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In the Land of Galileo, Fifth World Skeptics Congress Solves Mysteries, Champions Scientific Outlook

News & Comment

Kendrick Frazier

Volume 29.1, January / February 2005

The legacy of Galileo shone like a brilliant star throughout the Fifth World Skeptics Congress, Oct. 8—10, 2004, and appropriately so, for it was held in Abano Terme, Italy, just outside of Padua (Padova), where Galileo taught from 1592 until 1610, wrote The Starry Messenger, and discovered the moons of Jupiter.

Other revolutionary figures in the history of science likewise had Padua connections. Among them were Nicolaus Copernicus, who studied there, and Andreas Vesalius, who took his medical degree there before publishing his revelations about human anatomy in 1543. That was the same year that Copernicus published, on his deathbed, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, the book that cast aside the notion of an Earth-centered universe. Thus began the conflict between religious belief and scientific discovery that led to Galileo’s epic tribulations with the Catholic church and that echoes down through the ages to this day.

The conference theme was “Solving Mysteries.” Throughout, speakers touted the unique abilities of the methods of scientific and skeptical inquiry in finding solutions to mysteries that otherwise remain the domain of opinion and speculation.

The three-day conference, which had a sold-out attendance of nearly 500 (the capacity of the comfortable modern conference center’s theater, surrounded by hotels and restaurants), was cosponsored by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and its Italian counterpart group, CICAP (pronounced “chee-cap”). CICAP numbers among its members some of Italy’s leading scientists, scholars, and investigators, many of whom were in evidence as conference participants.

Galileo himself was the subject of an entire evening of special events the first night of the conference, while a slightly more recent hero of skepticism, the conjuror and investigator James Randi, was feted the second night (see side stories). Randi also gave a talk earlier that day on “difficult, innocent, and impossible applicants” for his $1 million challenge to psychic claimants.

CICAP Chairman Steno Ferluga, professor of astrophysics at the University of Trieste, opened the conference with a basic statement of the meeting. CICAP, CSICOP, and the skeptical movement represent a “new thing,” he said. “Finally there exists a network of people to find answers, offer corrections, and provide accurate information on popular mysteries.”

This “light of reason” can help confine paranormal beliefs to those who want to believe, instead of to all those previously innocently confused by misinformation about claims once ignored by scientists. “We skeptics don’t deny mysterious events,” he said. “We come here to solve them.”

In his opening remarks, CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz, professor emeritus of philosophy at SUNY—Buffalo, noted that he had come to Italy three times beginning twenty years ago to encourage Italian scientists and skeptics to organize a group. He said he was pleased with the subsequent work of that group, which has high visibility in Italy, and the grand conference it had organized. The modern skeptical movement has provided “a critical scientific examination” of popular claims and “a whole new literature,” Kurtz said. But he gave equal emphasis to a “second principle” of the movement: “to explicate and defend science and reason and the scientific outlook. . . . We are interested in cultivating public appreciation of science.”

“This is positive,” he said “—carrying to the general public our appreciation of this powerful invention, the discovery of truth about nature through experimental science.”

So in this mission, Kurtz said, “the skeptical movement has moved on . . . to other equally important things.”

Kurtz spoke admiringly of Galileo. “In one sense,” he said, “Galileo is a symbol of skeptical inquiry. He questioned authority. He rejected authority—Aristotle, the Church.

“Galileo is the great martyr to the skeptical cause,” Kurtz said. He rejected occult explanations, and he championed a new method involving experimentation, hypotheses, theories, and mathematics.

“Galileo was a heroic figure, a great skeptic,” said Kurtz. “He was not a dogmatic skeptic, but thought that there were reliable methods for achieving knowledge.”

And one more point from Kurtz: “Science and skepticism go hand in hand. Skepticism is a great tool of science.”

Thus began three sparkling days of presentations, discussions, questions, entertainment (including a lunchtime first-ever performance of “skeptical” arias from famous operas), and special events and demonstrations.

It was a truly international conference, with attendees from twenty countries. Speakers heralded from Argentina, Belgium, Canada, China, Egypt, Germany, Italy, France, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The conference language was English, with simultaneous translation into Italian, although occasionally that was reversed.

