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Credulity in Puerto Rico

Etienne C. Rios

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.3, September 1994

Puerto Rico, by virtue of being a United States territory, is subject to just about every cultural trend that visits the mainland. The media is heavily influenced by their American equivalent, along with the fact that cable-TV is available throughout the island, spreading information and misinformation alike. Supermarkets overflow with tabloids, not only with familiar ones like the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News but also with their Spanish-language counterparts from all over Latin America.

Having this in mind, it is certainly no surprise that fringe science is alive and well in Puerto Rico. The media there often report on weeping icons, UFO sightings and alleged alien abductions, miracle healings, and even the local version of Bigfoot. Television and print coverage is unashamedly uncritical of such reports. Even insignificant and easy-to- dismiss claims are given inordinate amounts of coverage on local talk-shows, contributing to the public’s belief that there must be something to them. The academic community is not exempt from such beliefs either. I still remember when a psychology professor of mine planned a class trip to see a replica of the Shroud of Turin on display in a nearby shopping mall. “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said, “empirical evidence of a miracle.” I dropped the course that afternoon.

At one time, the university I attended sponsored a talk by Duane T. Gish, the creationism champion. Around 60 people attended the presentation and nearly every one of them was a supporter of creation science. I could see the nods and smiles of assent at everything Gish said. It was amusing to see that some of them seemed to agree with his ideas even when they did not know what he was talking about. For example, after the talk, I asked a fellow student sitting in front of me why he agreed with Gish. “I really cannot say for sure. He seems to know what he’s talking about,” he replied.

It appeared that there were only three skeptics in the room: a friend of mine, a professor of biochemistry, and myself. During the question period, the biochemistry professor took the opportunity to debate Gish on the issue of the probability of amino acids assembling themselves so as to permit the development of life, a topic Gish had discussed early in his talk. After an exchange of impressions, Gish decided to end the argument by questioning the professor’s credentials, saying something to the effect that she was not qualified to speak on those matters. Just for the record, she had a Ph.D. in biochemistry and her dissertation had been on that very topic.

The pervasiveness of fringe-science claims among the Puerto Rican culture was patently laid out for me while I was working at a local bookstore in the metropolitan area. As in the U.S., the self-help and New Age sections attracted the most people and accounted for a large part of the sales. Top-sellers included astrology literature, books on the so-called medical alternatives to Western medicine, reincarnation/past-lives accounts, and practically anything written by Edgar Cayce, Carlos Castaneda, and the late Norman Vincent Peale. (Curiously, Shirley McLaine was not in demand.)

Among my duties at the bookstore was to order the books for the Science, Philosophy, Science Fiction, and Psychology sections. At times I would order books critical of pseudoscience and the paranormal to include them in the science section. Needless to say, they did not sell well at all. Just about the only copies sold were those I acquired for personal enjoyment. I quit the job a year ago (for unrelated reasons), and I would bet that the skeptical books are still sitting on the shelf, waiting to be savored, while in the meantime pseudoscientific titles are bought as quickly as they can be restocked.

I remember at one time asking the owner of the store— half-jokingly—why he carried so many books of questionable quality, to which he replied, quite predictably: “I know most of it is rubbish. However, it sells and ultimately provides for your paycheck.” I had considered asking him to include the Skeptical Inquirer in the magazine rack, but after this I knew better.

Working in the bookstore was interesting also because people with altogether different outlooks were working together. There we were, the oriental philosophy junkie, the New Age buff, the UFO proponent, the religious devotee, the parapsychology supporter, and me, the lonesome skeptic. On more than one occasion I found myself engaged in lively argument with one or more of my co-workers on matters paranormal. As is usually the case, nothing was accomplished. To this date, I still receive letters from my good friend the New Age enthusiast urging me to “get in touch with my sensitive self” and reminding me there are other wonderful things out there that science “can’t even hope to envision.” Oh, well.

Etienne C. Rios

Etienne C. Rios is on the staff of the Skeptical Inquirer and a graduate student in Interdisciplinary Social Science at the State University of New York at Buffalo.