The first version of this essay originally appeared in TIME Magazine on April 13, 1992. Reprinted with permission.
It's Time for Science To Take a Stand Again
As an investigator of unusual claims I'm accustomed to being confronted with incredible examples of medieval thinking in this twentieth century. I strongly suspect that it will continue into the third millennium.
Everywhere we look, we find anti-scientific bias and belief in the unbelievable, and the spectrum is wide. Federal judges have entertained the idea that demons may cause susceptible serial killers to act up. Diligent researchers think they found top-secret code words in former U.S. president George Bush's speeches when they were played backwards, leading them to the conclusion that the president and others thereby unconsciously revealed this information to the nation's enemies. Millions of Americans believe diseases cause bacteria--not the other way around--and they are convinced that death is an aberration; they are known as Christian Scientists.
Americans are certainly not alone in their credulity. In China, a large percentage of the public visits qi gong hospitals for diagnosis and treatment by a mystic who never touches them; he merely waves his hands about. More remarkably, if a patient cannot visit an expert in person he merely mails in a slip of paper with his name written on it and the practitioner performs both the diagnosis and the cure, an exotic hand-and-body dance designed to "re-establish the balance of yin and yang," from any distance away. In the Philippine Islands, thousands of visitors flock annually to have local sleight-of-hand artists apparently dip their fingers into their bodies to remove cancerous tumors. The "healers" dip into their bank accounts rather dramatically, too.
Currently, German science is agog with its exciting discovery of "E-rays" which are said to come from deep within the earth, cause cancer, and cannot be detected by any known scientific instruments; fortunately, they can be sensed by a dowser carrying a forked willow-stick or a pendulum. Trusting Russian viewers place bottles of water atop their TV sets every morning so that a faith healer can "charge" the contents with curative power via channel six. In Finland and Sweden, the private, expensive and government-accredited Rudolph Steiner schools teach children Anthroposophist notions to cast horoscopes and to believe that sprites inhabit trees and rocks.
Local police departments all over the world regularly consult clairvoyants who they believe give them supernatural clues in tough cases. In Washington, DC, weekly parties of goggle-eyed believers sit about caressing spoons so that their mind power can cause them to bend; they pay thirty dollars a half-hour for this mind-expanding instruction. Late night TV viewers in the U.S. can call a toll number to be advised on their futures--for a price--by soothsayers whom they will meet only by telephone, introduced by Israeli "super-psychic" Uri Geller. Blissful devotees of meditation techniques sit for endless hours in yogic positions in "ashrams" bouncing about on mattresses and trying to fly with mental power.
Given my experiences of these and hundreds of other shocking examples of human credulity, the notion of foreign agents playing presidential speeches backwards is hardly surprising. The score card for the crazies is not very impressive. The "police psychics" have been investigated scientifically and found to be of absolutely no use, in fact they impede investigations, yet they still flourish, are consulted by law officers and are promoted lavishly in the press. Spoons vigorously stroked all the way to a high polish don't deform unless a little actual physical bending is applied, but that fact doesn't interfere with the parties taking place in Washington. The "flyers" of Transcendental Meditation each spend $5,000 and up to learn how to bounce around on a rubber mattress, but never get airborne. No amount of evidence against any transcendental claims will dampen the fervor of the believers.
Uri Geller, the former psychic superstar, was at one time actually believed to be able to bend spoons by mind power, and in fact he was the one who brought this stunt to the attention of the Pentagon brass, ever-alert to breaking advances in science. Geller's ability was even endorsed by a small number of scientists, who now are somewhat reluctant to discuss the matter. Such an earthshaking talent, the social value of which we may have some difficulty appreciating, was the rage of the vacuous TV talk shows and of the cocktail soirees of the idle rich in the mid-70s.
