Guardians of the Gate
Men do not get what they deserve but what they resemble.
In Chapter 5, I pointed to a pattern that recurs in the investigation of phenomena that are dissonant with the current scientific paradigm, involving the ridicule, ostracism and punishment of the discoverer. A key figure in these proceedings is the actor who casts himself or herself in the role of the people’s protector or saviour from the machinations of charlatans, false prophets and weirdos of every sort.
In the seventeenth century this figure would very likely have been a Witchfinder General; today, mercifully, we no longer consign people to the flames to reduce our cognitive dissonance. But, as we saw in Chapter 4, we still burn people’s books to achieve the same end. And the present-day book burner turned out to be none other than an agent of the government itself – the US Food and Drug Administration. Many people may draw comfort from the reflection that Wilhelm Reich’s books were burned more than thirty years ago in 1960 – it couldn’t happen today. Sadly, however, the spirit of Salem is still alive and as recently as 1981 when Professor Rupert Sheldrake published his concept shattering A New Science of Life, the editor of Nature, John Maddox, ran an editorial saying the book was ‘the best candidate for burning there has been for many years’. (1)
Orwell’s Thought Police are all too real. They do not ride sinister black motorcycles nor throw people in jail (although, as we have seen, even that is not unknown). But their powers to punish those who step out of line can be very real. And their effects on the community are no less profound because these individuals are often self-appointed. It is not our political thoughts they police, but the current paradigm.
Today, the Paradigm Police crop up in a variety of unremarkable guises. Most often, it is to style themselves as myth busters of one sort or another or as the guardians of the gates of unreason who we met at the end of the last chapter. Whatever their guise, the Paradigm Police are invariably present wherever innovators and discoverers of the new are derided and attacked. Their methods, their beliefs and their motivations are thus of considerable interest to anyone who wants to understand the taboo reaction in science.
The Paradigm Police are sometimes harmless, because their intemperate behaviour negates any effects they might have. One of the most common characteristics of the authoritarian person is an inability to control or moderate his or her reaction to being confronted by cognitive dissonance. The need to attack the offending agent of dissonance, by any and every means to hand, makes such a person overwhelmingly intemperate and intolerant and gives the game away. But in other cases, the effects of this policing can be very destructive and very far reaching.
One of the best documented modern examples of the Paradigm Police in action is provided by the case of Dr Immanuel Velikovsky, the American psychologist whose 1950 book Worlds in Collision caused a storm of controversy in the US academic world. (2) In 1963, the magazine American Behavioral Scientist thought the way in which Velikovsky was mugged by the scientific community of sufficient interest to devote a special issue to three papers on the subject, one by Professor Alfred de Grazia of New York University and two others by Ralph Juergens and Livio Stecchini. (3) The papers, together with additional material were published in book form under the title The Velikovsky Affair. (4)
According to de Grazia, Velikovsky’s book
gave rise to a controversy in scientific and intellectual circles about scientific theories and the sociology of science. Dr Velikovsky’s historical and cosmological concepts, bolstered by his acknowledged scholarship, constituted a formidable assault on certain established theories of astronomy, geology and historical biology, and on the heroes of those sciences. Newton himself, and Darwin were being challenged, and indeed the general orthodoxy of an ordered universe.
What must be called the scientific establishment rose in arms, not only against the new Velikovsky theories but against the man himself. Efforts were made to block the dissemination of Dr Velikovsky’s ideas, and even to punish supporters of his investigations. Universities, scientific societies, publishing houses, the popular press were approached and threatened; social pressures and professional sanctions were invoked to control public opinion. There can be little doubt that in a totalitarian society, not only would Dr Velikovsky’s reputation have been at stake, but also his right to pursue his enquiry, and perhaps his personal safety.
As it was, the ‘establishment’ succeeded in building a wall of unfavourable sentiment around him: to thousands of scholars the name Velikovsky bears the taint of fantasy, science fiction and publicity.
The central theme of the book that caused such a furore is that between the fifteenth and eighth centuries BC the earth underwent a series of global catastrophes. Parts of the surface were heated until they melted and the seas boiled and evaporated. Some mountain ranges disappeared while others were thrown up elsewhere. Continents were raised, causing global flooding. Velikovsky supported this picture of worldwide catastrophe with a wealth of quotations from such ancient sources as the Hebrew Bible, the Hindu Vedas, Roman and Greek mythology and the myths and legends of many ancient races. He also supported it with physical evidence from geology and palaeontology.
The cause of these tremendous upheavals, according to Velikovsky, was an extraordinary series of astronomical events. He brought forward evidence to suggest that in the past there have been collisions or near collisions between planets in the solar system and that the earth itself experienced a collision with the tail of a comet that ended up as the planet Venus. These events, said Velikovsky, were responsible for repeated changes in the Earth’s orbit and the inclination of its axis. Interactions between the magnetic fields of the earth and other planets played a major role in these events.
The story of what happened when the book was published was told by Ralph Juergens in his article ‘Minds in Chaos’. (5) Velikovsky first signed a contract for a book on this subject with Macmillan Company in 1946. By 1950, the book was ready for publication. In January of that year Harper’s Magazine published two articles condensed from the book, under the heading ‘The day the Sun stood still’, and the magazine was a sell-out. Papers in America and abroad reprinted the articles and further popular articles followed in Reader’s Digest and Collier’s Magazine. Most of the articles were highly sensationalised and Velikovsky threatened to disown the articles unless they were toned down.
