Encounters with the Paranormal: Science, Knowledge and Belief.
Encounters with the Paranormal is the fourth in a series of collected readings from the Skeptical Inquirer (SI), a magazine that serves as one of the chief publishing vehicles of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), an organization of scientists, philosophers, and other persons who are largely skeptical of the claims of parapsychology and other "fringe" disciplines. Kendrick Frazier is the editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and Encounters with the Paranormal contains articles published in SI during the years 1990-1997. In some cases, the articles have been updated for the purposes of inclusion in the present volume, and, in some cases, letters of rebuttal of the original article that were published in subsequent issues of SI have been included in the relevant chapters.
The first six contributions fall under the heading "Science, Imagination, and Responsibility." The late Carl Sagan (one of the reviewer's former college teachers) leads off in typical Saganesque fashion, recalling how he stared in childhood wonder at the stars and planets in the Brooklyn night sky. Sagan argues that, unlike many areas of human endeavor, science and the scientific establishment reward those who challenge accepted ideas. I wonder how many parapsychologists would agree with this assessment. (Surely not billions and billions.)
The second contribution is by Leon Lederman and is entitled "A Strategy for Saving Science." Lederman laments the rise of what he sees as an antiscience backlash in the media, in society in general, and in academia. He particularly decries the increasing number of postmodern deconstructionists and epistemological relativists within the academic establishment who attack the very notion of objective truth altogether. He acknowledges that science has caused some problems in society through the sometimes unwise applications of technology. He also notes that unequal access to technology has lead to serious inequities in society.
Lederman calls for better education in science. He notes that teachers in general have lost status in American society, and he sees a great need to bolster respect for the education process. He also calls for more integrated science courses in the precollege curriculum.
The third chapter is by Paul Kurtz, one of the founders of CSICOP, and is entitled "The New Skepticism." Like Lederman, Kurtz rejects nihilistic versions of skepticism in which even the possibility of real knowledge is denied. He distinguishes a priori unbelief from what he calls "skeptical inquiry," the latter being more "open-minded" in that it accepts the possibility of scientific knowledge and the existence of transcultural ethics.
Nobel Laureate chemist Glenn Seaborg reviews the poor showing of American students in international tests of scientific and mathematical knowledge. He decries the poor mathematical and scientific training of teachers as well as the inadequate compensation of teachers. He cites the curriculum reform effort by the Lawrence Hall of Science as a step toward a solution. Regrettably, we are still in much the same boat eight years after Seaborg's article graced the pages of SI.
Martin Gardner contributes a chapter entitled "Science vs. Beauty?" Gardner points to the antiscience attitude expressed by some poets, such as Dickinson and Keats. Contra such poets, Gardner argues that, instead, scientific knowledge can serve to enhance one's sense of beauty and wonder, as one realizes the true vastness of space, the fact that one's body is composed of matter synthesized in stars, and so forth.
Lee Loevinger, a lawyer, after providing a very brief and fairly bad review of the history of science, argues against the possibility that there will ever be a "complete" and "final" scientific theory. In Loevinger's view, science always asks new questions, thus often generating new areas of ignorance rather than knowledge.
Part 2 of the book, entitled "Science and Antiscience," is a continuation of the themes begun in Part 1. Paul Kurtz's essay "The Antiscience Problem" comprises the first chapter in this section. Kurtz begins by lamenting the negative portrayal of scientists in movies, citing Spielberg's Jurassic Park as a prime example. He notes that this negative view of science stems in part from the negative effects of scientific advances, such as the growth of nuclear arsenals and the degradation of the environment. He also cites Freeman Dyson's warning that science should not just be about building toys (and medical treatments) for the rich.
Kurtz notes that, in recent decades, many philosophers of science such as Kuhn and Feyerabend have attacked the notion of absolute scientific truth. He further observes that some recent attacks building on these critiques have taken the form of embracing a culture of mysticism, and he laments the growth of belief in the occult and the paranormal. In defense of the notion of scientific truth, he cites the cross-cultural methodology and standards of science and the intersubjective nature of scientific inquiry. He also cites the practical results of science, such as its technological applications, as showing the great power of scientifically revealed truth in comparison to mystically revealed truth. He further notes that deconstructionism contains the seeds of its own destruction. If there is no standard of truth, how can it be maintained that the claims of deconstructionism are true?