Formal conference sessions dealt with parapsychology (moderated by Ray Hyman, University of Oregon); hoaxes, fakes, and myths (Lorenzo Montali, University of Milan); investigating historical myths (Massimo Polidoro, University of Milan—his column in this issue on fact and fiction about the Kennedy assassination is based on his presentation); magic and the psychology of deception (Sergio Della Sala, University of Edinburgh); the future of skepticism and a world skeptics update (Barry Karr, CSICOP); and how alternative medicine can be hazardous to your health (Silvio Garattini, Mario Negri Institute, Milan). Three or four leading figures in these fields spoke in each session, followed by a lively question period.

Only a few highlights can be mentioned here, some brief examples. CICAP plans to eventually publish a book based on the conference proceedings.

The opening session, “Parapsychology and Skeptics: Is Dialogue Possible?” had a bittersweet quality because the scheduled leadoff speaker, Robert L. Morris, professor of parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh and highly respected by both skeptics and parapsychologists, had died unexpectedly in August. He was only sixty.

Carolyn Watt, a senior research fellow at Edinburgh’s Koestler Parapsychology Unit, which Morris had established and headed, gave a talk in his stead, dedicated to him. She spoke on “productive and unproductive interactions” between parapsychologists and skeptics, urging more of the former and less of the latter. In the productive category are “direct, personal, involvement and collaborations,” much like Hyman has done in the past with Charles Honorton or that Richard Wiseman has carried out in the U.K. Unproductive interactions include debates at a distance, which become increasingly polemical, and unsupported and sweeping statements, including unscientific rhetoric and misrepresenting opponents’ views.

Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire), who has high visibility in the U.K. as a psychologist who involves parapsychologists, the media, and the public in his investigations, spoke of some of his recent experiments, including research with a medium described recently in The Times (U.K.) and his “Mind Machine,” a multimedia interactive kiosk that invites the public to participate in an extrasensory perception experiment. In 139,000 trials with 28,856 people, he said, the hits amounted to 49.90 percent —“chance,” he reported. “No evidence of ESP.” He said this is an example of how skeptics can do research that involves the public.

As for Carolyn Watts’s call for more interactions between skeptics and parapsychologists, Wiseman agreed, to a point. “Should we collaborate if the research is about genuine open inquiry? Yes,” he said. Skeptical psychologists can and have helped mightily with a number of parapsychology experiments, he said, tightening up controls and finding small errors, which can easily creep in. But too many parapsychological researchers have another aim altogether, he said. “There are people who are certain of the answers,” he said. “They are engaged in a process of persuasion, not inquiry, and they have an agenda. CSICOP looks at these people very carefully. Should we collaborate with them? No.”

James Alcock (York University, Toronto) described why parapsychology, despite its long history of research, some of it involving eminent scientists, still has gained no status as a science and is in fact ignored by most scientists. There is no unambiguous definition of a psi phenomenon, no strongly replicated effect, no theory offered, no consistency with other areas of science, and no progressive accumulation of knowledge. “Despite a long history, parapsychology does not have a single acknowledged ‘fact,’” said Alcock.

Furthermore, he said that collaboration with parapsychologists is difficult. “Parapsychologists can’t propose what would disconfirm psi,” he lamented. “To them, finding nothing doesn’t count. . . . We can help by being respectful and constructive and by being hard-nosed and critical. But the problem is that the failure to find supporting evidence will not dampen parapsychological zeal.”

The session on investigating historical mysteries featured several interesting case studies. CSICOP’s senior research fellow and SI “Investigative Files” columnist Joe Nickell reported on his investigations into such cases as the Flatwood Monster, the Nazca lines, and the Shroud of Turin. Researcher Mariano Tomatis (Turin, Italy) described his investigations into the “Da Vinci code” story, and Luigi Garlaschelli (University of Pavia) described his literally hands-on investigations into the “real sword in the stone” (in Italy). Randi’s previously mentioned talk followed. We hope to have articles based on several of these presentations in future issues.

