Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Some Cunning Campaigns

The New York Times has been duped by one, according to Daniel Okrent, the Times ombudsman (a Swedish word?). The campaigners were the Pentagon, CIA and "cloaked government sources...[who] insinuated themselves and their agendas into prewar coverage". Okrent waxes very poetical on this: Some stories "pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense epaulets on the shoulders of editors", and other stories that challenged the assertions "were played as quietly as a lullaby".

Ok. What he's saying is that the Times admits to doing a crappy journalistic job on this issue. I think admitting it is great, it's the first step to getting more objective coverage. What's so sad is that most of the mainstream media did at least as poorly as the Times, and others are not apologizing.

But was this a very cunning campaign from the Pentagon, CIA and various mysterious cloaked agents? Or were the journalists who fell for it unusually naive/greedy/biased? I'd go for the latter, given that the press is supposed to stand in an adversial position to the government, and that every adequately cynical adult expects propaganda from the administration. So maybe the Times and especially the other culprits who haven't even started on their self-recriminations should also think about getting rid of those who appear unable to hold up the expected journalistic standards. Just saying.

Another cunning campaign may have been carried out on the unsuspecting American medical establishment. In 2001, The Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study which seemed to prove, quite decisively, that long-distance prayer works to improve medical outcomes. The authors, Daniel Wirth, Kwang Cha and Rogerio Lobo reported on an experiment where prayer groups in the U.S., Canada and Australia were given photographs of some women who were trying to conceive through IVF in Seoul, Korea, and asked to pray for their successful pregnancies. Other women at the same IVF clinics served as a control group as nobody was presumably praying for them. The experiment was a double-blind one, so that neither the research staff nor the women themselves knew who was being prayed for. The results were shocking: the women in the prayed-for group doubled their chances of conceiving. According to one expert in the area of fertility research, this sort of an increase would be a revolutionary one.

As the Guardian points out, many Americans took this study as a sign from God: prayer works, and even quite scientific organizations and groups were impressed. Questions were asked about how to incorporate this into general medical practise and so on. I must admit I was very sceptical of the whole study from the very beginning, not because I wouldn't believe in the power of prayer (just ask me something!), but because I very much doubt that any divine being would let humans play with prayer this way: some women were arbitarily excluded while others were allowed to benefit. This makes the experimenters the gods.

Anyway, now it turns out that one of the three authors, Daniel Wirth, is a well-known conman with special interests in parapsychological research. He is currently under house arrest in California awaiting sentencing for multi-million dollar fraud charges against Adelphia Communications. It's not clear what his role in the research was, but his prominent position among the authors of the study is at least a minor embarrassment for the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, and in the worst case the whole study may be a gigantic fraud. I vote for the latter alternative.

I also think that the same requirements apply to the medical establishment as to journalists, i.e., they can't now blame someone else for the mess. Medical research is frequently financed from public funds, and researchers have the responsibility to be good guardians of this money. If my fraud prediction turns out to be correct, heads should roll here, too. Wow, I seem to be a vengeful goddess today.