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The New Paranatural Paradigm: Special APS Session Examines Pseudoscience


Donald Mainfort

Volume 24.4, July / August 2000

The biggest physics meeting of the year featured a broad range of assessments from CSICOP panelists of pseudoscience and the paranormal in education, the media, and public perception.

When the American Physical Society held its meeting in Minneapolis March 20-24, 5,000 physicists presented the latest findings in areas like condensed matter physics, materials sciences, chemical physics, biological physics, fluid dynamics, polymer physics, and applied physics. The newsroom was abuzz about a chemist’s report of his incredible DNA nanotechnology devices and news of other nanotechnology advancements in the self-assembly of periodic matter.

But there was something even a little more unusual at this APS meeting. A CSICOP panel presented a special session on the problems of pseudoscience, titled “The Skeptical Inquirer on the New Paranatural Paradigm.” The interest was so great the session had to be moved to the convention center’s 700-seat ballroom.

CSICOP founder and chairman Paul Kurtz, professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo, opened the session, addressing what he calls the emerging “paranatural paradigm.” This encompasses such ideas as beliefs in God, ghosts, angels and the design theory of “creation science"-none of which are a part of the natural world. But protagonists insist they have proof to substantiate their claims, so in response, Kurtz outlined how such life-after-death questions and “evidence” have been scrutinized for for more than 150 years-with no positive results. Beginning with the Fox sisters in 1848, all kinds of reports of apparitions, ghosts, rapping noises, table turnings, teleportation, levitation, and the summoning up of the dead at sŽances have been firmly laid to rest. All of these hoaxes were found to be nothing more remarkable or mysterious than the tapping of toe joints, feet, knees and other silly tricks.

In recent decades there has been a revival of interest in survival after death with reports of “channelers” (a new name for mediums) such as James Van Praagh, John Edwards, and Sylvia Browne who claim to communicate directly with the deceased. The mass media are saturated with uncritical psychic presentations, which have fueled a new revival of religion and spiritualism. Kurtz said independent corroboration is sorely lacking and all that remains are the eyewitness accounts, which have proven to be highly unreliable.

Science is advancing at an astonishing rate and yet much of the general populace, it appears, still chooses to abandon the natural in favor of the supernatural. Some of the terminology of the spiritualists has changed to satisfy current tastes, but the products remain the same. All of them, said Kurtz, seek to exploit the strong psychological denial that can often accompany the loss of a loved one.

Kurtz also reviewed recent claims made on behalf of near-death research. He said it was highly questionable that resuscitated patients meet discarnate persons on the other side. What is being described is the dying process; here naturalistic psychological and physiological causes more parsimoniously fit the data. Concluded Kurtz: “As far as we know, the death of the body entails the death of physiological functions, consciousness, and the personality, and there is no reason to believe that ghosts hover and communicate with us. I realize that this flies in the face of what the preponderance of humans wish to believe, but science should deal as best it can with what is the case, not with what we would like it to be.”

CSICOP’s veteran investigator Joe Nickell, sporting an alien patterned necktie, took the audience on a whirlwind joyride through the history of UFOlogy. He gave a quick run-down of “flying saucer” mythology, and he showed a frame from the infamous ”Alien Autopsy” film-introducing the fine specimen on the operating table as hailing “from the planet Latex.” Among other discrepancies in the film, a sign on the wall in the background dated from the 1960s (the film was supposedly made in 1947). From there he discussed claims of people who say they have had contact with or been abducted by aliens.

As crazy as such stories might seem, Nickell said few alien abduction reports appear to be hoaxes. Most seem instead to come from “sincere, sane individuals.” But after a pause he added that “not one has been authenticated, though” and he referred to paranormal explanations as “arguing from ignorance,” where the lack of an explanation gives rise to the need to invent one.

The incubus and the succubus were ancient Greek demons that used their evil powers to suck the life from people while they slept. These demons may well have been the precursors to today’s groping space aliens who are also reported to enjoy sneaking into our bedrooms at night. Past experience shows that some of these claims can in fact be the result of sleep-related phenomena (notably "waking dreams") and other psychological factors.

“As is typical of other mythologies, the alien myth involves supernormal beings that may interact with humans, and it purports to explain the workings of the universe and humanity’s place within it,” Nickell said. He ended with a reminder that these beliefs can be taken to a frightening level of absurdity, as seen in the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. But he cautioned that strange reports should not be dismissed out of hand. “They should be examined.”

The old battle of science versus creationism still plagues the nation’s public schools. Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, identifies the latest antievolution movement to emerge: Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC). IDC is another version of William Paley’s 1801 “Argument from Design,” which would have us believe that the unique structure and complexity of nature could never have been possible simply by “chance” (a major misunderstanding of the process of evolution). Offering examples from cell biology and biochemistry, they insist that the universe must have an all-powerful designer.

Traditional antievolutionists such as the “Young Earth Creationists” (YECs) hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible: that the universe (including living things) was created in its present form and has not changed much since the “creation” that was written about in the Bible. To them, Earth is no more than 10,000 years old.

