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Multicultural Pseudoscience: Spreading Scientific Illiteracy Among Minorities


Bernard Ortiz De Montellano

Volume 16.1, Fall 1991

There is general agreement that minorities are underrepresented in science and engineering. There is also agreement that it could be useful to give young people in minority groups examples of the role minority researchers play and have played in science. Unfortunately, one widely distributed attempt to do this will increase scientific illiteracy and impede the recruitment of African-American children into scientific careers.

In 1987, the Portland, Oregon, school district published the African-American Baseline Essays, a set of six essays to be read by all teachers and whose contents are to be infused into the teaching of various subjects in all grades. The purpose of the essays is to provide resource materials and references for teachers so that hey can use the knowledge and contributions of Africans and African-Americans in their classes. The Science Baseline Essay, titled “African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology” (Adams 1990), was written by Hunter Haviland Adams, who claims to be a research scientist at Argonne National Labortory. Actually, Adams is an industrial-hygiene technician who “does no research on any topic at Argonne,” and his highest degree is a high school diploma (Baurac 1991).

The Science Baseline Essay follows a pattern familiar to students of pseudoscience. It is a farrago of extraordinary claims with little or no evidence; it argues for the existence of the paranormal and advocates the use of religion as a part of the scientific paradigm. No distinction is made between information drawn from popular magazines, vanity press books, and the scientific literature, and quotations are often not attributed or are not accurate. There are a number of references to the existence and scientific validity of the paranormal in the context of its use by the ancient Egyptians. In this work, Egyptians are considered to be black and their culture is claimed as ancestral to African-Americans.

Adams mentions the use of the zodiac and of “astropsychological treatises” by Egyptians. He clearly implies that it is science. Elsewhere he has stated that astrology is based in science and that “at birth every living thing has a celestial serial number or frequency power spectrum” (Adams 1987). The Science Baseline Essay also states that the ancient Egyptians were “famous as masters of psi, precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing and other undeveloped human capabilities.” It argues that there is a distinction between magic, which is not scientific, and “psychoenergetics,” which is, but gives no basis to distinguish one from the other. It defines psychoenergetics as the “multidisciplinary study of the interface and interaction of human consciousness with energy and matter” and states that it is a true scientific discipline. The essay says that Egyptian professional psi engineers, hekau, were able to use these forces efficaciously and that psi has been researched and demonstrated in controlled laboratory and field experiments today. Apparently this is why Aaron T. Curtis, who is identified as an electrical engineer and psychoenergeticist, is included in a list of African-American contributors to science at the same level as Benjamin Banneker, George Washington Carver, and Ernest E. Just.

The essay is aimed primarily at grade-school teachers, many of whom suffer from science illiteracy. Thus this essay, endorsed by a school district, prepared by someone identified as a research scientist at Argonne, and written using scientific-sounding jargon, is certain to influence some teachers to accept psi as a scientifically valid concept. The effect will be that many minority - and majority - children will be taught in their science classes that psi is valid, in addition to being subjected to the usual barrage of “New Age” material.

Another fundamental problem is the claim in the Baseline Essay that Egyptian religion was supposed to be a key organizing principle of Egyptian society. This included beliefs such as: (1) Acknowledgment of a Supreme Consciousness or Creative Force, (2) Existence via Divine Self Organization, (3) A Living Universe, (4) Material and Transmaterial Cause and Effect, (5) Consciousness Surviving the Dissolution of the Body, and (6) Emphasis on Inner Experiences for Acquiring Knowledge. According to the Baseline Essay, Maat represented the first set of scientific paradigms and was the basis from which “ancient Egyptians did all types of scientific investigations.” Adams admits that Maat’s paradigms are antithetical to those of Western science. But an unsophisticated audience will see the long list of claimed early Egyptian discoveries and successes in science presented in the Baseline Essay as evidence that Maat is equivalent to or better than the standard scientific method. This approach, just like that of the “scientific” creationists, violates the First Amendment’s clause on separation of church and state because it confuses the fundamental distinction between science, which can only use natural laws to explain observed phenomena, and religion. This distinction was crucial in the ruling of judge Overton in McLean vs. Arkansas that teaching “scientific” creationism violated the First Amendment.

The key question is whether children in public schools are going to be taught that religion (under the guise of “Egyptian science”) equals science. Apart from the questionable constitutionality of teaching religion (be it Christian or Egyptian) in the public schools, it will be a great disservice to minority children to teach them such a distorted view of what constitutes science. Minorities are already greatly underrepresented in science and engineering. Teaching them pseudoscience will result in making it much more difficult for these young people to pursue scientific curricula because they will face ridicule at the point they encounter a true science class.