Kurtz sees a need to respond to attacks on science in order to stem a rising tide of irrationalism, and he sees educational efforts in schools and communication efforts in the media as key elements in such a defense.
Next is "Knocking Science for Fun and Profit," by Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, the authors of the highly acclaimed book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science. Gross and Levitt outline the threat to science emerging from what they term the "academic left" (a rough confederation of deconstructionist, feminist, Afrocentric, and other postmodern writers). They trace the current alienation from science to such factors as the rising cost of medical care and the difficulty many people (including the writers of the academic left) have in understanding and learning science. They point to the damage to black children and girls that may result from the disparagement of science by Afrocentric and feminist writers, citing, for instance, the assertion by some feminist writers that one cannot both be a woman and do science as it is presently constructed.
The next essay is by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, an organic chemist at Wayne State University in Detroit. De Montellano observes that pseudoscience is promoted as science in a prominent text for teachers in Oregon on Afrocentric thought (including claims of discoveries relating to astrology and psi on the part of the ancient Egyptians). He contends that such educational efforts violate the principle of the separation of church and state, because science "can use only natural laws to explain observed phenomena" (p. 81). Here one might ask which set of natural laws de Montellano would like to put forth as the one true faith, as natural laws are constantly subject to revision and debate. It would seem that de Montellano is not opposed to the fusion of state and religion so long as the religion that is being promoted is scientific materialism in its most naive, Newtonian form.
Like Kurtz, de Montellano notes that such Afrocentric texts will push minority children toward an acceptance of pseudoscience, thus further decreasing their representation in real science.
Noretta Koertge of Indiana University contributes an essay on feminist critiques of science. She notes that such critiques typically reject the achievements of real scientists and mathematicians, such as Marie Curie and Emily Noether, in favor of detailing the role played by women as herbalists. Feminist writers, Koertge asserts, largely reject the methods of science in favor of "women's ways of knowing." In their embrace of irrationalism, they arrive at such absurd conclusions as the denial of any real biological distinctions between the sexes and the existence of parthenogenetic forms of reproduction in humans (thus eliminating the need for men altogether). She also notes feminist scholars' tendency to adopt a very credulous approach to allegedly recovered memories that relate to satanic and childhood abuse. Like Kurtz and de Montellano, she points to the danger that such views of science may further undermine the representation of women in real science.
The final essay in this section is by Martin Gardner, who notes that a bogus "deconstructionist" article by physicist Alan Sokal was published by the editors of the journal Social Text and was taken seriously by many academic leftists. Sokal had written the article as a joke (and as a test). In it, he defended the position that physical reality is entirely a social and linguistic construct. Gardner goes on to attack deconstructionist, Marxist, Afrocentric, and feminist critiques of science in general.
Part 3 of the book is entitled "Science, Pseudoscience, and Pathological Science." In this section, the authors begin to delve into specific claims made by paranormalists. Alan Cromer, a professor of physics at Northeastern University, leads off with an essay entitled "Pathological Science: An Update." After a brief discussion of Blondot's claims to have discovered "N-rays," Cromer turns his attention to Rhine's early evidence for extrasensory perception. He cites Irving Langmuir's accusation that Rhine suppressed low scores in ESP tests that would have been enough to bring the overall average of his results to the chance level of 5. Langmuir claimed that Rhine showed him a sealed, coded envelope containing data from low scoring runs during a visit to Rhine's lab in 1934. Langmuir claimed that Rhine had improperly omitted these scores in the overall analysis of his results, publishing that the overall scoring average was 7 rather than actual value of 5. Cromer's brief discussion of this controversy suggests that Rhine was trying to draw Langmuir's attention to the phenomenon of psi-missing.
Nonetheless, the problem of data selection, or nonblindly selecting certain subsets of runs for detailed analysis and reporting was a problem in the early days of parapsychology, when the science of statistics was just being invented and the modern techniques of meta-analysis had not yet been developed.
Cromer cites similar problems of data selection by the particle physicists at CERN. Cromer contends that these scientists discarded data (on the basis of suspected methodological flaws) that did not show a claimed anomalous dip in the resonance curve of the A2 particle, thus producing data that confirmed their own theoretical bias. Cromer also reviews the recent flap over "cold fusion."
