April 1989 +quot;BASIS+quot;, newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics Bay Area Skeptics Inform
April 1989 "BASIS", newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics
Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet
Vol. 8, No. 4
Editor: Kent Harker
by John Lattanzio
[BAS director Dr. John Lattanzio is an astrophysicist at Lawrence
Livermore. As an active research scientist, his business includes
following events in the whole of the scientific community.]
The affair is now officially over. At least, that is the position
of John Maddox, editor of "Nature". "Not so", says Jacques
Benveniste. Or, to be more precise: "...Facts are stubborn, and so
are we.... There is more to come."
So what is this all about? It resulted from an article by Professor
Benveniste (of Inserm 200 at the University of South Paris) and
colleagues in "Nature" (30 June 1988, p. 816). Briefly, they
describe an experiment that claims to show that human white blood
cells respond to a solution of antibodies, even when the solution
no longer contains a single molecule of the antibody. Further, they
alleged that the biological activity fluctuates periodically with
"Nature" published an editorial titled "When to Believe the
Unbelievable" in the same issue as the Benveniste paper. The
editorial argued that SOMETHING must almost certainly be wrong with
the Benveniste experiment, although one could not determine the
problem from his article. ("Nature" published a similar disclaimer
with Targ and Puthoff's paper on Uri Geller, something never
mentioned by Uri ["Nature", 18 Oct. 1974, p. 559]).
The Benveniste experiment does sound something like experimental
verification of homeopathy, the belief that a symptom can be cured
by giving vanishingly small concentrations of substances known to
produce the same symptoms when taken in higher doses. The claim
that therapeutic effects occur at concentrations so low that there
remains no active ingredient has been the main argument against
homeopathy. Experimental verification would indeed be a major
discovery -- in fact, it would mean a major change in thinking
about how the universe works. Of course, "Nature" knew this, so
what were they to do when the paper was submitted for publication?
Well, before even considering acceptance of the paper, "Nature"
insisted that other laboratories replicate the experiment, so
Benveniste arranged for researchers in Israel, Italy, and Canada
to do so. With reported safeguards, they obtained essentially the
same results. In spite of the apparent replication, "Nature"
decided to send "independent investigators to observe repetitions
of the experiments". This is when the controversy really began.
The investigating team consisted of three people: editor John
Maddox, a physicist; Walter Stewart, an organic chemist and
investigator of scientific fraud; and magician James Randi,
familiar to "BASIS" readers. Their report appeared in the 28 July
issue of "Nature". Their conclusion was that the experiments were
statistically ill-controlled, included observer bias and systematic
error, and were not always reproducible.
Indeed, measurements in conflict with the claim had not been
reported in Benveniste's paper, although they were recorded in
laboratory notebooks. Further, the "Nature" team was "dismayed to
learn that the salaries of two of Dr. Benveniste's co-authors of
the published article were paid under a contract between Inserm 200
and the French company Boiron et Cie., a supplier of
pharmaceuticals and homeopathic medicines, as were our [the
investigators'] hotel bills."
The investigating team supervised a double-blind experiment aimed
at removing notable biases. Test tubes containing various dilutions
were coded, and "the code itself was folded in aluminum foil,
enclosed in an envelope sealed by Randi, and then taped to the
laboratory ceiling for the duration of the experiment." Obviously,
the conclusions quoted above were based on the negative result of
the test, but Dr. Benveniste was granted a reply ("Nature", 28
July, p. 291), and it makes interesting reading.
"...A tornado of intense and constant suspicion, fear, and
psychological and intellectual pressure unfit for scientific work
swept our lab. Furthermore, these lesson-givers were astonishingly
incompetent." His article drips with invective: "Then Stewart,
with his typical know-it-all attitude...," and "The next day the
hysteria was such that Maddox and I had to ask Stewart not to
It certainly sounds entertaining: "Stewart imposed a deadly silence
in the counting room, yet loud laughter was heard where he was
filling chambers. There, during this critical process, was Randi
playing tricks, distracting the technician in charge of its
supervision!" When he calms down, Benveniste makes the point: "It
will now be clear what a mockery of scientific inquiry this was."
