Date: Tue Jun 28 1994 00:00:04
From: Sheppard Gordon
Subj: Skeptic Convention
CONVENTION OF SKEPTICS
THE SEATTLE TIMES
Ever been kidnapped by a UFO? Been embraced by the light in a
near-death experience? Had a therapist convince you of childhood
sexual abuse you previously didn't remember? Revisited past lives
Splash. That was the sound of cold water thrown here yesterday
by speakers ranging from famed astronomer Carl Sagan to a magician,
all warning that the human mind is so suggestible that people can't
always believe their own eyes, memories or even near death.
"You can create entirely false memories of things that never
happened," said University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth
Loftus, who is scheduled to receive an In Praise of Reason award
today from the national convention of the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a skeptics
group that is meeting in Tukwila.
Loftus has written a book called "The Myth of Repressed
Memory," to be published in September. It alleges therapists are
planting beliefs of past sexual abuse that never happened.
The skeptics group said one in five Americans believe in
reincarnation, one in four believe in ghosts, almost half accept
UFOs and extrasensory perception, and 75 percent sometimes consult
Sagan said polls have shown 25 to 50 percent of Americans don't
know the Earth revolves around the sun, and, by one measure, 94
percent of the population is "scientifically illiterate." Why?
"Science is hard, especially if explained incompetently," the
former host of the "Cosmos" TV series said. "Science does not always
conform to our wishes. Science does not always reassure us. Science
puts enormous powers in the hands of people we mistrust."
As a result, Sagan said, there are no scientist-heroes in
American culture, science teaching is mediocre, and while most
newspapers run a daily astrology column, only a handful have a
weekly science page.
Into this vacuum, members of the skeptics group warned, has
surged beliefs from the sincere to the sappy. Loftus is lobbying
Gov. Mike Lowry to release an Olympia man, Paul Ingram, imprisoned
on allegations of satanic abuse she is convinced are not true.
Sagan said there is a big difference in his belief in the
statistical likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe - he cited
recent discoveries that suggest other stars have planets - and his
skepticism about visiting spaceships.
"It would be great," he said. "I'd love it, even if the aliens
were indeed short, sullen, grumpy and sexually preoccupied," as
abductees contend. "But to believe one of these cases you need
really good physical evidence."
Abductees claim to have been implanted with medical monitors or
impregnated with alien sperm.
"How come there's not a single medical report of something
bizarre?" Sagan asked.
Paranormal claimants are not necessarily lying, speakers said.
But even the smartest person can be fooled by the mind into seeing
things that aren't there.
Magician Jerry Andrus, 76, of Albany, Ore., pulled back the
curtain on a number of optical illusions to illustrate how the brain
is conditioned to interpret sight in certain ways that mislead.
"Most of the time when you are fooled by a magician," he advised,
"your mind did not make a mistake. It came to the conclusion it
should have under the circumstances."
Susan Blackmore of the University of the West in England said
near-death experiences are real but not encounters with the
supernatural. The out-of-body experience, tunnel, light and mystical
feelings, she argued, are all natural manifestations of what happens
to the brain when it becomes starved of oxygen and some parts shut
down before others.
Loftus related how University of Washington test subjects were
easily conditioned to "remember" a videotape of a crime they in fact
never saw: 64 percent recalled a nonexistent drug bust, and a
majority said the criminals were black or Hispanic, even though all
actors in the video were white.