In the ensuing essay, Dan Larhammar discusses a paper by Dmitrii A. Kuznetsov, a Russian scientist who claims to have discovered a mysterious antievolutionary factor in voles that inhibits the transcription of messenger RNA (mRNA) from other vole species (but not from more distant species such as rabbits and humans). Kuznetsov claims that his results support creationism. Larhammar's critique of Kuznetsov's paper is rather weak, consisting chiefly of the observation that parts of mRNA molecules are conserved across species and that many of the references cited in Kuznetsov's article appear to be bogus.
Elie A. Shneour contributes a chapter on lie detectors. Shneour points out that there is no known physiological response that is unique to lying, and that lie detectors have a high false positive rate (i.e., they indicate that subjects are lying when they are not). This high false positive rate puts innocent people in jeopardy. Shneour sees lie detectors as a peculiarly American phenomenon.
Scott Lilienfield considers the subject of "honesty tests." He echoes Shneour's remarks regarding polygraph tests and notes that sodium amytal ("truth serum") is just as unreliable. He notes that pen-and-paper honesty questionnaires are also characterized by a very high false positive rate and actually correlate positively with objective measures of lying. Such tests have a very small correlation with incidents of theft on the job and they typically have no built-in scale to detect "faking good" on the part of the subjects.
The next essay is by physicist Victor Stenger, who takes on what he calls "quantum quackery." Stenger notes that new age gurus such as Deepak Chopra claim that the physical world is a creation of the mind and that all reality is observer-dependent. He further notes that quantum nonlocality is often cited as a basis for accepting psi powers. He traces the current "QM craze" to the publication of Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics in 1975. Stenger argues that the quantum mechanical wave function is merely a mathematical device for computing probabilities. Because the collapse of quantum mechanical state vectors occurs randomly, he contends, no signal can be sent through nonlocal quantum connections. But here Stenger's argument becomes circular: he bases his argument on precisely what he is trying to prove. If there is psi, quantum collapse may not occur randomly, but may be directed in part by mind. In fact, as readers of this Journal know, there is abundant evidence for such nonrandom behavior of quantum mechanical state vectors. Stenger's argument takes the following form: there is no psi, therefore there is no nonrandom collapse of state vectors, therefore there is no psi. The circularity should be quite transparent. Stenger also argues that any deterministic theory based on hidden variables (i.e., variables that determine the outcome of quantum processes) would have to involve superluminal (faster-than-light) signals. But this, he notes, would violate the special theory of relativity. Once again, Stenger's argument is circular. His argument against superluminal signals is that there are no superluminal signals. To which, one might reply, "Are too!"
The final chapter is this section is by Joe Nickell, who takes on the subject of spontaneous human combustion. Much of the chapter is devoted to a review of the book Ablaze, by Larry E. Arnold, an author Nickell characterizes as a Pennsylvania school bus driver. Nickell points out that in most alleged cases of spontaneous human combustion, the victim is obese and often a heavy smoker. Nickell argues that the victim's liquefied body fat provides the fuel for the fire, in what is colorfully termed the "human candle" effect.
Part 4 of the book deals with the last year's mass suicide involving the Heaven's Gate cult. Paul Kurtz blames the Heaven's Gate suicides in part on the networks' failure to grant CSICOP members sufficient air time to get across the skeptical point of view. He notes that the established religions are essentially institutionalized cults and in most instances no less irrational than the Heaven's Gate cult.
In his essay, Martin Gardner traces the first claims of having detected a spacecraft following the comet Hale-Bopp to psychics in California and Atlanta. He provides a brief review of the careers of Herve Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles (the cult founders nicknamed Bo and Peep or, if you prefer, Do and Ti). Like Kurtz, Gardner compares the Heaven's Gate cult to more established religions.
Part 5 of the book is entitled "Science and the Psychology of Belief" and deals chiefly with alleged failures in reasoning that may underlie people's belief in the paranormal. The first essay is by James Alcock, who contends that brains evolved to generate beliefs rapidly (e.g., "there's a fox lurking in the grass") in order to ensure that an animal will take quick action to avoid dangers. He further suggests that false beliefs may sometimes promote survival, noting that studies have shown that depressed people often have more accurate beliefs regarding possible dangers than do nondepressed people.