Unlike their YEC predecessors, the updated IDC’s most prominent advocates are academics associated with secular universities, such as lawyer Phillip Johnson of UC-Berkeley and biochemist Michael Behe of Lehigh University. The novelty seems to be that academic credentials and respectable titles are used in an attempt to proselytize with greater authority.

“Like the YECs, the IDCs stress alleged 'weaknesses’ in evolution more than positive evidence for their position and they propose that supernatural explanations substitute for and be labeled as science,” said Scott. Although the most prominent IDCs are based at secular universities, she said they produce little in the way of refereed academic articles, though great quantities of popular materials are disseminated informally. IDC books have made their way into science, philosophy of science, and other nonscience courses where students may be confused and misled into thinking that evolution is only another form of belief.

Scott said the main problem for the IDC’s is their failure to grasp the significance of selection in evolution. She advised that creationists wishing to claim any genuine scientific validation must first establish some way to test the predictions of creationism, and to do so by following the rules of science.

Physicist Victor J. Stenger is a well-published author on subjects relevant to the APS session (Physics and Psychics, The Unconscious Quantum). Long a professor of physics at University of Hawaii, Stenger concluded the session with an appropriate topic: Paraphysics: Physics Misused and Misinterpreted. Many physicists in the audience were eagerly waiting to hear one of their own address this issue.

Stenger showed examples of how quantum mechanics is often misinterpreted as implying the reality of extrasensory perception on the cosmic scale. Proponents of alternative medicine, for example, use the terms “energy” and “quantum” to suggest a scientific basis for “energy therapies” and mind-over-matter healing. Bio-energy field therapies such as therapeutic touch, acupuncture, and qigong are often justified with twisted arguments from quantum physics. In truth, he noted, there is no support for the notion that some “vital force,” or other form of energy exists separate from matter. Stenger said these ancient beliefs had long been disproved, stressing that in modern physics, matter and energy are the same thing and therefore could never connect everything in the universe instantaneously. Quantum fields do not represent a continuous medium, or “ether.” And no fields of any kind exist in theory or reality without particles, so continuous fields cannot exist.

“Mind and consciousness are not independent of matter. The brain is wired to the body, not to other bodies,” he said. Stenger had the audience chuckling several times, as he briefly touched on some of the wackier attempts to misuse physics by such people as Deepak Chopra, Joan Stafantos, and physicist Paul Davies. One member of the audience complained that it is impossible to totally disprove the energy field theory. Perhaps it is there, he said, but we have not yet been able to detect it. Stenger reminded him that an extraordinary burden of proof falls on those who advance any claim that implies the overthrow of well-established scientific principles.

As the conference adjourned, one question remained: How can skeptics and scientists work to improve the image of science for the general public? American Institute of Physics press coordinator Phillip Schewe said that skeptical inquiry can sometimes be too heavy-handed, resulting in a backlash of sympathy for psychics and pseudoscientists. But APS director of public affairs Robert Park, himself an active investigator of pseudoscience (his book Voodoo Science is reviewed in this issue), had this to say on the matter: “I try always to avoid ridicule of nonscientists who are taken in by pseudoscientists. I see the much greater problem as scientists who are too timid or too busy to explain to the public that they are being misled. When the public is fooled, I blame us. But as for the pseudoscientists themselves, I see no reason at all to spare their feelings.”

But some argue that certain pseudoscientists genuinely believe in what they are doing and are not intentionally committing fraud. What harm is there in humoring them? Park disagrees for this reason: “Pseudoscience after all is not merely bad science. It is an attempt to hijack the symbols and language of science for values that are not our values.” Park’s direct approach has resulted in the thorough debunking of such things as “Vitamin O” and “free energy.”

The excitement of scientific discovery-like that found at this APS convention-must become more accessible to non-scientists. Participants repeatedly called for requiring technical writing courses for all graduate science students, and for more serious attention to the presentation of refereed articles. If scientists have trouble packaging information aimed at their peers, how can the public ever be expected to muddle through it? The University of Maryland is currently instituting a program of Science Communication for science graduate students. Lui Lam, professor of physics at San Jose State University, suggested the integration of popular science books into non-major physics courses to make the learning process more interesting and thus, sustainable for them. Several attendees praised Carl Sagan as a rare example of how the wonders of nature really can be presented in such a way as to compete successfully with the occult.

The findings of the CSICOP panel strongly indicate that, until further notice, there simply is no plausible evidence of extraterrestrial visitors, or of ghosts who intervene in our affairs, or of gods who might have designed the universe. The new cast of wizards and shamans have merely relabeled the previous, tired old routines: mediums are now called “channelers"; the incubus is now a highly intelligent alien with mystifying technology; preachers now wish to be called scientists; and the bio-energetic force field has replaced the ether of Vitalism. But, amidst all of the charlatans and the persistent media hype that is lavished upon them, we may all reasonably rest assured that the same fundamental laws of physics still apply-to everyone.

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Donald Mainfort

Donald Mainfort, who has lectured, taught English, and traveled extensively in China, now writes from Minneapolis.