days, because of its size, orbit, and origin, astronomers barely regard Pluto as a real planet. It retains that distinction out of tradition.

The hour-long program was filled with such problems.

On another artifact, an image of what appeared to be a snake became, in von Däniken’s eyes, a light bulb filament. In another case, three lines of stones that formed a jagged line were, instead, magically converted into two equilateral triangles and a right-angle triangle — supposed proof that space aliens gave our ancestors geometry, trigonometry, and the Pythagorean theorem. The famous markings on the Nazca Plains in Peru were shown, with host Richard Karn (of the ABC comedy series Home Improvement) stating that “without the ability to fly, experts don't know how the Nazcans gained the perspective needed to create such elaborate figures on such a huge scale.” Von Däniken and the folks at ABC are probably still wondering how the streets of New York City or Washington, D.C., could have been laid out so precisely when none of the engineers responsible had ever been in an airplane, or how hoaxers can create intricate crop circle patterns in the dead of night — best viewed from the air — without high-tech equipment.

The problem with such shows is that they are often produced by the network’s entertainment division, where accuracy and fairness don't have a high priority.

But the ”Chariots of the Gods?” special was followed by a Turning Point program on ”Alternative Medicine: Hope or Hype?” that was produced by ABC News. It featured respected moderator Hugh Downs talking about therapeutic touch, hypnosis, iridology (the alleged ability to discern diseases by looking at the colored part of the eye), and ozone enemas.

The program was a mix of messages. While Downs cited several alternative medical methods and pointed out that “no medical studies have proven that any of these systems work,” he also spoke of trying “unorthodox treatments with mind-boggling results.”

It featured a patient of cardiac surgeon Mehmet Oz, of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, who has decided to offer some of his patients a menu of techniques — hypnosis, Yoga, therapeutic touch — in an effort to see what works. Left unanswered was the question of how he’s going to be able to tease out which discipline is beneficial and which is bogus if each patient is being given several types of treatments.

The show also profiled a former ABC News producer with breast cancer who decided not to have radiation treatments so she could, instead, follow the guidance of Park Avenue physician Dr. Nicholas J. Gonzalez. Gonzalez, according to the program, had her taking 134 nutritional supplement pills a day, performing two coffee enemas a day, and drinking glasses of Epsom salts, olive oil, and whipping cream every few weeks. Gonzalez freely acknowledged that there were no scientific studies to back up his regimen.

Downs and ABC didn't seem particularly alarmed by all this, approaching the story with sometimes-bemused curiosity and making it sound like we'll soon know whether this stuff works.

But from the consumer’s point of view, there’s a big difference between a medical treatment where the scientific evidence is not yet in, and one where tests have been conducted and the results show that the treatment is bogus.

ABC repeatedly failed to make that distinction.

Take iridology, for example. The network pointed out that there was no proof that iridology worked. That’s true. But that’s only half the truth. Iridology is not just unproven; it has been tested and shown to be bogus.

ABC also took a hands-off approach to reporting on therapeutic touch, neglecting to note that there are legitimate scientific reasons why doctors are skeptical. The program mentioned that the people who perform therapeutic touch claim to be able to massage and mold an invisible energy field into a healthier shape. But in order for therapeutic touch to work, (1) an energy aura must exist around the human body, (2) practitioners must be able to sense it, (3) the aura must be malleable by human hands, and (4) changes in the shape of the aura must translate into effects on the health of the body.

Downs and his ABC team neglected to note that nobody’s been able to prove that the field exists, never mind that it’s malleable. (Therapeutic touch promoters try to counter with the argument that the field has been photographed using Kirlian photography, which supposedly captures energy around living things. They usually have trouble responding if someone asks, in turn, why energy auras have been seen around Kirlian photographs of inanimate objects like paper clips.)

The network boasts that “more Americans get their news from ABC.” But if news means giving viewers the whole story, this was one night when ABC did a disservice to its audience.

When the country’s best known psychic, Jeane Dixon, died of a heart attack January 25 at the age of 79, it was disappointing to see that the media based their obituaries more on her legend than on the facts.

Dixon became famous for predicting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Yet hers was a forecast that nobody has been able to document.

Various obituaries made reference to a 1956 article in Parade magazine in which she supposedly said that a tall, young, blue-eyed, Democratic president elected in 1960 would die in office.

