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Paranormal tribune atoms vs. a three-legged woman? The "science" of the paranormal offers what the grind of scientific research does not: immediate gratification, pat explanations, and the reduction of complex matters to fleeting sounds and images. But such easy and ready answers are poor preparation for a scientific vocation.

In my college course in introductory biology, I include a few lectures on the structure of the atom as a basis for understanding the chemistry of living things. To convey how incredibly small these particles are, I point out that Danish physicist Niels Bohr described the modern atomic model in 1913, but that we couldn't actually see an atom until the 1980s when IBM researchers photographed atoms using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope. Soon after--as a sort of encore--this instrument was used to manipulate 35 atoms of the gas xenon--and later, the very heavy metal thorium--into a pattern, a corporate logo to be exact. And which logo would that be?

Why, IBM, of course.

When I tell my students about this, many--but not all--of them are duly wowed. But once, a student spoke up and decreed that atoms didn't exist. His reasoning: If they were so elusive and virtually invisible, how could they constitute substances as dense as metals? Furthermore, he asked how such exceedingly small things--mere will o' the quantum wisps--could be shuffled around, even by IBM.

Let me begin by reaffirming, in writing, my belief that skepticism is necessary in any discipline, but especially in science, where experimental findings must rest on a veritable Masada of data in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community. Every scientist worth his or her salt has a duty to listen to new information with an attentive but always critical ear. For every nod of the head as one considers new data, there should be four or five impatient taps of the pencil on the desktop (I think this is the correct ratio). The result is a set of results that emerges from the crucible of cross-examination, ready for general dissemination.

Like most teachers I know, I encourage critical thinking in my classes. "Dissect the knowledge, don't worship it," I tell my students. Challenge me. Ask questions. Hold me to account for what I teach. (Neils Bohr used to tell his students, "Every sentence that I utter should be regarded by you not as an assertion but as a question.") This is, more or less, what my student, that atom-doubter, did, and though it would have been nice if he hadn't ruled out the existence of atoms with such finality, how could I object to his putting my intellectual feet to the fire and compelling me to explain the concept further, to the point where understanding was a real possibility?

However, I was troubled by his tendency--shared by other of my students over the years--to reject scientific information out of hand. Atoms, genetics, plate tectonics, evolution (especially evolution!)--all have fallen victim to their terrible swift sword not of doubt, but of outright disbelief. They are not usually hostile to the information; they simply convey the impression that I must be, somehow, mistaken.

This I can live with. What bamboozles me is that students who sniff at DNA's role in determining our physical and, to an extent, behavioral characteristics frequently embrace paranormal and even atrocious "Enquirer-caliber" claims whole hog. Secret human/animal hybrid experiments, crop circles, Martian civilizations, invisible atmospheric jellyfish creatures, and jackalopes make their way down my students' mental gullets without a hitch. If they're willing to accept such unsubstantiated things at face value, why can't they be receptive to knowledge acquired via the scientific method? How can a student doubt that the continents are adrift, yet seize the idea of alien abductions with such dire passion?

This very thought was brought home to me years ago when I was walking the minefield of evolution in my general biology course. As I described the evolution of the modern horse from small, puppy dog-size ancestors, a student named Brian expressed his skepticism, using the words "You've got to be kidding" for emphasis. When I asked if anyone could describe the evolution of another species, Brian volunteered that, "I once saw a three-legged woman in a porno magazine. It was amazing. I said to myself, is this evolution?"

At first, I thought he was joking, so I smiled benignly and stared into the distance. But his comment had electrified the class (late on a Friday afternoon, when they were normally as torpid as clams at low tide). They became intensely interested in this unfortunate woman, and fell into animated chatter, wanting to know where they could get the magazine with the corroborating image.

I eventually brought the class under control, though they grew resentful when I discounted Brian's story. The thing was, he had been absolutely serious (I can still see his face, earnest and open, seeking only my approval). In fact, if our classroom had been a ship, the crew of students, given a choice between my navigational course and the one Brian had set, would have strung me up from the yardarm and awarded him sash and sword.


Evolution isn't the only thing that brings out false as well as fabulous associations in students' minds. The same occurs with other areas of science, especially if they're theoretical or cutting edge: Real-world scientific goings-on incur student doubt, while their faith in the fringe and paranormal aspects of science remains boundless. Thus, when I address conditions that promote human twinning, students assail me with questions about Siamese twins conjoined at the genitalia; when I describe the mechanics of cloning simple cells, they profess that the government has been secretly cloning human automatons for years; when I outline mechanisms of genetic mutation, students envision someone sprouting a second head.

