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Science and Reason, Foibles and Fallacies, and Doomsdays

Special Report

Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 22.6, November / December 1998

Heidelberg Conference attracts 300 delegates from 23 countries

In the twenty-two years since its beginning, the modern skeptical movement has gone from an idea in the minds of philosopher Paul Kurtz and a handful of concerned colleagues to a widely recognized international network of organizations. Ninety-two skeptics organizations in thirty-three countries now examine paranormal claims, explore the boundaries between science and pseudoscience, and consider social, philosophical, and educational issues involving science and the public.

In the 1980s the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) — which started it all — began holding conferences about every eighteen months in cities and academic settings around the United States. In 1996, CSICOP celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the first World Skeptics Congress at the place of its founding, the State University of New York at Buffalo (SI, September/October, 1996).

The Second World Skeptics Congress, July 23-26, 1998, in the picturesque city of Heidelberg, Germany, was the most cosmopolitan ever. The sessions took place in a modern lecture hall at the ancient and historic University of Heidelberg (founded in 1386). The congress featured three and a half days of sessions, most in English, some in German, with more than 300 registrants from twenty-three countries.

Heidelberg, site of the Second World Skeptics Congress

It was sponsored by CSICOP and co-sponsored by the European Council of Skeptical Organizations and the German skeptical organization GWUP (Gesellschaft zur wissenshaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenshaften).

With the dawn of new millennium looming, the conference theme, “Armageddon and the Prophets of Doomsday” served as a convenient springboard to a wide range of topics in and out of science. Millennium prophecies, natural disasters, and environmental concerns were at the core, but there was ample time to consider antiscience and the postmodernists, alternative medicine, the problems of memory, the paranormal and skepticism in China. And there were some case studies — reports of investigations into such matters as dowsing, the Shroud of Turin, and “bio-energetic products.” There was also a workshop for skeptics.

And — as is not always the case at these session-packed conferences — there was some time for socializing. The traditional conference banquet was replaced by an informal evening on a double-deck boat sailing up the river Neckar, culminating in illuminations of high-perched castles and a magnificent fireworks show, the sounds echoing off the canyon walls.

“As we approach the year 2000 we are surrounded by prophets of doom who predict that terrible disasters await us,” said CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz in opening the congress. We have a natural yearning to know the future and a certain mixture of optimism and apprehension about it. The trick, he emphasized, is to apply the methods of scientific inquiry in examining all claims, including those about doomsdays and disasters, whether concerns arise from secular, religious or New Age origins.

If you think these science-minded skeptics would therefore automatically pour cold water over every expectation of disaster, you’d be wrong. The threat of catastrophic comet and asteroid impacts onto Earth was deemed real, global warming was taken seriously, sudden climate flip-flops were seen as a strong possibility, and the Year 2000 problem with the world’s computers was far from dismissed. ("Will the worst happen?” asked science and technology writer Wendy Grossman, author of the recent book net.wars. “Who knows? The most informed technical minds believe that the chances are that at least some things will fail.”)

There was lots of real science. Astronomer Alan Hale, co-discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp, the largest and most dramatic comet in decades, discussed the scientific significance and popular lore of comets and gave a personal account of his discovery.

He then lambasted the combination of scientific illiteracy, willful delusions, a radio talk-show’s deceptions about an imaginary spaceship supposedly accompanying the comet, and a cult’s bizarre yearnings for ascending to another level of existence that led to the Heaven’s Gate mass suicides.

Hale says that well before Heaven’s Gate, he had told a colleague, “‘We are probably going to have some suicides as a result of this comet.’ The sad part is that I really was not surprised.”

“Comets are lovely objects,” he said, “but they don’t have apocalyptic significance. We must use our minds, our reason.” Fellow New Mexico scientist David E. Thomas gave an entertaining talk about his debunking of the “Bible Code” (SI, November/December, 1997). Using the same “equidistant-letter sequence” methods that author Michael Drosnin used in computer-searching the text of the Hebrew Torah, Thomas showed how he could find similar “messages” in other literary works.

