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Nutty Professors, or Some Addled Academics?

A Skeptic's Notebook

Robert Baker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 4.4, December 1994

Journalists and other observers of the passing parade not so long ago used to refer to certain periods or times of the year as “the silly season.” The reference was due to an unusually large number of odd or bizarre events occurring within a short period of time. Recent happenings on our college campuses suggest we're having another “silly season.” If we extend the period of time to cover the past few years, I am convinced that college professors—normally stable, sane, and sedate sorts of individuals—are suffering from some very serious sorts of ailments brought on by an overactive imagination and a lack of critical discernment.

Last month, for example, Frank Tipler, a professor of physics at Tulane University, published a book with the fascinating title The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God, and the Resurrection of the Dead (Doubleday, 1994). Normally a sane and sober scientist, Tipler, who is a reviewer for Nature and co-author (with astrophysicist John Barrow) of the respected 1986 book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, in this latest work seems to have lost his bearing. Tipler, of course, demurs and insists that his mathematical model of the end of the universe proves irrefutably not only the existence of God but also the fact that every human being who has ever lived will be resurrected from the dead in the far distant future. According to Tipler, there is no other possibility. Then, asked to reduce his “Omega Point” theory to one sentence, Tipler replied: “God, who is a personal being who created the universe out of nothing, exists, loves us, and will one day resurrect us all to live in heaven forever.” If this sounds to you more like theology than science then you are in good company. Needless to say, it will come as no surprise to learn that Tipler is also a Roman Catholic as well as a physicist. Most reviewers of Tipler’s book claim he is daft and deluded or like a wily fox, out to sell theology in a new way. If you have the stamina, training, expertise, and patience to follow Tipler’s arguments point by painful point you may be persuaded that some of his arguments are sound. Nevertheless, you will really need God’s wisdom and the help of many of his angels merely to follow Tipler’s arguments and conclude that everything that has ever lived will be resurrected as it formerly was.

If you are sincerely interested in such weighty and wild speculations you will be much better off and more comforted with David Lindley’s more modest and humble little book The End of Physics: The Myth of a Unified Theory (Basic Books, 1993). Lindley does a superb job of deflating all such vast and half-vast claims recently set forth by speculative physicists that we are now on the verge of a Theory of Everything that will explain everything and end human questioning. Incredibly, the same claims were made around the turn of this century, just before Einstein and Planck and relativity and quantum theory. Tipler, however, is not alone. Professors from one end of the nation to the other (and even overseas) are becoming more and more willing to crawl out on the end of some very thin and shaky limbs. At the University of California in Berkeley, for example, a professor of environmental psychology has started a $100 per hour House Counseling Service. The Professor has his clients “role play” with their homes. The owner or owners speak to their houses airing all of their feelings about what they like and do not like about them. Once all their feelings have been aired, they shift roles and play the house—talking back to the owners, telling them what is wrong with their behavior. According to the prof, “Just as some people perpetuate destructive relationships—some people keep finding themselves in unsuitable houses.” Eventually, if a divorce is the only solution because of irreconcilable differences between house and owner, a realtor is reached and the two parties part. If disagreements are small then renovation or behavior changes can patch up the quarrel. One can only assume that the professor also has a share of the realtor’s profits and a hand in the decorator’s business.

In case you have ever been concerned about human and animal rights, you now have, according to the British botany professor Malcolm Wilkins, a third area of concern: the rights of plants. Plants, like other living things, have feelings and are sensitive to injury and pain. How does the good professor know this? Well it seems that plants make inaudible crackling noises when they want water. Just how Wilkins knows they make noises that are inaudible is an entirely unrelated question. Perhaps Wilkins has been consulting with Cleve Backster, the scientist who a few years back was attaching electrodes to stems and leaves and getting feedback he interpreted as emotions. If plants do have feelings and emotions, we are in deep trouble. What, pray tell, will we eat if we can neither be herbivorous nor carnivorous?

Next, we were recently made aware of the work of Felicitas Goodman, a professor of English and folklore at Indiana University. In her 1990 book Where the Spirits Ride the Winds: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences (Indiana University Press, Bloomington) Goodman tells of her discovery of special trance states that lead to all sorts of supernatural powers and contact with spirits both living and dead. The secret lies, Goodman tells us, in following native shamanic techniques, which seem to consist of placing the human body on a slanted board tilted at exactly 37° from the vertical. Once you are tilted you then have to be rhythmically stimulated. This can be done with a tape recording of a drum or a rattle or preferably both. The beat, however, must be even and rather fast: 200 to 210 beats per minute for a 15-minute session will suffice when accompanied by proper breathing exercises. During one’s time on the board, the right arm should be bent at the elbow with the left arm straight and the left hand pointed toward the body. What are the rewards for time on the board? Why, goodies galore! If one keeps at these spirit-journeys one can contact the spirits, access the chakras, learn divination, acquire the gift of healing, learn to shape change, acquire paranormal skills, and attain life everlasting! It is also important that all beginners have a companion, preferably Goodman, who understands the process. In fact, she has been at the slant-board business since 1977. So far, she has held more than 80 workshops and has had a total of 890 participants—592 women and 298 men, with repeat attendances of 159 women and 68 men. Goodman’s posturing is specifically designed to take the believers to the world in the sky, the middle world where other humans live, to the lower world, or out to sea. One can’t help but wonder what would happen if Goodman tilted her board to, say, 38° or maybe even 50?

Then there is the anthropology professor Grover Krantz, of Washington State University in Pullman, who collects Bigfoot-prints and has just published the fascinating book Big Foot-prints: A Scientific Inquiry into the Reality of Sasquatch (Johnson Books, Boulder, Col.). Krantz apparently believes in Bigfoot and will not accept no for an answer. Although most anthropologists flatly reject the idea that a primate (as big as Bigfoot is supposed to be) could live undetected in North America, Krantz attempts to prove the creature’s existence with neither a corpse nor a live specimen. Not only is Krantz easily fooled (see “Bigfoot Evidence: Are These Tracks Real?” in SI, Fall 1994, by Michael R. Dennett) but he goes so far as to claim there are literally millions of Bigfoot tracks. Of course there are not. Krantz also argues that logging companies are paying people to spread wild tales about Bigfoot to discredit the search. According to Krantz, if Sasquatches are found they will be declared endangered and logging will be restricted.

We must also mention three other noted academics who have some deep and very unusual convictions with regard to people being abducted by little gray aliens. Both John Mack, the Harvard professor of psychiatry, and David Jacobs, the Temple professor of history, have become somewhat famous, along with Leo Sprinkle of the University of Wyoming, because of their continuing insistence that UFOs are real and that thousands— even millions—of our citizens are being taken by extraterrestrials for various and nefarious purposes. Maybe, just maybe, there is something psychedelic seeping into the academic offices; something that the union of ivy and brick exudes into the campus air that affects the cerebral vortices of older intellectuals. Mm, maybe this should be looked into. To parody Mike Royko, brains that work like those mentioned above should be thoroughly examined by scientists. On the other hand, perhaps wild speculation among the professorial class is now de rigueur! As all good scientists know and say, “Further research is needed.”

Robert Baker

Robert A. Baker is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Kentucky, Lexington.