Anthony Pratkanis, a social psychologist, contributes an essay entitled "How to Sell a Pseudoscience." Among other tactics to employ in starting one's own cult, Pratkanis recommends getting recruits to make a public and/or financial commitment to the cult as soon as possible.
Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky review several errors in human reasoning detected by psychologists Tversky and Kahneman. Such errors, in their view, are responsible for the common belief that "like produces like." For instance, the idea that the cause of a disease should resemble its symptoms was responsible for the long-held belief on the part of the medical establishment that stress, rather than a bacterial infection, was the cause of ulcers. The law of similarity is also responsible for many of the tenets of astrology in their view, such as the belief that persons born under the sign of Capricorn tend to be stubborn (i.e., goat-like). Similarly flawed reasoning, they contend, is responsible for the widespread belief in the efficacy of dream and handwriting interpretation.
James Lett considers the factors promoting belief in the paranormal within America. He notes a general irrationality of the American culture, characterized by belief in the soul, graphology, and other dubious tenets. He contends that Americans believe that irrational thought is quite appropriate in some demarcated areas (such as religion). He suggests that the uncertainties of modern American life also serve to promote belief in the paranormal. Other factors include the unreliability of the media and the fact that American schools have focused on the body of facts uncovered by science at the expense of teaching the methodology of science.
Richard Wiseman, Matthew Smith, and Jeff Wiseman contribute an essay on the shortcomings of eyewitness testimony. They review the experimental results of Morris and Wiseman regarding differences between "sheep" and "goats" (i.e., believers and nonbelievers in psi) in terms of remembering the "important" details of a magic trick. They also report results indicating that sheep incorrectly report more paranormal phenomena occurring during a staged seance than do goats.
In her chapter, Susan Blackmore reviews the findings of Blackmore and Troscianko that sheep tend to underestimate the probabilities of chance events (such as an ESP "hit") in comparison to goats. Sheep are also more likely to see meaningful forms in degraded stimuli, but are not more accurate in identifying the actual shape involved. Blackmore suggests that such tendencies to project meaning into random events may be responsible in part for generating reports of spontaneous psi phenomena.
The final essay in this section is by Christopher French, Mandy Fowler, Katy McCarthy, and Debbie Peers, who review the "Barnum effect" in astrology (i.e., the tendency of people to believe that vaguely worded statements are apt descriptions of themselves). They note that subjects rank appropriately constructed Barnum statements as being more applicable to themselves than "genuine" or false horoscopes. They further note that their own data fail to support their hypothesis that persons who coincidentally have the "sun sign" personality traits ascribed to them by astrologers tend to become strong believers in astrology on the basis of this chance "confirmation" of astrological theory.
Part 6 of the book is entitled "Psychology and the Claims of Psi." Noted skeptic Ray Hyman leads off with his essay, "Evaluation of the Military's Twenty-Year Program on Psychic Spying," a review of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Stargate program. When this program was about to be transferred to the CIA, the latter agency (through the mediation of the American Institute for Research) commissioned Hyman and statistician Jessica Utts to review the results of the Stargate research. Hyman is, as one might anticipate, skeptical that these results contain any real evidence for psi. His main complaint seems to be that the principal investigator served as judge. Hyman calls, instead, for independent judging. Even though the judging was performed blindly, Hyman refuses to accept the statistically significant results as evidence for psi. He further contends that, because the experiments are less than ten years old, they may contain hidden and subtle biases. He maintains that it may take years before such experimental defects come to light.
Hyman notes that Utts sees the Stargate results as an experimental confirmation of the ganzfeld research. However, Hyman points to the fact that, in the ganzfeld experiments, significant results seemed to be largely confined to trials in which the subject acted as judge, whereas the trials involving independent judging tended to yield nonsignificant results. The opposite pattern has held in the remote viewing research. Surely, however, Hyman should be forced to concede that the Stargate research is at least a confirmation of the basic psi process involved in the two types of experiments, even if the modus operandi of psi is different in the two experimental paradigms. Hyman contends that, even if the Stargate remote viewing research were to be replicated with independent judging, "it would be a far cry from having demonstrated something paranormal" (p. 226), due to the fact that ESP is negatively defined. What is needed, in Hyman's view, is a positive theory of psi that will tell us when psi is present and when it is absent. One could respond that existing tests of statistical significance provide satisfactory criteria for distinguishing between the presence and absence of psi (leaving aside the questions of methodological flaws and fraud).