When these sensational stories caught the public imagination, the scientific establishment began to react. Just before the book was to be published, Macmillan received two letters from Harlow Shapley, professor of astronomy at Harvard University. In the first Shapley described his astonishment that Macmillan should even consider a venture into the ‘black arts’, but expressed his satisfaction that the publisher had come to its senses and decided not to publish after all. When the firm wrote back to explain that Shapley was the victim of a rumour and that publication was to go ahead as scheduled, Shapley (who had still not seen the manuscript) replied that: ‘It will be interesting a year from now to hear from you as to whether or not the reputation of the Macmillan Co. is damaged by the publication of Worlds in Collision.’ He ended by saying that Velikovsky’s background should be investigated as it was quite possible that the book was ‘intellectually fraudulent’.
In February 1950, an issue of Science News Letter which was edited by Shapley, printed denunciations of Velikovsky’s ideas by five scientific authorities in the fields of archaeology, oriental studies, anthropology, geology and with Shapley himself speaking for astronomy. This broadside was published to coincide with the publication of the book – which none of the critics had yet seen.
Perhaps if Velikovsky’s book had been of a purely speculative nature then academics would merely have dismissed it as fantasy and not troubled themselves about its content. But Velikovsky backed up his theories with immensely detailed scholarly research in many different disciplines – history, anthropology, geology, astronomy and biology being only some. In fact, he displayed a grasp of his subject that was clearly beyond some of his most vociferous critics, with the predictable consequence that they did not reply to or even address the scientific issues raised, but instead attacked him personally.
In the next few months, newspapers around the country were barraged with abusive reviews contributed by big name scientists. Virtually none of the reviewers confronted the scientific issues but simply derided Velikovsky. Paul Herget, director of the observatory at the University of Cincinnati, concluded that the book’s astronomical ideas were ‘dynamically impossible’ but offered no reasoned explanation of this conclusion. Californian physicist H.P. Robertson wrote, ‘This incredible book . . . this jejune essay [is] too ludicrous to merit serious rebuttal’, thus saving himself the trouble of writing any such rebuttal. Nuclear physicist Harrison Brown told the readers of the Saturday Review of Literature that the list of errors in fact and conclusion contained in Velikovsky’s book would fill a thirty page letter, although he neglected to specify even one of them.
Despite (perhaps because of) this campaign, the book went to the top of the best-seller list and stayed there for twenty successive weeks. However, in May, when book sales were at their peak, Velikovsky was summoned to Macmillan’s offices and told that professors in certain large universities were refusing to see Macmillan’s salesmen. This was a serious threat to the company because a substantial part of its revenue derived from the sale of textbooks to universities. In addition, letters had been received from scientists demanding that Macmillan cease publication. Macmillan told Velikovsky that they had no alternative but to respond to this commercial pressure and that they had worked out a deal under which Doubleday would take over publication of the book. Doubleday had few textbook titles and so was relatively immune to academic blackmail.
On 11 June 1950, the New York Times carried an article by columnist Leonard Lyons who broke the news.
The greatest bombshell dropped on Publisher’s Row in many a year exploded the other day. . . Dr Velikovsky himself would not comment on the changeover. But a publishing official admitted, privately, that a flood of protests from educators and others had hit the company hard in its vulnerable underbelly the textbook division. Following some stormy sessions by the board of directors, Macmillan reluctantly succumbed, surrendered its rights to the biggest money-maker on its list. (6)
Lyons went on to report that the suppression had been engineered by Harlow Shapley of Harvard, although Shapley later denied this to Newsweek. Other scientists were not so shy about admitting their part. Paul Herget said, ‘I am one of those who participated in this campaign against Macmillan’, while Michigan astronomer Dean McLaughlin wrote, ‘Worlds in Collision has just changed hands . . . I am frank to state that this change was the result of pressure that scientists and scholars brought to bear on the Macmillan Company.’
Even after the change of publisher, ripples of the affair continued to be felt. James Putnam, the editor who had been twenty-five years with Macmillan and who had bought Velikovsky’s book, was summarily dismissed. And Macmillan sent a representative to placate the powerful American Association for the Advancement of Science at its annual meeting in Cleveland in December. Charles Skelley, for Macmillan, duly appeared before a committee specially appointed to study means for ‘evaluating new theories before publication’ – in other words, scientific censorship.
As well as behind-the-scenes pressure on Macmillan, there was also ‘nobbling’ of senior academics who took Velikovsky’s book seriously. According to Alfred de Grazia:
Several scientists and intellectuals who attempted [Velikovsky’s] defence were silenced or sanctioned severely. I. Bernard Cohen, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote sympathetically, almost enthusiastically, of Velikovsky’s work in the advance summary of his address before the American Philosophical Society in April 1952, but changed his approach markedly in the published version of his address in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (October 1952).
Perhaps Professor Cohen was referring to the pressure that had been applied to him to change his mind when he wrote in the same issue of the Proceedings his view that, ‘Any suggestion that scientists so dearly love truth, that they have not the slightest hesitation in jettisoning their beliefs, is a mean perversion of the facts.’