In Brian's very same class, when I announced that we would be studying chemistry for two weeks as preamble to the biological topics to follow, a student immediately asked: "Are we going to blow things up?"

Science seldom involves "blowing things up." Many scientific ideas are explosive in their implications, but the research leading to a data-based conclusion involves a lot of tedium (i.e., somebody has got to wash test tubes and crunch numbers). To achieve a reasonable grasp of a scientific concept, some depth of understanding--education--is in order. Thus, the idea of the sheer diversity of life on Earth is startling, but a discussion of the mechanisms and conditions which made that life possible in the first place involves an understanding of atomic bonding, thermodynamics, and gas exchange across the cell membrane. Most of these processes can't be seen in any direct way: Oxygen and carbon dioxide are invisible; microscopes (even IBM's) aren't yet powerful enough to resolve atomic structure; and heat can only be felt (and imaged in the abstract). However, these processes are measurable, but measurement involves numbers and instrumentation and time and ... well, you get the picture. Science is hard.

In contrast to mainstream science, paranormal phenomena do have the effect of "blowing things up" because they offer big, grand, gorgeous images that even the uninitiated can grasp and thrill to at first blush. It makes little difference if one has never seen Bigfoot, an alien, or a human clone. There are those who claim they have, and many, many others are eager to vouch for their existence by proxy.


The paranormal, in short, promises absolute answers in the here and now. It belongs to popular, not scientific, culture. As such, the paranormal offers all that the grind of scientific research does not: immediate gratification, pat explanations, and the reduction of complex matters to fleeting sounds and images. This expectation of ready answers is poor preparation for a scientific vocation, where the measured steps of laboratory research are often less than thrilling and their denouement seldom gripping.

But to precipitate an extraterrestrial as a substitute for an understanding of the physics underlying astronomy--now, that's science as popular culture likes it: low calorie, low carb, yet sweet.

The only problem is that popular culture, while seductive and fleetingly satisfying, is not transmissible. Check that. What I mean is that there is no value in transmitting it. Consider: What father would sit his five-year-old son upon his knee and begin, "Now, Ernest, let's talk about UFOs so that, some day, you can tell your children what we know about the universe." But the transmission of real science improves us as a species. Lacking instinct as we do, science is the only option for the constructive development of modern society, which has become, for better and sometimes worse, a technocracy.

The upshot of all this is that the far greater allure of the paranormal and pseudoscientific has impeded students' ability to grapple with the concepts and precepts of so-called "hard science." Such grappling brings them only frustration and desperation when they're confronted with ideas that 1) demand that they think, 2) are perceived as irrelevant to their experience, and 3) like Darwin's theory of natural selection, depend to some extent on inference and deductive reasoning. Thus, they're unwilling to believe that humans descended from a lower order of animals, but they're already sold on our species' evolutionary future. They envision throbbing buttheads suspended in the universal ether, radiating lethal levels of I.Q. and communicating with telepathy. Embracing such a fantastic idea is much less stressful because it's intellectually trivial, requires no dreaded math, and offers the sense that one is dabbling in the scientific. Aficionados of this stuff can find no comfortable place to sit at the banquet of mainstream science, so they sate themselves with Mc-Science, emphasizing convenience and speed over diet.

This imp of the paranormal bites students with the tenacity of a deer tick and persists like Lyme disease; but students are weakened by this because it convinces them that knowledge is easy to come by. The teacher interested in turning back this tide of ignorance might consider Einstein, who said, "As the size of a circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness around it." What he was alluding to, of course, was that the more we learn, the more questions we raise. (Mark Twain struck the same theme in a more jocose way when he wrote, "Scientists have raised so many questions about the subject that we shall soon know nothing about it at all.") The challenge is to convey this to students without frustrating them, to portray science as an invitation rather than the labor of Sisyphus. The dedicated and creative teacher knows what to do.

Which leaves me with several questions: If UFOs have visited Earth, why do they always abduct a bumpkin sitting in a rowboat in the middle of Maine? Why don't they ever take a surgeon? Or a president? Why don't they ever take me?

ROBERT KLOSE is an associate professor of biological sciences at the University College of Bangor, Maine.
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Title Annotation:International
Author:Klose, Robert
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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