Hyman asserts that we should wait for experimental confirmations of the Stargate results before accepting them as valid. This recommendation, however, ignores the results of several meta-analyses of remote viewing and free response ESP tests that have already been reported (some of which Hyman has conducted himself).
Hyman concludes by asserting that parapsychologists should specify when psi phenomena may be reliably observed. There are, however, many phenomena, ranging from gamma ray bursts in astronomy to observations of rare particles in physics, that cannot be replicated at will, but that are nonetheless regarded as real. Hyman also states that parapsychologists need to show that psi phenomena vary in lawful ways with specific variables. In this regard, parapsychologists can point to many such relationships, which range from the sheep-goat effect to the dependence of psi phenomena on geomagnetic conditions.
The second essay in this section is also by Hyman and is devoted to a specific attack on Jessica Utts' conclusions regarding the Stargate research and other psi-related findings. He asserts that Utts, who disagreed with Hyman in her evaluation of the Stargate research, is making extreme claims regarding the existence of psi phenomena based on inadequate evidence. He contends that, if Utts' conclusions are accepted, fundamental principles of science (including the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity) must be overturned. He takes issue with meta-analyses of lines of parapsychological research, contending that the same data are being used both to generate and to test hypotheses. He notes that quality ratings of experiments cannot be done blindly and are therefore subject to bias. He points to possible methodological flaws in some of the newer ganzfeld experiments, and he reiterates his argument that the results of parapsychological experiments cannot be taken as evidence of psi, both because psi is defined negatively and because there may be as yet undetected flaws in these experiments.
With regard to this last observation, it is beginning to look as though Hyman and other critics are starting to absolve themselves of the need to point to possible flaws in an experiment when they fail to find any. It is now evidently sufficient merely to state that there may be undetected flaws. Pursuing Hyman's line of reasoning further, we will have to wait years to see if such flaws come to light before accepting the results of a parapsychological experiment. And, of course, by then the experiment will be considered to be outdated and unworthy of consideration due to changing experimental standards, the unavailability of witnesses to the procedures, and so forth.
Hyman's two essays are followed by a chapter by Sue Blackmore, in which she reiterates her charges that the ganzfeld experiments performed by Carl Sargent were characterized by inadequate randomization procedures.
The next essay is Anthony Pratkanis' "Myths of Subliminal Persuasion." Pratkanis debunks the original claim by James Vicary that subliminal messages in movies were used successfully to increase Coke and popcorn sales. Vicary never provided an official write-up of his experiments, and later tests using appropriate control conditions showed no effect of subliminal messages. Pratkanis notes that, while there is evidence for subliminal perception, there is no evidence that subliminal messages can influence people's behavior. To this assertion, one might respond that if subliminal stimuli cannot influence the behavior of human subjects, there would be no evidence for subliminal perception. Such evidence that is available, including "priming" studies (in which the subliminal presentation of a word biases the interpretation of subsequently presented words), clearly relies on some behavioral change on the part of the subject in order to infer the existence of the subliminal effect. Pratkanis concludes by reviewing studies of the efficacy of subliminal tapes aimed at helping people to improve or change their behavior. Nine out of nine studies (including Pratkanis' own research) produced negative results.
The next paper, by psychologist Timothy Moore, is also devoted to an examination of the efficacy of subliminal messages. Moore distinguishes between subliminal effects on priming and guessing behavior, for which there is ample evidence, and subliminal influence on motives, attitudes, beliefs, and choices, for which there is no evidence. Here again, one could argue that in priming studies, subliminally presented words have been shown to influence subjects' choices in interpreting subsequently present words.
Richard Wiseman, Donald West, and Roy Stemman then review controlled studies of psychics who offer their services to police departments in order to help them solve crimes. Wiseman et al. note that there have been only a small number of such studies and that the results have been largely negative. They then present the results of their own study, which was conducted in response to a television station's request. They provided objects relating to various crimes to such psychic detectives and to college students not claiming any psychic abilities. They found no difference between the two groups in terms of the number of details relating to the crimes that were described accurately.