At the time that Velikovsky wrote, astronomers believed that the planet Venus was an old planet, that its surface was cool like the Earth’s, and that its atmosphere consisted largely of water vapour or carbon dioxide. When he had completed the manuscript of the book in 1946, Velikovsky had tried to enlist the help of scientists in conducting experiments that would crucially test his thesis. He made three specific predictions relating to the planet Venus, all of them in principle falsifiable by experiment. First, he said that if Venus were a relatively young planet, its surface temperature would still be very hot. Second, that it would be enveloped in hydrocarbon clouds – the remains of a hydrocarbonaceous comet tail. And third, that it would have anomalous rotation movement, perturbations remaining from its settling relatively recently into orbit.
In 1953, while addressing graduate students at Princeton University, Velikovsky suggested two further testable phenomena: that the Earth’s magnetic field reaches as far out into space as the Moon’s orbit and is responsible for the libratory or rocking movements of the moon. And he suggested that the planet Jupiter (from which he said the Venus-comet had originated) radiates in the radio frequency range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
These predictions were taken by scientists of the 1950s as being tantamount to proof of Velikovsky’s ignorance, insanity or both. Harlow Shapley refused to become involved in any experimental research to confirm his ideas. When, for instance, it was suggested that Shapley might use the Harvard observatory to search for evidence of hydrocarbons in the Venusian atmosphere, Shapley replied that he wasn’t interested in Velikovsky’s ‘sensational claims’ because they violate the laws of mechanics and ‘if Dr Velikovsky is right, the rest of us are crazy’.
Within little more than a decade of publication, all of Velikovsky’s key predictions were confirmed by experiment. The Mariner spacecraft of 1963 determined that the surface temperature of Venus is in the region of 800 degrees Fahrenheit and that the planet’s fifteen-mile thick atmosphere is composed of heavy hydrocarbon molecules and possibly more complex organic compounds as well.
In April 1955, Drs B.F. Burke and K.L. Franklin announced to the American Astronomical Society their accidental discovery of radio noise broadcast by Jupiter. In 1962, the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington and the Goldstone Tracking Station in southern California announced that radiometric observations showed Venus to have a slow retrograde motion. In the same year, the Explorer satellite detected the Earth’s magnetic field at a distance of at least twenty-two Earth radii, while in 1965 it was reported that the tail extends ‘at least as far as the moon’. (7)
Considering that the main thrust of science’s attack on Velikovsky was a personal attack on his integrity, the behaviour of some of his most vociferous critics in the scientific community makes interesting reading. In August 1963, Harper’s Magazine, which had carried the original announcement of Velikovsky’s theories, now did a retrospective piece pointing out how all his main predictions had been borne out. The author of both articles, Eric Larrabee, made a reference which drew a thunderous response from Donald Menzel, director of Harvard College Observatory. At the height of the controversy a decade earlier, Menzel had tried to shoot Velikovsky down by calculating that for his astronomical theory to be right, the Sun would have to have a surface potential of 10 billion billion volts. Obviously, said Menzel, this is impossible so Velikovsky must be wrong. By an extraordinary chance, in 1960, V.A. Bailey, emeritus professor of physics at Sydney University (who knew nothing of the Velikovsky controversy) claimed to have discovered that the Sun is electrically charged and has a surface potential of 10 billion billion volts – exactly the value calculated by Menzel.
Feeling that Bailey’s discovery made him look foolish, Menzel now sent off a strongly worded response to Harper’s and a letter to Bailey in Australia asking him to revoke his theory of the electric charge on the Sun as it was assisting the enemy.
According to Ralph Juergens:
Professor Bailey, taking exception to the idea that his own work should be abandoned to accommodate the anti-Velikovsky forces, prepared an article in rebuttal to Menzel’s piece and submitted it to Harper’s for publication in the same issue with Menzel’s. Bailey had discovered a simple arithmetical error in Menzel’s calculations, which invalidated his argument.
It is equally interesting to see how the Harvard astronomer dealt with the fact that most of Velikovsky’s predictions had been confirmed. On the radio emissions from Jupiter, he wrote that, since most scientists do not accept Velikovsky’s theory then it follows that ‘any seeming verification of Velikovsky’s prediction is pure chance’. As far as the high surface temperature of Venus is concerned, Menzel argued that ‘hot is only a relative term’. Later in the article he referred back to this statement saying ‘I have already disposed of the question of the temperature of Venus’. Actually, in 1950, Menzel had estimated the temperature of Venus to be about 120 degrees Fahrenheit when it is really more like 800 degrees. On the extent of the Earth’s magnetic field, Menzel wrote that Velikovsky ‘said it would extend as far as the moon; actually the field suddenly breaks off at a distance of several earth diameters’. In fact, Menzel was wrong; the field had been detected as extending at least twenty-two Earth radii a year earlier by the Explorer satellite.
