Censoring The Paranormal
Writer Charles Fort called them "the damned." Debunkers call them superstitious nonsense that threatens to undermine the fabric of science. Christian fundamentalists call them satanic manifestations that undermine faith in God. Other people simply call them anomalies.
Anomalies are things, or alleged things, that don't fit. They can be minor
oddities, of no interest to anyone except a scientist in a highly specialized
discipline. Or they can be something else, something hinting at dramatic
possibilities and attracting widespread attention and controversy: a UFO
sighting, a psychic experience, an encounter with a poltergeist, or a report of an unusual animal not known to conventional zoology. Anomalies are nothing
new. As long as there have been human beings, people have claimed experiences
with phenomena that, according to the prevailing religious or scientific
orthodoxy, were not supposed to exist. Some, such as those unfortunates who
made such claims during the Inquisition, were burned at the stake for it. Today the burning goes on, if only metaphorically.
In 1977 a group of prominent academics and journalists -- few of whom had
firsthand experience with anomaly research -- formed the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). The committee,
whose memebers included such luminaries as Carl Sagan and Harvard zoologist
Stephen J. Gould, declared as their mission nothing less than the salvation of
Western civilization from "irrationality" and "dangerous sects," which, because they accepted the reality of anomalies, opposed science -- or so CSICOP charged.
In one strange incident, CSICOP official Philip J. Klass, learning of a forum
on anomalies research that the University of Nebraska was sponsoring, called
the school to protest that CSICOP's views were not being represented and that,
moreover, in questioning the U.S. government's word on the nonexistence of UFOs, speakers at the conference were seeking "what the Soviet Union does -- to convey to the public that our government cannot be trusted, that it lies, that it falsifies ... As a patriotic American, I very much resent [this]." After Klass threatened legal action against the university, it canceled its sponsorship of future conferences of this kind. Klass withdrew the threat and pronounced himself satisfied with the university's action.
Since then, satellite groups of debunkers have proliferated all around the
country, determined to do battle with "pseudoscience," real and imagined. Not content simply to argue the issues on their merits, they have harassed colleges and universities into dropping courses (usually noncredit) in parapsychology, conducted vituperative campaigns against anomaly proponents, and done -- in the words of Philadelphian Drew Endacott, one of their number -- "anything short of
criminal activity" to get "the point across to people who have no demonstrated
facility to reason."
As the antianomaly hysteria has escalated, even some skeptics have begun to
express alarm. Psychologist Ray Hyman, a respected critic of parapsychology,
speaks of "frightening fundamentalism" in all this, a "witch-hunting" mentality
that has nothing to do with real science. CSICOP cofounder Marcello Truzzi, a
sociologist who left the organization when he grew concerned that it was
becoming an "inquisitional body," says that some debunkers have gone "berserk."
In fact, many scientists do not share these skeptics' certainty that all
anomalies are bogus. In 1969, the Parapsychological Association was accepted
as an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS). 10 years later, the AAAS's newly elected president, Kenneth Boulding,
declared, "The evidence of parapsychology cannot just be dismissed out of
hand." In recent years, polls of scientists and academics have revealed a
considerable degree of open-mindedness on the subject. And in 1976, when
physicist Peter Sturrock polled the members of the American Astronomical
Society, fully 80% agreed that the UFO phenomenon deserves scientific
attention. Several of the astronomers described their own UFO sightings.
If history is any guide, most supposed anomalies will eventually be explained
in conventional terms, either as delusions or as misinterpreted, mundane
events; and a few will prove rather more interesting than that. Meanwhile,
it's time to defuse the hysteria and get back to the serious business of