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Where's The Antidote For intellectual Poisons?
By JOHN DART
Public curiosity ui new pseudoscientific, semispiritual theories has spurred a debunking mood in the scientific community. Most scholars are reluctant to spend time denying what they regard ,as nonsense. "You never convince the true believer," they say. An increasing n u m b e r , though, are trying. The reason: signs of » widespread popular interest in theories that mix the supernatural with "science," providing a deus ex machina for alleged mysteries o£ science. Science magazine not long ' ago called them "intellectual poisons," and urged more universities and scientists to provide the antidotes. Establishment religion, by contrast, generally-has taken a h i n d s - o f f policy even though it, too, would seem to have a stake in the ouU'ome. Scientific potshots particuI a r 1 y have been directed against best selling books s u c h as Chariots of the Gods? (which says intellects from outer space accounted for man's .earliest feats) anrl The Secret Life of Plants (which says plants can respond in extraordinary ways to humans and events). Tha trend most disturbing to scientists is the broad appeal for public rejection of hard-nosed standards ot scientific investigation and veriffication. Scientists say that in the cases of the more exotic psychic phenomena (particularly demonstrations by "gifted" individuals) and- plant reactions (the best known experimenter uses a lie detector), most experiments, if not aU, do 'not' produce consistently repeatable results. Advocates say the experiment results depend on the experimenter's attitude. "No amount of checking in laboratories is going to prove a thing until the experiments are done by properly trained observers. Spiritual development is indispensable," says p l a n t investigator Marcel Vogel, a California!! trained in electronics. In other words, a sceptical r e s e.» r c h e r may not get plants or psychic subjects to respond the same way a sympathetic experimenter can — a position also held prominently by ex-astronaut li'dgar Mitchell ot Palo Alta, California, who directs an institute supporting research in psychic phenomena.
Parapsychology, psychokras, telepathy and other psychic studies are not dismissed out of hand by all scientists. Some fa c u 11 y members at noted universities are doing work in the field, and they are quick to mention that the National Science Foundation has funded some projects. At the same time, academia is suspicious of work tied to mystical or supernatural speculations and not subjected to rigorous scientific procedure. This mystical vs. scientific friction is being felt by most people, says biology professor Paul Saltman of the Univ e r s i t y of California San Diego, who is also vice-president for academic affairs. Religion and science have legitimate points of contact in frontier fields such as biomedical ethics and in problem solving for human society when a rational, sensitive approach is used, he indicated. . But the scientific community's response to mystical psuedoscience, Prof. Saltman said, cannot help but be: "Know-nothings should not inherit the earth.". The Christian-Jewish religious bodies seem nncon' c e r n e d about the corresponding rise of new cults, pseudoscientific or otherwise. T h o u g h seminaries and church organizations subject any new or revamped theological approach to tough, analytical debate, there has been great hesitancy to tackle the more vulnerable ideologies attracting interest, if not allegiance. T h e given reasons are varied: • T h e "new religions" (Hare Krishna, Scientology, E c k a n k a r , the Rev. Sun M y u n g Moon's Unification Church, to name a lew) are considered fringe phenomena at best. 9 Religious leaders and church administrators have not done the research necessary to challenge the integrity of new groups. • Anyone has a right to believe what he wants, and "refuting" one sect might lead to erosion of rights of all churches And yet, religious spokesmen may be better equipped to supply an inquisitive public with an "outside" opinion of such movements. Even cults emphasizing their alleged technical and scientific soundness often require con-
siderable faith by followers in the results, attendant philosophy and ultimate truths. Believers in 'faith healing and reincarnation on'ce appealed to religious scriptures as sufficient explanation, but today many seek to explain or probe the process in, "scientific" terms. "Old sciences" such as astrology and numerology, and rediscovered. Ancient Asian yoga and meditative techniques are studied for both their spiritual and health benefits. Comment from the religious field has been mainly confined to studies by sociol o g i s t s of religion tucked away in scholarly journals or critiques by writers in evangelical, fundamentau'st publications. Twenty-four years after his Worlds in Collision was puplished, philosopher Immamiel Yeh'kovsky, at age 78, was given his day before • 'establishment science, which hitherto ignored him. Velikovsky repeated his theory that the earth has had several near misses with Venus and Mars over the last few thousand years before those two planets settled into their present orbits. The approaches to earth caused cataclysmic events here, killing animals and humans in large numbers, but enough people survived to record the events in folklore