Egyptian religion and ethics can be taught in comparative religion courses or in social studies, but that is quite a distance from teaching that Egyptian religion is essential to Egyptian “science” and that it is superior or equal to “Western” science. Teaching morality and ethics is compatible with teaching science. Ethical principles like honesty, truth, and respect for others are involved in science. Science also involves others, such as justice, equality, and avoidance of harm to others, in evaluating the consequences of research. These factors, however, do not apply when explaining and understanding scientific phenomena, when only natural laws may be used. The Second Law of Thermodynamics does not have a supernatural or an ethical component. Its application in particular cases might have consequences that raise moral and ethical questions, and these might require discussion, but this is quite different from teaching that supernatural (or transmaterial) causes are acceptable explanations in science.

A very basic question is involved in the use of the Baseline Essay. What is its purpose in the curriculum? Do we want to teach science as it is usually conceived or do we wish to proselytize? How is a teacher to present this section to a class? To say that Egyptian science uses the supernatural, but that Western science does not, with the implication that Egyptian science is better or equal will only perpetuate scientific illiteracy. How will students learn to distinguish science from astrology, channeling, crystal healing, telekinesis, psychic surgery, and the myriad of other New Age pseudoscientific nonsense that is floating about?

We can also apply to the Baseline Essay the two basic principles to remember when confronting paranormal claims (cited by Gill 1991:271): i.e., that the burden of proof is on the claimant and that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs. A number of outlandish claims about the accomplishments of Ancient Egypt are made with little or no evidence. For example, on the basis of a creation myth in which the word evolved is used, the Baseline Essay claims that Egyptians had a theory of species evolution “at least 2,000 years before Charles Darwin developed his theory.” On the basis of a 6” x 7” tailless, bird-shaped object found in the Cairo Museum, supposedly a scale model of a glider, Adams says that Egyptians had full-size gliders 4,000 years ago and “used their early planes for travel, expeditions, and recreation.” The Essay credulously repeats assertions that certain dimensions of the Great Pyramid reveal and encode knowledge about the 26,000-year cycle of the equinoxes and the acceleration of gravity. He also claims that Egyptians electroplated gold and silver 4,000 years ago and had developed copper / iron batteries some 2,000 years ago.

One extended example illustrates the level of argument employed. Without citing a reference, the Essay states that the Egyptians had an effective pregnancy test: “A sample of a woman’s urine was sprinkled on growing barley grains; if they failed to grow, the woman was considered not pregnant. Modern experiments show this method was effective in about 40 percent of tested cases...” These purported “modern experiments” show that the Egyptian method is inferior to flipping a coin; the latter would have a 50-percent success rate. The Baseline Essay misquotes and distorts the true sense of the passage. A complete citation from the Berlin Papyrus (Manniche 1989) reads: “Barley [Hordeum vulgare] and emmer [Triticum dicoccum]. The woman must moisten it with urine every day like [she does the] dates and the sand, after it has been placed in two bags. If both grow, she will give birth. If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the emmer grows, it means a female child. If neither grows, she will not give birth.” Since the word for barley in Egyptian is masculine and that for emmer is feminine, this is a classical example of magical procedure, which follows the Law of Similarities used in magical procedures everywhere.

The Baseline Essay is a classical example of pseudoscience, but because of the current pressure on school districts to incorporate multicultural material into the classroom and the dearth of this kind of material, it has been widely distributed. Hundreds of copies of the Baseline Essays have been sent to school districts across the country. Carolyn Leonard, Coordinator of Multicultural/Multiethnic Education for the Portland Public Schools, has given more than 50 presentations on the Baseline Essays. These have been adopted or are being seriously considered by school districts as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The Baseline Essay has been used for several years in Portland, and has been adopted by the Detroit Public Schools. Hunter Adams, sponsored by D. C. Heath Publishers, was a featured speaker at a conference to stimulate and to train science teachers held by the Detroit Public Schools on April 27, 1991. A workshop on “African Contributions to Science and Technology” presented undiluted material from the Baseline Essay, including the use of gliders by Egyptians 4,000 years ago, without a murmur of dissent from an audience composed of grade-school science teachers.

Concerned scientists need to develop reliable and scientifically valid curricular material that deals with Africa and African Americans. There is much in Egypt that would be useful, shorn of its New Age accretions. For example, the building of the pyramids can be usefully developed into lessons about mechanics, there is interesting technology involved in irrigation, and we owe the division of the day and night into twelve hours each to the Egyptians. Scientists and concerned citizens need to question their schools to see if they have adopted or are considering the Baseline Essay. We should protest the inclusion of erroneous material that makes unsupported claims, introduces religion under the guise of science, and claims that the paranormal exists. The critical need to increase the supply of minority scientists requires that they be taught science at its best rather than a parody.


Bernard Ortiz De Montellano

Bernard Ortiz De Montellano is emeritus professor of anthropology at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.