In the “Hoaxes, Fakes, and Myths” session, archaeologist Kenneth Feder (Central Connecticut State University) gave a revealing report on media dynamics intriguingly and accurately titled “Atlantis in Fantasyland: Making a Mickey Mouse Television Documentary About the Lost Continent.” He told of his experiences a few years ago with a producer of an ABC television documentary about Atlantis. The producer told Feder he was looking for an archaeologist who was pro-Atlantis. Feder told him there were none, because Atlantis didn’t exist. When Feder asked why they made that request, the producer pointed out that the ABC network was owned by the Disney company, which was about to launch its animated film about Atlantis and implied that they expected ABC to make a documentary that would leave open the possibility that Atlantis was real. (For critiques of both the ABC show and the Atlantis myth, see SI, January/February 2002.)

One of the highlights for many members of the audience was moving talks by two speakers from Egypt, Mourad Whaba (professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Ain Shams in Cairo and president of the Afro-Asian Philosophy Association) and Mona Abousenna, a professor at the same university. Abousenna described the extraordinary challenges and perils of even speaking about skeptical inquiry and rationalism in an Islamic country like Egypt. Many seemed moved by her courage and determination. In answer to a question, Professor Whaba said, “My students like me, but they don’t like my ideas.” At the same session was Prof. Edward Kruglyakov of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who reported on efforts by Russian scientists to criticize anti-science, and Li Sheng Xian, a representative of a five-member Chinese delegation.

The conference concluded with a lively session of critical examinations of evidence about alternative medicine. A few excerpts:

Edzard Ernst (Professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, U.K.) On herbal remedies: “We have convincing positive data for nine herbal remedies (especially St. John’s Wort, for mild to moderate depression), but not thousands [as frequently claimed].”

On acupuncture: “There is limited evidence that acupuncture is better than no treatment at all. There is inconclusive evidence that acupuncture is better than a placebo.”

On spiritual healing: “The majority of rigorous trials show no effect beyond placebo.”

Ernst’s conclusion: “High quality research is scarce. Bias is rife. For some CAM [Complementary and Alternative Medicine] treatments the risk/benefit ratio is positive. But for most, we don’t know.”

Barry Beyerstein (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia): “The curriculum of the Dominion Herbal College in Vancouver—the leading college of herbalism in North America—exhibits every characteristic of pseudoscience in [CSICOP Fellow and McGill University philosophy professor] Mario Bunge’s list” (Bunge, “What Is Pseudoscience?” Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1984).

Riccardo Lucio (University of Florence): “Homeopathy is useful. . . . It is useful to the industry, to the sellers, and to the homeopaths. But it is highly questionable if it is of use to patients.”

Wallace Sampson (professor of medicine, Stanford, and editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine) gave a blunt assessment of what he calls “the political takeover in the U.S.” by alternative medicine.

“Never in the history of medicine has there been anything like this before,” he said. “It is an organized invasion of pseudoscience into the scientific edifice of medicine. It is pervasive, surreptitious, and purposeful. It is not a conspiracy; it is simply the way people act in groups.”

How do they do it? By using the “language of distortion” (alternative medicine instead of quackery or pseudoscience) and by demeaning science (postmodernism and relativism), he said. Proponents’ invention of language is calculated to produce a positive response. He said they have become astute in what he called “info-ganda,” the combination of information and propaganda. They have been effective in manipulating opinion in nonprofit foundations, the news media, books, and even the medical press, which “has a bias against publishing negative articles.” They have found abundant sources of funding both from government (especially in the U.S., through the support of key congressional leaders) and from spiritual/ religious organizations. He sees the problem getting worse, not better.

Silvio Garattini, professor of pharmacology and director of the Mario Negri Institute in Milan, summed up the session. “I wonder if by using gentler terms like alternative medicine and complementary medicine, we are disserving science,” he said. “‘Quackery’ and ‘fakery’” is what we are talking about. “We must use what has proved to be effective.”

And he spoke of the frustrating illogic of homeopathy. Its remedies are “all the same and contain nothing. How can you test that?” The burden of proof is on the homeopathic community to provide proof that its remedies are efficacious, he said. “But they are not willing.”

In his concluding remarks, Paul Kurtz called the conference “inspiring.” He lamented the escape from reason in the health fields, among others. “Not believing in things without evidence is still a radical thesis,” he said. “We are still attempting to hold the torch of scientific reason and inquiry.” He said there are still many “committed to the Enlightenment” but the “danger that we will move away from the scientific outlook is very real. . . . We have a set of ideals. These ideals are very important, and we need to keep the torch of reason lit.”

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.