Part 7 of the book is entitled "Psychology and the Anomalous Experience." The first chapter consists of an analysis of near-death experiences (NDEs) by Susan Blackmore. Blackmore hypothesizes that the tunnel-like imagery often experienced in NDEs is caused by the fact that brain cells are firing randomly in the NDE state and that more cells are devoted to the center of the visual field than to the periphery, thus making the center of the visual field appear brighter. She simulated this process with a computer program and succeeded in producing a tunnel-like effect. Blackmore's hypothesis is incredibly naive from a neurological standpoint. If her hypothesis were true, one would expect the visual field always to appear brighter in the middle than at the periphery, as there would invariably be more cells devoted to the center firing at any given time, insofar as they vastly outnumber cells devoted to the periphery. Also, it would be anticipated that the cells devoted to the periphery would have wider visual fields than the cells devoted to the center, which engage in more fine-grained analysis of visual events. This is a major problem with Blackmore's computer simulation. The computer's pixels are all of the same size. A proper simulation would have involved much larger pixels at the periphery. The brain is a remarkable organ for filling in missing details, including the constancy of illumination. Indeed, color and brightness constancy forms the basis for many well known visual illusions. One does not sit back as some sort of homunculus and watch one's neurons fire like so many pixels on a television screen. Rather, to some extent, one's neurons are one's self (although perhaps not entirely). They form part of the watcher, not the watched.
Blackmore ascribes out-of-body experiences (OBEs) occurring during the NDE as being due to NDErs' adoption of a visual model of the world based on memory, involving a "bird's-eye view" of the world. She found no greater tendency for OBErs or NDErs to adopt such a bird's-eye view when visually remembering a scene, but she did find evidence that people who can easily switch viewpoints in an imagined scene report more OBEs. She ascribes these alleged bursts of memory to discharges in the temporal lobe of the brain (a la Penfield). Blackmore maintains that notion of an ego separate from the brain is an illusion based on cognitive models of the self. (Too bad she could not remember this point herself when constructing her theory of tunnel imagery!) She further maintains that the disruption of the brain in the near death state enables us to see that we are each just a "lump of flesh," that our experiences will end when our brains cease to function, and that "we are not so very important after all" (p. 283). One can only surmise that her motivation is to cheer us all up.
The next chapter is also by Blackmore, and deals with the subject of lucid dreams. She reports that the subjective lengths of activities in dreams and patterns of cerebral activity when carrying out dream tasks are similar to those when the same activities are carried out in the waking states. She also reviews techniques for inducing lucid dreams, and traces several connections between lucid dreams and OBEs.
In the next essay, Peter Huston ascribes the experience of being ridden by a succubus-like "night hag" to a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic imagery (imagery experienced when awakening from sleep). He applies a similar interpretation to reported cases of UFO abductions.
In their chapter, James Mulick, John Jacobson, and Frank Kobe debunk the technique of "facilitated communication" that is sometimes used with autistic children. The evidence indicates that the real source of such communication lies with the facilitators themselves rather than the autistic children. (In a typical facilitated communication procedure, the facilitator guides the autistic child's hand over a computer keyboard to compensate for alleged motor difficulties.) When one withholds crucial information from the facilitators (by not showing them a relevant picture, masking verbal messages with white noise, etc.), no coherent communication occurs.
Part 8 of the book is devoted to an analysis of "Social Dynamics and Belief." John Taylor, Raymond Eve, and Francis Harrold begin by presenting a factor analysis that indicates pseudoscientific beliefs may be partitioned into two major, largely antagonistic classes: religiously based beliefs such as creationism and Biblical literalism, and postmodern or "new age" beliefs such as the belief in ancient astronauts or psychic powers. They found that people subscribing to these two classes of beliefs lie on opposite sides of the conservatism-liberalism dimension of political attitudes (one hopes they did not waste too much of the taxpayers' money in replicating what is already common knowledge).
Evan Harrington reviews conspiracy theories, including accusations that satanic cults have been operating in various preschool programs, beginning with the famous case of the McMartin preschool. He notes that one woman claims to have been tortured by cultists into having sex with George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Hillary Clinton. (Somehow, she managed to escape Bill Clinton's attention; perhaps torture was not required in this case). He also reviews allegations of mind-control plots concocted by a satanist-CIA conspiracy. Harrington's chapter is largely based on his experiences at a conference on mind control.
