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Skepticism in Argentina: Life and Death and Magical Thinking

Alejandro Borgo

Skeptical Briefs Volume 12.1, March 2000

What is the danger of magical thinking and the spread of pseudoscience? This question has been asked many times. For much of the public, magical thinking and belief in the paranormal may be silly but it is not a threat. What is the harm, many may ask, if people believe in UFOs and psychic powers? The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has, through its lectures, magazines, and spokespersons, addressed this question. Their answers are good and relevant. But few have encountered first-hand the real-life consequences of magical thinking as I have. Let me give a few examples from my own life.

As a researcher I worked at the Instituto Argentino de Parapsicolog’a (Parapsychology Institute of Argentina) from 1979 to 1987. Argentina had experienced one of the most brutal dictatorial regimes of its history from 1976 to 1983, an era known as Guerra Sucia ("the Dirty War”). Yet it was not a war against foreign enemies, but mostly on anyone known or suspected to be critical of the government. During this time, the military cracked down on innocent men, women, and children. Journalists and subversives were rounded up. Some were tortured, others killed. On many occasions the military would snatch dozens of people off the street or from their homes, bind or drug them, then fly over the Atlantic ocean at night and push the terrified people out of the plane and into the freezing darkness. All died from the impact or drowning. To this day thousands of people remain unaccounted for, or “disappeared.” During this era of terror and violence, I was working at the Institute. I remember two episodes that brought into sharp focus the dangers of the paranormal.

One young man came to see me at the institute, wanting to know about his missing brother (who had been kidnapped by paramilitary forces). Perhaps, he thought, parapsychology could help him find his relative. He was very anxious and sad, desperate for any help or information. I had to tell him the truth: "We cannot do anything regarding your brother, because parapsychologists only investigate the paranormal but don’t have any kind of powers.” The young man went away sadly, surely off to visit another seer or shaman who could give him hope. He wanted to believe both that his brother was alive and that we could help.

The second instance was even more sad and terrifying. A woman who claimed to be a psychic told me that during the Dirty War, paramilitary groups had come to her and showed her many photographs. The armed thugs, believing that her psychic powers could help them, wanted to know which of the photographed people were terrorists or subversives.

She was supposed to pick out one or two of them. She had no choice but to cooperate; her own life was threatened if she didn’t help. Even if she knew she had no powers, she couldn’t admit it. The group then went out to do their "job"-kidnaping, torture, and perhaps murder. Her random choice could have picked anyone. Anyone could die. And it was all based on the madness of a pseudoscientific belief. Like the witch trials, those who abandon rationality for superstitious thinking are a danger to us all. When magical thinking mixes with paranoia and fear, no one is safe.

Fortunately, democracy came to Argentina in 1983 and we are learning and experiencing many things that would appear normal to people familiar with this political system for about 200 years. But democracy needs free thinkers, reason, and open-minded people. Even in the most developed countries in the world pseudoscience is flourishing. If you don’t think that, take a look at the Skeptical Inquirer!

The social impact of the paranormal deserves more attention from scientists, politicians, teachers, professors, and media critics. They don’t recognize that the appeal of magical thinking has a simple but dangerous consequence: more magical thinking, social madness, underappreciation of science and reason, racial discrimination, and many other similar problems.

But we see those academic people turning their heads, as if they were not part of our society. On a television program, I watched as a physician kept his mouth shut when a faith healer spoke of the “miraculous” water of Tlacote (Mexico) that had supposedly cured 5,000 people of AIDS. The medical doctor didn’t say a word. Thousands of people saw the same program, and perhaps many of them were desperate and suffering. Many were probably ready to buy that magic water, hoping they would be healed and their lives saved.

It is not enough to call oneself a skeptic, one has to practice skepticism too. I’m not a professional, but I take part in television and radio shows, debating and exposing fringe science and pseudoscientific beliefs. We have to make telephone calls to television producers. We have to write letters to newspapers. We have to demand that those who promote the paranormal and pseudoscience don’t have the right to spread lies and misinformation to the gullible public. We are citizens, just like academic people, like you, like judges and lawyers and prosecutors are. First of all we are citizens. Don't forget that, and don’t take it for granted.

As I was researching parapsychology I used to read the newspapers where clairvoyants, seers, astrologers, and “mentalists” published ads promising all kind of marvelous things. At the same time, even after eight years of investigation at the Institute (and all the following years), I have found no one who can demonstrate parapsychological abilities. No telepathy, no clairvoyance, no precognition, no psychokinesis. It may seem paradoxical, but I learned the scientific method investigating parapsychology, a pseudoscience.

And I think this was fortunate for me, because I began with a pro-paranormal attitude. When I was a teenager I used to believe all kinds of paranormal things: UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, and so on. The first book I read about the paranormal was Parapsychology, by Robert Amadou. I was fascinated with that book. I felt I had to investigate that tremendous faculties and special gifts that so many people seemed to perform. I genuinely wanted to believe.

But after so many years of research, my mind became “reality-oriented,” I wished to believe, but also I wished to obtain proof. It was an open-mind process, but it begun with belief and ended with skepticism. Abandoning a comfortable belief is not a pleasant process. But if that belief is wrong, and doesn't correspond with the real world, then it won’t be very useful. The worst danger of pseudoscience and magical thinking is its powerful effect on society. Just think that along with us in this society, presidents, politicians, judges, militaries, and health and education authorities, may hold both positions of power and dangerous beliefs. That is why it is up to all of us to keep up the battle for reason, rationality, and peace.

Alejandro Borgo

Alejandro Borgo is a journalist and paranormal researcher based in Argentina. In 1990 he co-founded CAIRP (Centro Argentino para la Investigación y Refutación de la Pseudociencia), the first Argentinian skeptical group.