Why are people of every culture so anxiously embracing obvious claptrap that should have been left behind with the superstitious and emotional burdens that brought about the Dark Ages? Part, but not all of the reason, is to be found in the uncritical acceptance and promotion of these notions by the media, prominent personalities and governmental agencies. Those Washington spoon-bending parties are regularly attended by top brass from the Pentagon. The German government paid out DM 400,000 in 1990 to hire dowsers to scan federal offices and hospitals so that desks and beds could be relocated out of the path of the deadly E-rays that authorities have accepted as real. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, chairman of the powerful Foreign Relations committee, has asked the congress for huge sums of money to fund supernatural research, fearful that Russian scientists might be ahead of the U.S. in such important matters. Until just recently Pell retained a special assistant with top-secret security clearance who devoted himself solely to such research, for a paycheck of $49,000 a year. And, can we ever forget, a former U.S. president and his first lady arranged even their official schedules on the advice of an astrologer in San Francisco?
There seems to be a certain quality of the human mind that requires the owner to get silly from time to time. Sometimes the condition becomes permanent, a part of the victim's personality. Such an affliction might be thought to be common to "foreigners" or to "the other" gender, to another age, or to another civilization. Not so. In all of the recorded histories of every culture all over the world, yesterday and today, we have excellent examples of absurd beliefs, practices, theories, and attitudes that vary only in name, magnitude or flavor.
UFOs--usually shown to be ordinary meteorological phenomena or common optical illusions but supposed by the credulous to be extraterrestrial visitors--were reported in ancient China too, but they took on anything but the space-ship configurations that are currently popular. The oriental version was a dragon, fiery exhalations and all; there was no Asian version of Jules Verne. Vivid descriptions of these giant monsters seem, to Westerners, to demonstrate the charming ingenuousness of those credulous, strange folks with that curious way of writing. Somehow, dragons seem to me more likely than space-ships. We have no problem listening seriously to tales told today in our own newspapers by eccentric ladies who run on about how thoroughly their genitals were scrutinized by small bug-eyed aliens aboard a gleaming UFO on its way to Alpha Centauri. But dragons?
The world was treated to a black-and-white film on TV not long ago which purported to show the dissection of an alien from outer space. The TV network paid a reported $100,000 for this cinematic miracle, which was hailed by many UFO fans as the long-sought proof of extraterrestrial beings. The film was so inherently flawed that even I was amazed at the fact that anyone could accept it. This film, which should have changed the course of history, is now relegated to the vast gallery of embarrassing mistakes.
American Indian tales of the Sasquatch, a giant humanoid, are also told by residents of the Himalayas, of China, Siberia, Wisconsin, Northern California, and Canada, in their regional versions. The beast might be called yeti or the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, skunk ape or even Gigantopithecus, but the critter apparently never leaves evidence in its wake, nor organic remains when it dies. Juvenile examples are never seen, and no shred of evidence has ever been produced to prove its reality. Many Bigfoot hoaxes have been admitted and exposed, but belief grows daily.
It seems that certain natural phenomena have been independently discovered by varied civilizations. Fire walking has been known in Japan, Sri Lanka, India, Hawaii, and various parts of Africa long before those places were in communication. The fact that this phenomenon has now been adequately explained has done nothing to take it out of the magic repertoires of those cultures and certain of today's popular "motivational" movements were founded on just such discoveries.
It is not difficult to imagine that a group of early Egyptian scholars had discovered through patient observation and record keeping that the river Nile would rise and inundate the land at certain dates, at intervals calculable by a system known only to them. Assuming--quite safely, I believe--that these clever schemers were driven by the same thirst for wealth and power that their descendants worldwide experience today, a further extrapolation of their probable actions might suggest that they then announced the alarming probability that the Nile's failure to rise and nourish the next season's crops was imminent unless the proper ceremonies were performed by them in the temples. What threat would more effectively elicit generous donations from the farming community, if not from the very rulers of Egypt? In this or in some similar manner was born the first priesthood, and we've not yet recovered from the innovation.
Even today when it might be expected that modern India, with its great contributions to science and mathematics would be free of belief in medieval notions, there is an ubiquitous belief in astrology and other forms of magic in general. There actually exists a large international religious cult built up around a "baba" in India who performs--as a miracle--the same old "holy ash" trick which has always been a part of the repertoire of the street performers there. He also materializes wrist watches for especially important or generous spectators and films made of this wonder easily reveal the standard conjuring methods at work. His "miracles" are accepted by persons of widely different educational backgrounds and he is treated as an important political power by the government of that country. But his tricks are essentially what mountebanks of medieval Europe used to earn their livings.