To their credit, a few scientists did support Velikovsky against the climate of hysteria and intimidation including Princeton’s Professor H.H. Hess, who was later chairman of the National Academy of Science’s space board. In 1962, Princeton physicist Valentin Bargmann and Columbia astronomer Lloyd Motz wrote a joint letter to the editor of Science magazine calling attention to Velikovsky’s priority in predicting Venus’s high surface temperature, Jupiter’s radio emissions and the great extent of the Earth’s magnetosphere, but Science’s editor, Dr Philip Abelson, was not interested in Velikovsky. Instead, he printed a letter from science fiction writer Poul Anderson satirising Velikovsky on the grounds that science fiction writers and hoaxers also made fantastic predictions that were sometimes verified. When the editor of Horizon magazine wrote to Abelson protesting at the exclusion of an article by Velikovsky, Abelson replied:
Velikovsky is a controversial figure. Many of the ideas that he expressed are not accepted by serious students of earth science. Since my prejudices happen to agree with this majority, I strained my sense of fair play to accept the letter by Bargmann and Motz, and thought that the books were nicely balanced with the rejoinder of Anderson . (8)
Scientific American showed that it had not moved on editorially since it ridiculed the Wright Brothers fifty years earlier. The magazine had refused to carry advertising for Worlds in Collision and in 1956 it carried a strongly critical article by physicist Harrison Brown. When Velikovsky asked for the right to reply he was told by Scientific American editor Dennis Flanagan that:
I think you should know my position once and for all. I think your books have done incalculable harm to the public understanding of what science is and what scientists do. There is no danger whatever that your arguments will not be heard; on the contrary they have received huge circulation by scientific standards. Thus I feel that we have no further obligation in the matter. (9)
De Grazia highlights an essential issue from this reply when he points out that the editor has picked up a misapprehension common among scientists: that the media of the general public can substitute for the scientific media. Not only is this idea false but, as de Grazia points out, scientists themselves insist upon a distinct separation of the two types of media.
Overall, the attitude of science and scientists during the Velikovsky affair was best summed up by Laurence Lafleur, associate professor of philosophy at Florida State University. Lafleur wrote to Scientific Monthly in November 1951 proposing seven diagnostic criteria that would enable anyone to spot the difference between a crank and a scientist. He concluded that Velikovsky qualified as a crank ‘perhaps by every one’ of them. Lafleur’s seven criteria are examined in detail in the next chapter, which is devoted to the question of how to tell a real crank from a real innovator. As far as the present examination of the activities of the Paradigm Police is concerned, the last word should go to Professor Lafleur, since it so accurately sums up the central credo of the ‘guardians’ of science:
The odds favour the assumption that anyone proposing a revolutionary doctrine is a crank rather than a scientist. (10)
From anyone concerned with education or science this is a surprising doctrine; from a professor of philosophy it is truly astounding. What Professor Lafleur has defined here is not the nature of scientific enquiry; he has defined the nature of religious heresy. Rather than evaluation of evidence, we are advised to prefer the assumption that revolutionaries are cranks. Reading Lafleur’s dictum through, I am irresistibly reminded of the reason given by Professor John Huizenga for refusing research funding for cold fusion: ‘It is seldom, if ever, true that it is advantageous in science to move into a new discipline without a thorough foundation in the basics of that field.’ We shouldn’t invest in researching things we don’t understand, only in things we are thoroughly familiar with.
Under what circumstances can Lafleur ever accept a new discovery? What would have been his reaction to any of the discoveries of the past 500 years – to Copernicus, to Galileo, to Giordano Bruno? Judging by his own yardstick – revolutionary ideas – are most likely to be crank ideas he would have rejected every one of them. Yet he is deluding himself that while in the present he is immune to crank ideas, he would have been receptive and tolerant to these great discoveries of the past.
The story of cold fusion in Chapter 3 introduced us to another self-appointed guardian of the current paradigm in the shape of Nature magazine. Nature is invariably referred to as the most prestigious, or the most highly respected scientific magazine in the world, and so it is. It is the preferred vehicle for announcement of almost every major scientific discovery.
Inevitably, the process of receiving papers from hopeful authors – all of whom would like to see their name in Nature and receive the tacit approval of having made it into print in so prestigious a journal – puts the editor and his colleagues into the position of being arbiters of the value of scientific research, whether they wish for such a position or not.
In an attempt to guard against acting in an arbitrary way, and excluding original work of value merely because it covers unfamiliar territory, and at the other extreme, admitting poor or even fraudulent research for publication, Nature employs the peer review system. Under this system a number of referees, usually distinguished and reputable scientists in the field in question, are asked by Nature to examine the paper, to make comments and to ask for further work or clarification if necessary, and finally to pronounce on its suitability for publication.
Inevitably this will be seen as a kind of ‘exam’ and rejection will sometimes be perceived by the authors concerned as a ‘failure’ or perhaps as a form of censorship. In this situation it is equally inevitable that there can be a certain amount of bitterness, allegations of backstabbing, petty jealousies, settling of old scores and other manifestations of the unacceptable face of academia.
The magazine’s perception of itself is that it does a reasonably good job at squaring the circle of these conflicting interests given that, like the rest of us, it has limited resources and its staff are only human. The magazine even likes to think of itself as being adventurous when the occasion demands. The question is, what does the record really show?
When Nature received the paper written by Drs Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ about their experiments at Stanford Research Institute with Uri Geller in February 1974, they didn’t know what to make of it. They were reluctant to get mixed up with Uri Geller and the paranormal, but to reject a paper from two respected physicists at the equally respected Stanford Research Institute would be an insult that would cast doubt on their integrity. (11)
So the magazine adopted a rather different procedure from normal. First it stalled for eight months. However, the paper was being widely circulated in photocopied form and there was much talk about its contents. Scientific gossip hinted that the paper contained categorical proof of the paranormal. Nature thus realised that simply to sit on the paper was no solution.