and the Bible, Velikovsky said. In San Francisco, a historian said ancient records show that planetary motions then were the same as now, an astronomer s a i d "resonances" between Venus and the earth indicate Venus has occupied its present orbit for at least millions of years and astronomer Carl Sagan of Cornell s a i d mathematical odds against such encounters were exceptionally great. Mr. Sagan also dismissed Velinkoysky's claim as the first person to predict that Venus has a 600-degree surface temperature and that Jupiter emits radio noises. "Where V e l i k o v s k y showed real imagination lie was found to be wrong," Mr. Sagan said. "Where he was found to be right, it can be shown that he was preempted by other workers who had already predicted the samp, things — but for the right reasons." Velikovsky, non-plussed and charging the scientists with bias, had the comfort of
knowing he had a following unlikely to be' influenced by Johnny-come-lately scientists. .. . Worlds in Collision has gone through more than 70 editions. A quarterly magar zine is devoted entirely to his t h e o r i e s . And followers among 'the 500 outsiders at the symposium gave the eccentric philosopher a standing'ovation at the close of his presentation. Nevertheless, the nation's most prestigious science org a n i z a t i o n had gone on
record disputing Velikovsky's theories in a widely reported . symposium. Bioscience magazine editorialized against some extraordinary claims made for plants in April, then reprinted a similarly critical 'article by Yale biologist Arthur W. Galston which had appeared in Natural History magazine. In rapping claims that p l a n t s respond to human emotions and prayers, that they can count, receive signals from distant life forms, etc., Mr Galston said that an unwary, believing reader of The Secret Life of Plants, would be cluttering his mind with mythology, principles and generalizations (the authors) put forth, and could be'led seriously astray" Mr. Galston said. Plant lovers may croon to the cattleyas and murmur to their mimosas all they want, Mr. Galston said, but' i t ' won't do a thing for their plants. ' . "Plants," said James Bonner, California (Institute of Technology Biologist, "have no nerves and no central nervous system, so they have no . way of proeessing( people's thoughts and emotions." The desire to find positive results, said Mr. Bouner, leads people to tool themselves. "The ability of the human mind to self-delude is infinite," he said. Though Mr. Banner is one of the more willing Caltech faculty members when, it comes to giving talks to laymen on scientific subjects, h e thinks it's usually a "waste of time" for scientists to get into the debunking business.
But a f e l l o w faculty covering astrology, f l y i n g member, Richard P. Feyn- saucers, V e l i k o v s k y ' s man, devoted the Caltech theories and "the Erich von' 1974 commencement address Danikcn phenomenon." (Von to just that theme. Mr»Feyn- Daniken wrote Chariots of man, a Nobel Prize-winning the Gods?" plus some setheoretical physicist, h a s quels, and his success inconcluded that "it's not a spired some imitators.) scientific world." "I try to get students to " .. I meet lots of people think critically," Mr. Abell who sooner or later get me said. "Von Daniken has cominto a conversation about UFOs, or astrology, or some pletely ignored thousands of form of mysticism, expanded scientist hours in archaeconsciousness, new types of ology; he ascribes mysteries a w a r e n e s s , ESP and so to phenomena that are well understood," he said. forth," Mr. Feynman said. lie went so far as to sam- .. Theodore Roszak, noted for. his descriptions of the youthple s o m e of the ideas through books and personal ful counterculture of the late experiences — hallucinating IDGOs, suggests that the pubwhile floating in Epsom salt lic wants more out of science isolation tanks, going through than it is getting. The lay public, Mr. Roszak the Esalen encounter experience and watching magician- says, yearns for "gnosis," a psychic wonder Uri Geller broader .concept of knowltry to bend a key by rubbing edge that gives meaning as it. He came away uncon- well as facts and figures. vinced. Laymen want to know the The reason true results do meaning ot their existence, not come in pseudoscience, "not out of childish weakness Mr. Feynman said, is that it of mind, but because we l a c k s 'scientific integrity. sense ... that it is,there, a What's needed, he said, "is truth that belongs to us and to try to give all the infor- completes o u r condition," mation, to help others to Mr. Roszak said. judge the value of your conPeople , license the scientribution; not just the infor- tists' unrestricted pursuit of jnation that leads to judg- knowledge as a good in its ment in one particular direc- own right, he said, but the' tion or another." public hopes the scholars will The danger in today's situ- link knowledge to wisdom. ation, said Philip H. Abelson, To the extent scientists draw editor of Science magazine, up short of that mark, they is that. 