In Africa, as they have for centuries past, witch doctors "pull the thorn" from wounds and other afflicted areas of the customer's body by simple trickery. On the other side of the globe, Brazilians seek the same service from their "curanderos" while rich Americans and Brits fly on chartered jets to the Philippines to have chicken innards conjured from their over-fed tummies at astronomical hourly rates.
It's all the same sleight-of-hand, with different pronunciations of the mumbo-jumbo that dresses it up. We in America like to call the equivalent procedures chiropractic, color therapy, chelation, and/or homeopathy, and it's done here with white coats, instrumentation and technical flamboyance that adds considerably to the cost and believability.
Sometimes, packaged nonsense is imported and sold without much change. From a current advertisement in an American Kung Fu magazine that is headed, "Master the Power!":
"Move objects with Chi Power without touching them. Move objects with your eyes only. Lift a bowl of water with Yin Chi. Repel birds, dogs, with your eyes only."
These courses in miracles are sold by mail order all over the world. No evidence exists that these feats have ever been demonstrated, but the vendors know that customers never complain when they discover that they've been swindled. The victims just look around for another, fresh way to squander their money and time.
The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has promised to teach his devotees miraculous powers. Defiance of danger and death, as expressed in the "siddhis" of ancient Indian mythology, gave rise to claims of miraculous powers said to be granted to enlightened persons and now eagerly offered and embraced by the Transcendental Meditation movement to paying clients. These powers include not only the faculty of levitation, but of invulnerability as well. I've seen the "levitation" at work, and it looks like young folks doing their impressions of monstrous frogs. It's lots of hopping in uncomfortable positions, but it's not flying; trust me. As for the "invulnerability" matter, I've offered to test that claim if and when it has been mastered by any TM'er. For my test, I'll use simple equipment--just a baseball bat. This is an application of common sense to uncommon credulity.
It is evident that much of the blame for the public acceptance of pseudoscience and plain claptrap can be assigned to our educational systems that have failed to acquaint young people--at an early stage of the educational process-- with the fundamentals of critical thinking. Most persons have no idea that science is simply a logical process of discovering truths about the world we live in; the illusion is that science is some sort of a set of strange rules, a religion that speaks algebra or a magical group of incantations and spells. It is not, and because it is misunderstood it is more feared than respected. Legislators, pressured by religious groups who preach blind acceptance in place of examination of evidence, do not encourage the scientific approach.
The scientific community, too, must bear the blame. When a Mississippi inventor obtained the signatures of some thirty Ph.D.'s (most of them physicists) on a document attesting that he had discovered a genuine "free-energy" machine (essentially a perpetual motion device), and when the U.S. Patent office issued a patent in 1979 to another inventor of a "permanent magnet motor" that required no power input, there was little reaction from the scientific community. The "cold fusion" farce should have been tossed onto the trash heap long ago, but justifiable fear of legal actions by offended supporters has stifled opponents. The U.S. National Institute of Health handed out thirty grants to various "alternative healing" projects, some of very questionable merit, then invited a team of Chinese performers to demonstrate for the staff a series of carnival stunts that were touted as examples of mystical powers. The tricks were all common routines, straight from the con-man's repertoire.
These absurd claims, along with the claims of the dowsers, the homeopaths, the colored-light quacks and the psychic spoon-benders, can be directly, definitively, and economically tested and then disposed of if they fail the tests. The money granted to the NIH might have been usefully employed for such a long-term project. Why has this process been ignored?
Acceptance of nonsense as mere harmless aberrations can be dangerous to us. We live in an international society that is enlarging the boundaries of knowledge at an unprecedented rate, and we cannot keep up with much more than a small portion of what is made available to us. To mix our data input with childish notions of magic and fantasy is to cripple our perception of the world around us. We must reach for the truth, not for the ghosts of dead absurdities.
At the risk of being unbearably realistic, I must tell you that Elvis Presley is really dead, the sky is not falling, perpetual motion is a chimera, cold fusion is a dead duck, the earth is not flat, and the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.
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