It therefore sent the paper to three referees, as usual. The principal referee it selected for the task, and the man who would later write the editorial that accompanied the paper, was Dr Christopher Evans, an experimental psychologist who worked at the National Physical Laboratory. Dr Evans, who died of cancer in 1979 at the tragically young age of 48, was well known in the 1970s as a writer and broadcaster on popular science topics.
However, his qualifications for being the principal referee of a groundbreaking paper on parapsychology are not immediately obvious. The National Physical Laboratory is a highly respected organisation, but so far as I have been able to discover, it has never conducted any research into the paranormal. Dr Evans was a respected scientist, but again, so far as I can discover he never conducted any research into the paranormal. In fact the only qualification that I have been able to find for the choice of Dr Evans as referee is that a year earlier, in 1973, he had published a book called Cults of Unreason, a book that makes interesting reading. (12)
In it, Dr Evans ‘exposed’ a range of ideas that he said were surrogate beliefs that had sprung up following the decline of orthodox religion. His choice of subjects is revealing. It includes: Scientology, UFOs, ‘black box’ medical practices, and eastern mysticism. Half the book is about Scientology then very much in the news and a subject that he had researched in some depth. But the remainder is an odd mixture of stories of flying saucer cults, medical men who claimed to cure with black boxes and the growing influence of eastern esoteric philosophy, such as Taoism, and Zen Buddhism.
Amongst this eclectic bunch there are very probably some people and some groups who deserve to be exposed as charlatans, people interested only in parting others from their money. But the strange thing is that alongside the obvious frauds are people about whom it is at least possible to have a different view if one examines the facts objectively (an activity that was Dr Evans’s profession). These people include George de la Warr, Wilhelm Reich, George Gurdjieff, Rudolph Steiner, the Krishna Consciousness movement and others.
There is, of course, no objection to Dr Evans or anyone else exposing these people as fraudulent – so long as they do so by producing some evidence to support such claims of fraud. But that was not Dr Evans’s method. Instead, he ridiculed them. He made fun of their beliefs and presented their stories in a way that makes them look slightly deranged. And he included them amongst rather lurid tales of undoubted frauds and con men so that they appeared guilty by association.
What was it that these people had done to deserve such treatment? They had increased Dr Evans’s level of cognitive dissonance by introducing him to startling new ideas – ideas that might contain some important elements of truth. Evans responded in a perfectly natural way. In the words of Leon Festinger quoted earlier, ‘Another way of reducing dissonance between one’s own opinion and the knowledge that someone else holds a different opinion is to make the other person, in some manner, not comparable to oneself. Such an allegation can take a number of forms. One can attribute different characteristics, experiences or motives to the other person or one can even reject him and derogate him.’ (13)
So although, on the face of it, Dr Evans had few qualifications to act as a referee of Puthoff and Targ’s paper, he was, from Nature’s point of view a perfect choice. And he delivered as expected. The referees came down, on the whole, against publication. Nature’s then editor, David Davies, was also against publication – he called it a ‘ragbag of a paper’ – but he could not reject it outright both because of the reputation of the authors and their research institute and because to reject it would merely stimulate further scientific speculation about the contents of the paper and give credence to allegations of suppression of the SRI results. (14)
Davies then conceived the following plan. He would publish the paper but he arranged with his friend Bernard Dixon, editor of the weekly magazine New Scientist, to publish simultaneously an article hostile to Uri Geller. Then he commissioned Christopher Evans to write the editorial comment in Nature, which would both be derogatory of the Stanford research and would point readers to the hostile article by Dr Joe Hanlon in New Scientist. And this is the plan that Davies and Dixon put into operation. (15)
Evans’s Nature editorial said that the SRI paper was ‘weak in design and presentation, to the extent that details given as to the precise way in which the experiment was carried out were disconcertingly vague’.
All the referees felt [wrote Evans] that the derails given of various safeguards and precautions introduced against the possibility of conscious or unconscious fraud on the part of one or other of the subjects were ‘uncomfortably vague’ (to use one phrase). This in itself might be sufficient to raise doubt that the experiments have demonstrated the existence of a new channel of communication which does not involve the use of the senses.
In the coded diplomatic language of science, Dr Evans is here telling his readers ‘we may have to publish this rubbish, but no-one has to believe it’.
A little later, Dr Evans wrote:
Publishing in a scientific journal is not a process of receiving a seal of approval from the establishment; rather it is the serving of notice on the community that there is something worthy of their attention and scrutiny. And this scrutiny is bound to take the form of a desire amongst some to repeat the experiments with even more caution. To this end the New Scientist does a service by publishing this week the results of Dr Joe Hanlon’s own investigations into a wide range of phenomena surrounding Mr Geller. (l6)
Naive readers of these words could be forgiven for imagining that they were being referred to an attempt to replicate, under laboratory conditions, the SRI experiments on Geller, but with tighter controls and greater precautions against fraud. In reality, Dr Hanlon’s ‘investigation’ took the form of two meetings with Geller, one in the lobby of a hotel and the other in the offices of the Sunday Mirror. And their scope was restricted to attempts by Dr Hanlon to catch Geller cheating (‘I was looking for tricks’, he told his readers).