'new pseudoscience forfeit society's trust and albooks "seek to create the im- legiance. pression of scholarship and Mr.,'Roszak made the reverity." marks in a symposium on One such book that' has , Science and Its Public pubdrawn his criticism is Limbo lished in Daedalus, the jourof the Lost, which ties to nal of the American AcaU F 0 ' s disappearance of demy of Arts and Sciences. • ships and planes in a section Edward Shils, a University of the Atlantic .Ocean known of Chicago sociologist "who as the Bermuda, (or Devil's) also took part in the symTriangle. posium, beu'eves scientists Universities need to be have become heirs of the especially concerned .about human need for certitude the impact these trends have that once reposed in priests. upon/their students, the edi-' But, unlike Mr. Roszak, tor said. Mr. Shils believes, society's "In meeting these chal- "will to believe" in science l e n g e s to rationality, we is too deep in Western herishould: all-remember that al- tage to be dislodged by the though humanity is eager to last decade of criticism. accept mysticism, it is also (A significant minority of c a p a b l e of yearning for fundamentalist Christians, of truth." course, remain critical of A. university scientist who science. The California textagrees is George 0. Abnll, book debate of the early chairman of the University 1970s pitted most of the astronomy department. scholarly community against "I'm very busy, but I've Christians who felt the biblinever refused a radio or tele- cal a c c o u n t of Creation vision appearance to debunk should be placed alongside a nonsense," Mr. Abell said. watered-down account of evoMr. Abell conducts a fresh- 1 u t i o n a r y theory in the man seminar on mythology state's science textbooks. associated with astronomy, (The relative merits of cre-
ation arid evolution were not d i s c u s s e d so much as whether a religious explanation belonged in a physical s c i e n c e book. The state board of education's eventual decision was to find a spot for creation in social science texts.) If much of society has a continuing fascination with science's achievements and potential, it is. nevertheless apparent that science produces more than can be absorbed by'the 'average person. "Our schizoid dilemma between mysticism and reason," biologist Saltman says, arises from the crisis in handling the enormous amount of information. "Each of us continually feels inadequate to come to grips with this superabundance of .information —' to understand it, digest it, utilize it." Religious observers have noted that the youthful "Jesus movement" and cults which offer mysterious truths and uncomplicated formulas for handling life are enjoying particular success. So much so that some ot the leading religious thinkers at one time or another in recent years have urged encouragement of the sense of the mystical in relatively staid church circles. "Why should believers be told that once upon' a time t h e r e were prophets and mystics, visionaries and ecstatics — but that now all potential for a revisiting of their kind of experience has disappeared? Why should the churches recall the story but not r e - e n a c t - it?" asked c h u r c h historian Martin Marty. Another religious p u n d i t earlier called on the theological establishment to take seriously the phenomena and data provided by men like the S o u t h e r.n clairvoyant Edgar Cayce or the Scottish American h e a l e r Ambrose Worrall. A minister connected with T h e New Religious Consciousness Project, involving both Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union scholars, said there is a strong feeling in various parts of society that religious experience uninfluenced by academic analysis is the important tiling — "an every - man - is - his own - s h a m a n sort of thing." The lack of critical checkpoints, however, opens the
door for not only question• able "truths" but also for Prof. Bonner's self-deluders deluding others. Dr. Wilb'am A. Nolen, author of the best-selling The Making of a Surgeon, said he investigated the "healings" of 26 persons at a Kathryn Kuhlman faith healing service and found none of them cured. "I don't believe she Is a liar or a charlatan or that she is, consciously, dishonest," says 1 Dr. Nolen in a forthcoming book on faith healing excerpted in a recent issue of McCalTs. "I thinkthat she believes the Holy Spirit works through her to perform miraculous cures." Noting what he called her "lack of medical sophisticat i o n , ' ' the surgeon-author also suggested the possibility that "Miss Kuhlman doesn't want to learn that her work is not as miraculous as it seems," training herself to deny anything which might threaten the validity of her ministry. „,
Presidential Counsellor To Quit
WASHINGTON (AP) — Pres i d e n t i a l counsellor Anne Armstrong, top-ranking woman iii the Ford and Nixon administrations, is leaving her While House post by. Jan. 1, sources say. Mrs. Armstrong went to her Texas ranch for Thaidcsgiving after a meeting Tuesday with President Ford. It was later learned that though the meeting with Ford concerned business matters, Mrs. Armstrong's decision to leave the administration for personal reasons had already been conveyed to the president. By the end of the year, Mrs. Armstrong will have served nearly two years in the $42,500a-year job that former president Richard Nixon gave her Avith cabinet rank. She, had been given a wide range of assignments in domestic fields, including areas of special interest to women. She promoted passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and recruitment of women to loplevel posts in government. There was no immediate indication of a replacement.
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