But his calmness does not last. His final paragraph says: "This
kind of inquiry must immediately be stopped. Salem witch hunts or
McCarthy-like prosecutions will kill science. Science flourishes
only in freedom. We must not let, at any price, fear, blackmail,
anonymous accusation, libel, and deceit nest in our labs. Our
colleagues area overwhelmingly utmost decent people, not criminals.
To them, I say: never, but never, let anything like this happen -
- never let these people get in your lab."
So what are we to make of all this? There are two points: 1. the
effect on science, 2. the perception of the public.
From the scientific viewpoint, there were flaws in the experiment
(despite its replication at other institutes). But rather than just
show one double-blind test that fails, a more satisfactory
(although possibly impractical) approach is to explain the
observations quoted by Benveniste and collaborators. A broader
question, however, and one raised in many letters to Nature as well
as the editorial of 4 August, is whether the journal should have
published the paper in the first place.
I believe that "Nature" did the correct thing by publishing the
article. A scientific journal exists to publicize and distribute
ideas and research, subject to reasonable standards. If every care
was taken, as was claimed in the paper, to remove various biases,
then the paper was publishable. The journal cannot be expected to
find all caveats for each paper that it publishes.
I know others who argue that, given the extraordinary claims of
the paper, some extraordinary evidence would need to be presented.
Well, the claims were "verified" by independent laboratories. It
now appears that they too were in error, but the journal's editor
(and the appointed referees) can only be expected to check for
gross errors. It is up to others to reproduce (or otherwise) the
research once the journal has made it known to the community.
The ongoing process of science determines the lasting veracity and
value of a publication. "Nature" took all reasonable steps, and
then published. Although debate continues concerning whether the
paper should have been published, there seems to be agreement that
it was inappropriate to send an investigating team, or
"ghostbusters", as the English magazine "New Scientist" called
Maddox defends this action ("Nature", 27 October 1988, p. 760), but
fails to convince. He states that "Journals do not normally
undertake investigations of contributors' laboratories, and for
good reason: they have neither the resources nor the skill." To
which I would add that neither have they the right, nor is it their
responsibility. His summary makes interesting reading, and is
Likewise is a perceptive letter ("Nature", 8 Sept.) from G.A.
Petsko, a chemist from MIT, who warns that in today's scientific
community, there is so much competition that publishing a "wrong
interpretation of data, EVEN IF THE DATA ARE ACCURATE AND ADMIT OF
MORE THAN ONE INTERPRETATION" can be extremely harmful to one's
reputation. Science is so competitive that honest mistakes can end
a career. Petsko argues that fraud is more likely to occur in a
climate where mistakes are treated too harshly. He argues for
"decriminalization of error", and rightly stresses that "detection
of error, and its correction" is the real goal.
Which brings us to the final point. What are we to make of this
fiasco? They see Randi, the editor of "Nature", and a specialist
in scientific misconduct off to investigate a laboratory. The clear
implication is that fraud is involved. A grossly unfair, albeit
unstated, allegation. The whole idea of an investigating team is
offensive to me, and I believe Randi would have been wise not to
have taken part.
In any event, the public has a very poor understanding of how
science corrects itself. The "Nature" fiasco is unique, but who
will remember that? Perhaps the last word should go to P.J.