Thus Dr Evans’s editorial really translated as: if you want the lowdown on how Geller pulls his conjuring tricks, go out and buy New Scientist – Joe Hanlon will tell you how he does it. A great many curious people did go out and buy the New Scientist that week. But they were disappointed. Hanlon had no scientific evidence at all on Geller, only a mixture of hearsay, gossip, suspicion and speculation that he referred to as ‘circumstantial evidence that Uri Geller is simply a good magician.’ Since Geller has never been caught cheating in laboratory tests (see Chapter 15), it is a little difficult to see what rational basis there can be for Hanlon’s belief except, perhaps, the deeply held conviction that paranormal phenomena must be bogus and, therefore, so must Geller.
This ‘assumption of guilt’ because the phenomena claimed must be fraudulent is a common feature of much writing against those who commit the unpardonable sin of discovering the new, and one which has fuelled many attacks in recent decades. One interesting example on a rather grand scale was provided by a 1981 book entitled Let’s Talk About Me, jointly written by psychiatrist and writer Anthony Clare, and the producer of his radio series with the same title, Sally Thompson.
The intent of the book can be accurately gauged from this single paragraph at the beginning:
During a period in which psychiatry has become self-obsessed and its public image somewhat blurred and murky, there has been a bewildering proliferation of therapies, alternately described as ‘new’ and ‘fringe’. Such therapies have tended to originate in California and spread east across the United States and thence to Europe. Many of these ‘new’ therapies stress their orthodox psychiatric roots, others take pride in the extent to which they have thrown off the constraints of established psychiatry and have ploughed genuinely virgin ground. All offer rich prizes – self-discovery, self-perfection, maturity, holism, earthly salvation, a community, a place in the sun.’ (17)
In this book, Clare and Thompson have done a number of things and done them well. They have isolated and critically examined each of the main humanistic or development therapy movements that have sprung up over the past thirty of forty years, especially in the United States. They have done their homework carefully on each movement or group and have set those therapies into a common background. They look at such figures as Carl Rogers and the encounter movement, Fritz Perls and Gestalt therapy, Wilhelm Reich and Bioenergetics, Ida Rolf and massage, Jacob Moreno and Psychodrama, Arthur Janov and Primal Therapy, Eric Berne and Transactional Analysis and many more.
They have shown that, in each case, the therapy was initiated by a single powerful personality, that their followers have defended and protected their theories and beliefs in a frankly rather sheep-like way but that in almost every case there is a number of disenchanted customers who have often paid large sums of money, have initially believed that they had received benefits, but ultimately ended up as disbelievers who felt they had been duped.
However, there are also a number of important things that Anthony Clare has not done that are somewhat surprising for a scientist investigating a scientific subject. The first is that he has not set out to interview real users of the therapies except where they happen to fall into his lap – he has used the flypaper method of collecting views and researching his subjects. Sometimes, the only interview he gives is actually favourable to the therapy.
But whether or not he has a customer interview, and whether or not it is favourable, Clare still arrives at the same conclusion in each and every case that he examines – that the founder was a charlatan, that the movement is a waste of time and money and you, the reader, would be much better off going to a real psychiatrist with real hospital qualifications whose methods can be shown to be scientific – orthodox medical science, in fact.
The second, and more important omission, is that Clare does not appear to have any concrete experience of the therapies he criticises and quite simply has not himself tried them, relying instead on the same sort of critical approach as Christopher Evans.
It is by no means uncommon in taboo fields of research for poachers to turn gamekeepers and vice versa. One well-known case of a scientist changing his mind from being a believer to an unbeliever is provided by Dr John Taylor, whose work was described earlier. In 1974, Dr Taylor examined Uri Geller and other ‘sensitives’ and gave the following estimate of their significance:
We can only hope that a careful study of the Geller phenomenon will allow us to reach a better understanding of the wider range of ESP manifestations and any underlying reality that they may expose. In this book we may find that is possible, and arrive at a unified explanation of a large body of ESP phenomena. The question is, can we expect to get from this view of reality any joy for the future of mankind? I think we can.
The way towards this goal will be taken by bringing the entire resources of science to bear on the problem of the nature of the Geller phenomenon. In the process, we may well discover surprising things about the interaction of mind and matter. (18)
By 1980, Dr Taylor had changed his mind and said that: ‘Every supernatural phenomenon I investigated crumbled to nothing before my gaze.’ (19)
Anyone reading this introduction to his later book might imagine that Dr Taylor must have suffered some pretty dramatic set-backs in his investigations. But consider just one example that he gives in this later book. He first presents details of a well-documented ‘poltergeist’ case involving a girl of nineteen employed in a law office in the German town of Rosenheim. The girl appeared to be able to cause all manner of strange phenomena over a period of months. Later on he remarks:
Whatever psychic powers the young girl at Rosenheim may have possessed, she had at least one thing in common with Nina Kulagina, a housewife born in Leningrad in the 1920s, whose ability to make objects move has been investigated extensively by Russian scientists and also by four parapsychologists from the west – H. Keil, B. Herbert, J.G. Pratt, and M. Ullman.
This trait is reported by the western investigators as follows: Kulagina can, by placing her hands on a person’s forearm, induce a sensation that feels like very real heat to the point of being painful…. Both Herbert and Fahler had ‘burn’ marks on their arms that were visible for several hours. No blisters or other negative effects developed.
