Fighting the Paranormal in Peru: An Interview with Manuel Paz y Miño
In August, CSICOP welcomed Peruvian skeptic Manuel Paz y Miño to the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. Paz y Miño, founding editor of the Peruvian Journal of Applied Philosophy, has written or edited fourteen books and currently edits two magazines, Neo-Skepsis and Eupraxofia. Paz y Miño is a professor of philosophy at the Federico Villarreal National University in Peru’s capital city of Lima. Skeptical Briefs co-editor Benjamin Radford had a chance to sit down with one of Latin America’s premier skeptics for an interview.
Skeptical Briefs: How would you describe the status of skepticism in Peru today?
Manuel Paz y Miño: As in many parts of the world there are some astrologers and psychics in the media, many of whom even have their own telephone hotlines. Reports of weeping icons, UFOs, and miraculous cures are not uncommon. From time to time reports in newspapers and television provide a skeptical point of view, but indeed they are few.
As a humanist and skeptical university teacher I launched the Peruvian Journal of Applied Philosophy in 1994 in order to spread a dynamic and practical philosophy examining social problems from both humanist and skeptical perspectives. Currently we publish not only periodicals and books but also organize speeches.
I was only able to talk and show to my philosophy students videos on a few specific skeptical topics. So it was necessary two years ago to found a skeptical specialized group, the Peruvian Committee for the Research of the Paranormal, Pseudosciences and Irrationality (CIPSI). We currently have about ten members, mostly professionals and students. So far we have launched two issues of our magazine Neo-Skepsis and when I return to Peru there will be a public meeting, a video-forum on UFO phenomenon (which was the topic of the last issue of the magazine).
SB: What are the main paranormal topics of concern to Peruvians?
Alternative medicines are very sought after. There are many Peruvian people who cannot afford the very expensive Western medicine and drugs or who have incurable illnesses. So they are very interested in folk medicine and miraculous cures. There are many religious icons and medicine-men in my country, as in the rest of the world.
Peru has also spawned two home-grown UFO cults, Rama and Alpha & Omega. Rama has an international presence in many Ibero-American countries, and Alpha & Omega is a sort of religious Christian cult that believes Christ is coming again-in a UFO.
SB: What are the main challenges to skepticism in Peru?
I think we need to reach out to more people through mass media. Scientific and skeptical education classes, journals, and books are really only available for people who are able to get a place at the university. Auditoriums are too small for the huge number of people who need such critical thinking education. In order to reach to them we are compiling material for our own video program. But in order to do these things I think it is very important to consolidate a strong skeptical group with a great commitment to its goals. I believe that is possible.
SB: What has been the public’s response to your efforts? Are they receptive?
Scientific discoveries are universal and when people are open to science and reason there is a good reception to scientific skepticism. Of course there are many people who are deceived and fanatical, who think science is mistaken. I encounter both types of people in my classes.
SB: What about the reaction from your students?
Some are receptive, others not so much. Many are religious and strong believers, especially in the case of folk healings and miracle cures. I've had some students who used folk medicine for illnesses and were cured, and it’s hard to explain to them about the placebo effect or that some diseases just naturally get better.
SB: How did you get involved in the skeptical movement?
Well, when I became a religious unbeliever I also rejected any kind of supernatural explanations for reality. Also, when I was a university student I found scientific magazines and periodicals, including Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer. And of course skeptical programs on television are of great help. CSICOP is our great model and we greatly admire the works of Paul Kurtz, Joe Nickell, James Randi, Kendrick Frazier, Massimo Polidoro and other people who have done so much for the skeptical cause.
SB: Were you brought up in the Roman Catholic Church? If so, how did you reconcile that with your skepticism?
Yes, I brought up as a Catholic. As such, I was compelled to go to religious processions and temples as a child. And in my teens I was an Evangelical. In both cases there is the belief that there exists a supernatural and miraculous force acting on the world. But the more I examined my beliefs the more I doubted that an all-powerful and all-caring God could exist. That realization motivated me to found the Peruvian Areligious Movement, a humanist group. So in my opinion one cannot be skeptical and to be a theist believer at the same time.
SB: But in the United States, and throughout the world, there are many people who feel that they can believe in God and yet are skeptics. Are you concerned, given the influence of Catholicism in Peru, that you might end up making skepticism harder to accept by linking it to humanism?
Well, I would accept them as skeptics, but only up to a certain point. After all, part of theist belief is that some actions we see on Earth are produced by an omniscient, all-powerful God: miracles. If you are a deist [who believes that God made the world yet has no role in current affairs] then you retain your faith but don’t necessarily believe in the supernatural or miracles.
The most important thing is to promote rational thinking in society-and that implies rational criticism of religion as well. So our skepticism is a radical one. When we have skeptic meetings, we won’t discuss religious matters. Most people believe [in religion] - it’s their right, and we must accept that to a certain extent.
SB: And of course there are other paranormal beliefs that have nothing to to with religion: psychics, for example, or UFOs.
That’s another question. But you can connect the beliefs with your own religion. For example, if you are a believer, you can accept or reject UFOs. As I mentioned before, we do have a few Christian/UFO sects in Peru.
SB: There seem to be many mystical sites in Peru-Nazca, Macchu Picchu, Chilca, etc. Why do you think your country has fostered so many?
Well, there is a strong nationalism based on the great and rich past of the Incan and pre-Incan cultures. In order to explain why those sites were built, many gave a paranormal explanation instead of a scientific one. And many Peruvians make lots of money from the mystical tourism and tourists; it is a great business. Also some local and foreign writers have books-some of them bestsellers [e.g., Chariots of the Gods?, by Von Däniken] claiming that those “mystical” sites were created by alien forces.
SB: In some governments the paranormal has influences in high places. Astrologers were in Reagan’s White House, for example, and Indonesian politics is famous for its use of psychics and witch doctors. Has this occurred in Peru?
Not really, as far as I know. In 1996 there was a weeping icon of the Virgin Mary in the port of Callao near Lima. Opponents of the government claimed at the time that it was a strategy to divert the public’s attention from the difficult economic problems. The same claim was made about a UFO case about two years ago.
SB: What are some of the cultural differences in the dissemination of skepticism between the United States and Latin America?
There are not many differences; we use Internet and e-mail a lot. Our Web site is at geocities.com/cipsiperu
SB: What is the future of skepticism in Latin America and Peru?
I think it is quite positive because now there are more learned and educated people than before who understand the scientific method. But if there were a better policy for public and private education our work will not be so diffi- cult. We, with some other Latin American skeptics, hope to have our own unified Web page soon.