James Stewart discusses a case of "collective hysteria" that occurred on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. This case took the form of a series of attacks of nausea, dizziness, and fainting among schoolgirls, leading to accusations that the Israelis were using poison gas. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, and the World Health Organization each attributed these attacks to mass hysteria. Steward speculates on the underlying motives that might have been responsible for these attacks. Such motives include the desire for attention, a wish to embarrass the Israelis, and behavioral conflict arising from a call by the PLO to boycott school in protest of Israeli actions.
Next follow two essays on satanic cults. Robert Hicks notes that police organizations have conducted seminars on satanically-inspired crimes based on nothing more than newspaper stories. Jeffrey Victor ties rumors about satanic cult activity to social stress.
Jan Brunvand, an authority on urban folklore, reviews an instance of "faxlore" in which rumors that an urban gang was about to perform an initiation involving driving with their lights out were spread via fax machines. As part of the alleged initiation rite, the aspiring gang member was required to follow anyone who blinked his headlines at him home and murder him. Two variants of this rumor involved shooting people randomly and raping cheerleaders.
Paul Barber discusses vampire lore, including rumors that vampires are currently stalking Los Angeles, as well as vampire folklore in general. Barber considers possible origins of vampirical beliefs in real phenomena involving corpses. He notes that blood will sometimes pool in the mouth of a corpse due to the buildup of gases in the interior of the body. Also, corpses may emit a screaming sound when stakes are driven through their hearts, due to the release of gas. Barber dismisses the idea that vampire mythology has any basis in experiences of people suffering from the disease of porphyria (which causes photosensitivity and anemia). Barber notes that drinking blood is not an effective treatment of porphyria and that vampire legends clearly derive from interactions with corpses. He notes that, historically, living persons were never accused of drinking blood.
The last section of the book is entitled "The Malleability of Memory." Elizabeth Loftus describes the case of a researcher who posed as a patient in order to expose the coercive tactics of "recovered memory" therapists. She compares the current wave of accusations of child abuse based on such dubious "recovered memories" to the witchhunts of the 16th and 17th centuries. (Indeed, in many instances, the current craze is literally a witchhunt, as preschool teachers are accused of performing satanic rites involving young children.)
In his essay, Martin Gardner discusses the formation of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an alliance of treatment personnel designed to combat the growing number of false accusations arising from such "memory recovery" techniques. Gardner notes the central influence of the book Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis in generating the present flap of accusations based on allegedly recovered memories. Gardner's chapter contains a rebuttal letter from Marian Shapiro, a Massachusetts psychologist, that was published in Skeptical Inquirer following the publication of Gardner's original article. Shapiro notes that, in a study of survivors of documented traumatic childhood sexual assaults, 38% did not remember the assault during an interview seventeen years later. Thus, repressed memories of childhood assaults may well exist.
The final chapter is by Ted Goertzel, who examines alleged memories of UFO abductions. Goertzel misuses the word "cryptomnesia," which normally refers to instances in which hidden memories of real events influence subsequent behavior, by using the term to describe false memories of UFO abductions. Goertzel notes that UFO experiences correlate with a variety of psychic and "New Age" experiences as well as with belief in implausible conspiracy theories. He observes that urologists Bud Hopkins, David Jacobs, and Ron Westrum have contended that such clustering elucidates the true nature of the UFO abduction experience, whereas, in Goertzel's view, the clustering serves only to expose the general flakiness of UFO abductees.
Responsible parapsychologists will find much to agree with in the pages of Encounters with the Paranormal. The skeptics of CSICOP do a good job of putting down true pseudoscience. Members of the parapsychological research community would be well advised to join them in this endeavor to a greater extent, if they wish to maintain credibility. However, when the members of CSICOP turn their attention to scientific research in parapsychology that is reasonably well-conducted, they are markedly less successful. In many instances, all they can do is to follow Victor Stenger and Ray Hyman in reiterating their own prejudices and ignoring or misrepresenting experimental results.
DOUGLAS M. STOKES 424 Little Lake Drive, #3 Ann Arbor, MI 48103-6205 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Author:||Stokes, Douglas M.|
|Publication:||The Journal of Parapsychology|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1998|
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