Of this case, Taylor remarks, ‘Direct fraud can be excluded here quite effectively.’ The investigators also reported the ‘burning’ effect when Kulagina did not actually touch the person’s arm.
So Dr Taylor has reached his conclusion that paranormal forces are an illusion in spite of evidence such as this that at least two people are independently known who, in controlled conditions that exclude fraud, are able to induce ‘burn’ marks on the skin of others without direct contact.
Dr Taylor’s change of mind is simply puzzling, but the activities of some opponents of the paranormal are alarming. In 1955, Dr George Price of the Department of Medicine at the University of Minnesota published an article in Science magazine on the research into extrasensory perception carried out by Dr J.B. Rhine at Duke University and British researcher Dr R.G. Soal. Price argued that ESP was scientifically impossible and that therefore Rhine and Soal must be fraudulent experimenters. This authoritative article in so authoritative a journal was interpreted by many scientists as the final nail in the coffin of paranormal research. Nearly twenty years later, in 1972, Price wrote a public apology to Rhine and Soal in the same journal, withdrawing some of his allegations of fraud and admitting that he had made them without even attempting to find any evidence. Price admitted that he had been under the mistaken assumption that Rhine was trying to promote some kind of religious belief. (20)
Some self-appointed guardians of the current paradigm have become so concerned at the modern trend towards ‘alternative science’ and the distressing tendency for people to think for themselves instead of accepting the received wisdom of science that they have formally created groups dedicated to combating this movement. One such group call themselves CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, and have set out to explode what they see as the myth of the paranormal, under the umbrella concept that all phenomena are explicable within the framework of accepted science (although it is not entirely clear how, scientifically, they can know this in advance of actually investigating the phenomena).
CSICOP was founded in the United States in 1976 by Dr Paul Kurtz, a philosopher at the State University of New York, and sociologist Dr Marcello Truzzi, together with a number of other academics. The two principal founders acted as co-chairmen. Scientists in the United Kingdom have also joined CSICOP, amongst the most prominent of which are psychology professor C.E.M. Hansel and Dr Susan Blackmore. The primary aim of the organisation when it was first formed was declared to be, ‘the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view’, together with the dissemination of ‘factual information about the results of such enquiries to the scientific community and the public’. (21)
This scientific objective, had it been put into practice, would certainly have been welcomed by most paranormal investigators, even if the tone of the investigation was severely critical. However, within a year of formation of the Committee, Truzzi and other members resigned because they were unhappy with the crusading zeal and inquisitional approach adopted by Kurtz and others in place of the spirit of scientific enquiry. Truzzi was replaced with the more ideologically ‘sound’ Kendrick Frazier, editor of CSICOP’s journal Skeptical Enquirer.
The sort of style adopted by members can be gauged from this observation on the organisation by Dr Peter Sturrock, professor of space science at Stanford University in California, writing in New Scientist: ‘In October 1632, Galileo was summoned to Rome to be examined by the inquisition for subtly but forcefully advocating the heliocentric theory. Today, a leading investigator of parapsychology, cryptozoology or UFO research may be politely invited to take part in a panel discussion at a CSICOP meeting.’ (22)
This may not sound too intimidating until you learn of the behaviour of some CSICOP members. Professor Hansel, for example, believes that if he is able to conceive of any hypothetical way in which fraud could account for the results of a parapsychology experiment, then his ‘rational reconstruction’ constitutes proof that the experiment was faked. In one CSICOP publication, Hansel suggested a complicated means by which a famous series of ESP experiments at Duke University could have been faked. His scenario involved the subject secretly gaining entrance to a building, crawling through the attics and peeping through a hole in the ceiling while pretending to be guessing cards in another building. Hansel’s suggestion was based on a personal visit he made to the university twenty years after the experiment, but he was unaware that the laboratory had been rebuilt since the experiment. When the original blueprints were produced to show that his scenario was impossible, Hansel ignored them and maintained his ‘fraud’ scenario in a reissue of his book by CSICOP’s publishing house as recently as 1980. (23)
You might imagine that an organisation which calls itself a committee for scientific investigation, and whose declared aim is to carry out such research, would concern itself mainly or wholly with conducting scientific investigations, or at least with fostering or sponsoring such investigations by others. Surprisingly, CSICOP neither conducts nor sponsors any such investigations, and has not done so for fifteen years, since an unseemly squabble over its first and only foray into paranormal research.
Shortly after the organisation was first formed in 1976, it embarked on a study designed to replicate the work done by French researchers Michel and Françoise Gauquelin. The Gauquelins’ work infuriated CSICOP (and continues to do so) because it provides an empirical basis for some of the claims of astrology the French workers found, for example, an inexplicably regular relationship between the birth times of sports champions and the position of Mars. (24)
After a CSICOP team conducted its own investigation, Paul Kurtz announced in the Skeptical Enquirer that the Gauquelins’ work could not be replicated and that there was no such correlation. This proved too much for CSICOP executive committee member Dennis Rawlins, who had acted as the study’s statistician. Rawlins resigned from the committee saying that Kurtz and his fellow researchers had manipulated the data and had then engineered a cover-up when he attempted to bring the matter to the attention of other committee members. A number of other CSICOP members also resigned when the scandal was made public. (25)
The position today is that CSICOP no longer conducts any serious scientific investigations nor does it attempt to replicate those of others. Instead, it issues ex cathedra pronouncements through the medium of its own publications affirming its fundamentalist belief in orthodox science.