Actually, the May 13, 1956, article in Parade said, “Mrs. Dixon thinks (the 1960 election) will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office, ‘although not necessarily in his first term."' As Terence Hines noted in Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Prometheus Books, 1988, p. 43), her prediction covers a lot of possibilities. In fact, she predicted in a 1960 forecast that “John F. Kennedy would fail to win the presidency.”

Nonetheless, virtually every obituary gave her far more credit than her actual forecast deserved. USA Today, in its January 27 edition, bluntly stated that “her prediction that President John F. Kennedy would die in office came true.”

Most news outlets tempered their stories by mentioning a few of her mistakes, most notably her forecast that the Soviet Union would beat the United States to the moon and that World War III would begin in 1958. Unfortunately, the “sometimes she was right, but sometimes she was wrong” attitude doesn't cut it. Because nobody expects a psychic to be perfect, the failed forecasts may have simply reinforced the idea in the minds of some that her gifts were real.

In fact, Dixon seldom made a real forecast. She was the queen of equivocation. Her predictions in the supermarket tabloid the Star were so full of ifs, coulds, and mights, she almost always had an excuse if a prediction failed to come true.

Consider, for example, her predictions for last year: “This winter, Nelson Mandela faces a personal crisis — and danger could return in April. His former wife Winnie could win an election and be returned to government (Star, January 9, 1996, emphasis added). For 1997, she said, “Late October could bring another plane tragedy over water,” “Roseanne is headed for big health problems if she doesn't slow down,” and “A temptress or even a female assassin could be waiting for President Clinton on a foreign trip. His best defense to ward off trouble will be to bring along his wife Hillary” (Star, January 7, 1997, emphasis added).

She also could be extraordinarily vague. The February 11, 1997, issue of the Star, which carried an eight-page tribute to her, had to stretch to find seventeen “amazingly accurate” predictions. The magazine gave her credit for forecasting the March 24, 1989, Exxon Valdez oil spill because she reportedly said, “A shipping accident will make headlines in the spring.” The tabloid gave her credit for predicting the AIDS epidemic, which surfaced in the early 1980s, because she said, in 1978, that “a dreadful plague will strike down thousands of people in this country.”

On the unusual occasion when she made an unequivocal prediction for an unexpected event that would be guaranteed to make news, her forecasts nearly always flopped. In the 1995 issue of the Star, she said it would be the year “Pope John Paul II will have a hand in liberating Cuba from Castro” and “a whole new world of dinosaurs will be discovered in Central Asia.”

With Dixon’s death, members of the media had a chance to set the record straight about a woman whose name had become a household word, largely on the basis of a myth. By and large, they missed the opportunity.

Three issues ago (November/December 1996), I rated how four CD-ROM encyclopedias — Microsoft Encarta, The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, and Encyclopaedia Britannica — handle pseudoscience topics. My conclusion: Only Grolier did a reasonably responsible job covering the supernatural, rating 19 points out of a possible high of 56 on a scale that assessed the quality and quantity of the skepticism. Britannica, Encarta, and Compton’s scored in negative numbers.

Since then, IBM has released the 1997 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia (Windows, $50), and the good news is that it scores even higher than Grolier, garnering 21 points on the scale. From astrology to UFOs, when it covers pseudoscience topics, it often does so in a way to give readers some idea why there is reason for skepticism.

Part of the reason for the high score may be that CSICOP fellows James Oberg and James Alcock contributed to the sections on UFOs and parapsychology, respectively. But other topics reflect a similarly skeptical viewpoint.

While the article on astrology says that “people declare there is no scientific basis for astrology” (it’s not clear who these “people” are or why their declaration should carry any weight), the article goes on to note that discoveries made by Copernicus and Tycho Brahe conflict with astrology, and that the constellations have shifted over the past two thousand years to the point where most astrologers don't even know a person’s true sun sign.

The entry on creationism, although brief, is one of the best I've seen. Although it doesn't get into specifics, World Book makes it clear that the debate is actually a religious battle over biblical literalism.

The Bigfoot and abominable snowman sections note that scientists believe some evidence, including footprints, have been faked and that the sun can often melt footprints in the snow, making them appear unnaturally large.

None of the encyclopedias scored well on the topic of homeopathy, and World Book missed the biggest criticism of this “alternative” medical system — that its medicines are so diluted, no active ingredient may even be present.

But overall, it’s nice to see that Grolier isn't alone in giving a rational, scientific assessment of topics that the public finds so fascinating.

C. Eugene Emery Jr.

Gene Emery is a science and medical writer. His weekly computer software column appears on the Reuters news service. His address is 46 Highland Street, Cranston, RI 02920.