Drosnin had claimed that using his methods, the words “Nazi” and “Hitler” appear linked in the Torah but not in Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace. Thomas found both in War and Peace. “I won’t call Drosnin a liar,” said Thomas, “but here is a claim he made that is demonstrably false.”

Using Drosnin’s methods Thomas also found that the King James version of Genesis contained such phrases as “The Code Is Bogus” and “Darwin Got It Right.” Applying them to Drosnin’s own book, The Bible Code, Thomas found “The Code is Evil.”

Giving import to such post-hoc data-mining procedures, Thomas noted wryly, is a double-edge sword. Thomas says he even found in War and Peace a “prediction” that Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls would win the 1998 National Basketball Association title. (They did; see News and Comment, this issue.)

“Either Tolstoy is the Supreme Creator of the Universe — or perhaps the Bible Code is just an arcane mathematical technique that allows one to harvest detailed hidden messages from any text.”

Keynote speaker Elizabeth Loftus, the University of Washington psychologist and expert on the malleability of memory, described a litany of new studies that show, in her words, “the power of imagination to make people believe that they have had experiences that they didn’t have.” As she summarized: “People have been led to remember nonexistent events from two weeks ago, from their childhood, and even from the day after they were born. These findings fill in our understanding of the rather flimsy curtain that separates imagination and memory.”

Numerous other foibles, fallacies, falsehoods, and examples of false science were revealed and targeted in a variety of presentations.

In Europe, homeopathy has wide popular and political support, said Willem Betz, professor of medicine at Brussels University and a national delegate to a program in which fifteen European countries collaborate to set rules for recognition of alternative medicine. Proponents of homeopathic medicine “know quite well” that it “would be quite impossible to meet the criteria, so they offer countless arguments why the strict rules should not apply to homeopathy.”

He also gave an example of typical “homeopathic logic”: Its proponents contend both that “proof is not possible” and that “proof is piling up.” Said Betz: “Never give an aura of science to nonsense.”

Prominent Dutch astrophysicist Cornelis de Jager, a former president of the International Council of Scientific Unions, one-time general secretary of the International Astronomical Union, and current chairman of the European Council of Skeptical Organizations, used well-tuned humor to take on the absurdities of those who attach great mystical significance to measurements of the Great Pyramid. He had the audience in stitches with his deadpan talk about the “meaningful” measurements he took in the corridors of his home. His home is in an astronomical observatory, a location, he said, “that may be very close to the cosmos and well receptive to its incredible powers.”

Jean-Paul Krivine of the French Union Rationaliste described New Age and pseudoscientific practices used in French companies. Many companies in France are widely using nonrational and nonscientific methods such as graphology and numerology. Graphology, he said, is used by most recruiting departments in France.

In recent years the popular press has made frequent references to experiments conducted by a university group from Munich (H. Wagner, H.-D. Betz, and others) that professed to find a core of skilled individuals who supposedly have unexplained success in dowsing. These so-called “Scheunen experiments” have been funded by the German government. They have given the impression that physicists have shown that dowsing is a real phenomenon.

J.T. Enright of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reported on a thorough reexamination he has carried out of the experimental results. The results, he said, show the exact opposite of what the proponents are claiming. Showing a plot of the scattered data on a chart in which the dowsing proponents claim to see trends supporting dowsing abilities, Enright said: “It is hard to imagine a set of data that represents a more convincing disproof of dowsing. I challenge anyone here to show any difference between randomly generated data and the actual data.”

Lest anyone think he or she is immune to the self-deception that goes into forming and holding to paranormal unsupported beliefs of every sort, psychologists Ray Hyman (University of Oregon) and James Alcock (York University) would relieve you of that misperception. In their world congress workshop on critical thinking, they emphasized how hard it is for us to see through our own preconceptions.

“Teaching people to think critically in their individual lives is hard,” said Alcock. “The world is more likely to give information that confirms our beliefs than not, because of the way we interpret information.

“So if we believe in something, people’s experiences will confirm it.

“All of us — myself included — hold beliefs that are false. I’m sure I do. The problem is I don’t know which ones.”

“Unless we try to use a logical, scientific approach, we will just compound the errors our brains make.”

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.