Rather more upmarket from CSICOP is Britain’s COPUS, the Committee On the Public Understanding of Science. This organisation was founded in 1986 and is run jointly by Britain’s most prestigious scientific institutions: The Royal Society, the Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Like CSICOP, COPUS is composed of self-elected guardians of the current paradigm. Unlike CSICOP, however, its position is not so much that the paradigm is in danger from irrational thinking and weird beliefs, but that we the public, because of our limited intellects and scientific ignorance, have failed to grasp the awesome nature and meaning of reductionist scientific discoveries. Consequently we persist in hanging on to outmoded concepts such as vitalist ideas in biology and the irrational belief that philosophy and history contain knowledge. By making heroic efforts in a missionary role the Committee hope that eventually they will convert the more enlightened among us to reductionism.
Amongst other activities COPUS makes grants of smallish amounts (around £2,000 or so) to finance worthy local scientific initiatives. Since 1987 it has handed out more than £400,000 on such ventures. The majority of these projects have clearly laudable aims that no rational person could complain at, such as making young people more aware of the importance of engineering; helping local museums build new scientific exhibits and so on. But you can still detect an unconscious egoistical undercurrent to some of these expenses, such as funding maps of cities showing where famous scientists lived. (How would members of COPUS react to public money being spent on maps showing where famous journalists lived?)
Although COPUS is a cut above CSICOP socially (its members are mainly scientific toffs such as its chairman Dr Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology at University College London) its intellectual level is the same. The Committee does not for example explain how, scientifically, it can know in advance that a reductionist explanation will ultimately answer all the questions of science. Indeed, such a belief looks perilously akin to scientific mysticism. Dr Wolpert revealed the kind of scientific attitude he believes is best for us, the public, to cultivate when he recently told the Sunday Times, “Open minds are empty minds.”
The activities of organisations like CSICOP and COPUS rarely impinge on the public consciousness, but occasionally there are controversies that make the headlines. Probably the best known former member of CSICOP is television conjuror James Randi, who became famous for his attempts to expose Uri Geller as a cheat. (26) Randi cheerfully describes himself as a conjuror who is skilled in misdirecting people, and he has employed his professional skills in attempts to discredit Geller and other ‘psychics’. Randi claims that, in principle, he can duplicate by stage magic anything that Geller and other metal benders can do in the laboratory. In practice, though, he is able to replicate only some of those phenomena by conjuring tricks, and, unlike Geller and company, he does not submit himself to controlled laboratory conditions. Where he is unable to explain a particular phenomenon, he simply ignores it.
In the 1972 experiments at Stanford Research Institute, for example, there were four things that Geller did under controlled conditions, on videotape, that require explanation. The first was guessing the number on the face of a die shaken in a closed metal box, eight times. The second was a similar experiment in which he guessed the contents of sealed aluminium containers twelve times. The third was when he caused the readout of an electronic scale to deflect in both the ‘heavier’ direction and the ‘lighter’ without touching it. The fourth was causing the needle of a gaussmeter to deflect without touching it. In his book ‘exposing’ Geller, Randi explained the first by suggesting that, in front of investigators Puthoff and Targ, Geller picked up the metal box, opened it slightly, peeped inside without them noticing and replaced the box. He repeated this process eight times, but is so skilled at misdirection that the investigators did not notice, and the actions were not recorded on the videotape monitor. Randi did not attempt to explain the sealed aluminium containers, the electronic scales or the gaussmeter. However, he concluded from this analysis that he had exposed Geller’s SRI tests as fraudulent.
This depressing catalogue of cases inevitably provokes the question: precisely what is it that the guardians are guarding? Who or what are they guarding it from? And why have they selected themselves for this task?
I believe the answers to all these questions are contained in the preceding two chapters. They are guarding us, the community, from the awful effects of believing something that is irrational. (Meaning: they are guarding the current paradigm.) They are guarding us from the charlatans and fraudsters who play in an unscrupulous way on the fear and ignorance of ordinary members of the public, who, because we lack the necessary scientific knowledge and training, are unable to evaluate the nature of this threat for ourselves. (They know best what we should think.) And they have selected themselves because it is their duty to put their superior knowledge and expertise at the disposal of the community to protect us from the harmful effects of weird and unpredictable belief systems. (They have low tolerance of cognitive dissonance and are striving to reduce it to a minimum.)
Perhaps, though, science really does need groups like CSICOP. After all, if science does not defend itself, who will? Dr Richard Broughton is director of research at the Institute for Parapsychology in North Carolina. His view is that science’s greatest strength is its ability to protect itself.
Of course the real function of CSICOP is as an advocacy group to lobby for a particular point of view. Certainly the organisation is effective in this way, and few would deny that there is often a need to counter the public’s credulity. But somewhere along the line CSICOP abandoned the objectively critical approach and adopted a ‘stop at any cost’ approach toward any topic that it deems off-limits to science. Fortunately the scientific controversy over parapsychology will not be resolved at press conferences and in the media. Only in the appropriate professional forums can the give-and-take of science go on. (27)
‘Science’, observes Dr Broughton, ‘is a marvellously self-correcting system. If there are errors or bad science, this will be weeded out in due course. Science does not need vigilantes to guard the gates.’
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