Lipowicz, who, in a letter to "Nature" (8 Sept.) states: "I submit
that it would be easier to prove an incredible result like
Benveniste's to scientists than it would be to disprove it to
DEGREES OF FOLLY: PART III
by William Bennetta
[Parts I and II of this article ran in our February and March
issues, respectively. Here is a summary:]
By law, no unaccredited post-secondary school in California can
issue degrees unless the school has been approved by the
superintendent of public instruction (the chief of the State
Department of Education). In 1981, when Wilson Riles was
superintendent, the Department approved the granting of MS degrees
in biology, geology, "astro/geophysics", and science education by
the ICR Graduate School (ICRGS), an arm of the Institute for
Creation Research. The ICR is not a scientific institution, but a
religious ministry promoting "creation-science", a pseudoscience
based on literal readings of the Bible. The president of the ICR
and the ICRGS is Henry Morris, a preacher and former engineer.
In 1987, after the superintendency of the Department had passed to
Bill Honig, the ICR applied for renewed approval. By then,
"creation-science" and the men who purveyed it had been repeatedly
discredited. Nobody could have inquired into "creation-science" or
the ICR without finding that both were fakes.
In August 1988, the Department sent a committee of five to assess
the ICR's degree programs. The five were: Robert L. Kopach,
professor of geophysics at Stanford; Stuart H. Hurlbert, professor
of Biology at San Diego State; G. Edwin Miller, vice-president for
administration at United States International University; James A.
Woodhead, professor of geology at Occidental College; and George
F. Howe, professor of biology at The Master's College, a religious
school. (Howe -- who had been nominated for a place on the
committee by Henry Morris -- would emerge as the ICR's advocate.)
The committee was managed by the man who had assembled it: Roy W.
Steeves, of the Department's Private Postsecondary Education
The committee's report was farcical. It omitted or obscured
anything about the real nature or aims of the ICR and the ICRGS,
and it promoted the fiction that the ICR did scientific work; then
it recommended "by a vote of 3 to 2 that full institutional
approval be granted." Its last page bore the signatures of the
committee members, who were denoted by name only. There was nothing
to suggest their professions, affiliations, titles, or
Later in August, the truth got out. The two men who had voted
against approval -- Woodhead and Hurlbert -- furnished Honig with
separate accounts of what they had seen. Hurlbert wrote that he had
had little influence on the committee's report and was not an
author of it. Then he exposed the ICR's operations and
misrepresentations in detail, providing many examples and
On 10 November, Honig met in Sacramento with Woodhead, Hurlbert,
and Howe. (Kovach and Miller had been invited, but could not
attend.) Howe brought a disingenuous document, written mostly by
Henry Morris, that purported to rebut Hurlbert's account. The
meeting was inconclusive. Honig, who evidently did not want to take
part in a sham or scam, judged that he might resolve the case by
turning to Kovach. Kovach already had seen Hurlbert's dissent; and
in late November, the department sent him other information that
had not been considered during the committee's doings in August.
George Howe and Henry Morris have been working together for many
years. In the 1970s, for example, each was an officer and a
director of the Creation Research Society -- a fundamentalist group
whose members must subscribe to a creed that begins with: "1. The
Bible is the written Word of God, and because we believe it to be
inspired throughout, all of its assertions are historically and
scientifically true in all of the original autographs. To the
student of nature, this means that the account of origins in
Genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths."(1)
Morris was the Society's president early in the decade, and Howe
was the editor of its quarterly. In 1977, Howe became its
Since 1982, Howe and Morris have been linked in a fundamentalist
"legal defense" organization that, according to its president,
seeks to "blow evolution out of the public schools." (I shall tell
more about this next month.)
So when Roy Steeves, in the summer of 1988, named Howe to the
committee that would examine the ICR, he furnished Howe with a
chance to do a big favor for an old pal. And Howe evidently made
the most of it, according to accounts that Hurlbert and Woodhead
gave to me during telephone interviews. Hurlbert said that Howe had
succeeded in turning the entire assessment into nonsense by
frustrating any consideration of the obvious and crucial question:
Was the ICR teaching anything that could be called science?
Woodhead told me: "With our committee constituted as it was, there
was no possibility that we could have written a decent report.
There was one person there, Howe, who would not have voted against
those people [the operators of the ICRGS] even if their whole thing
was a sham -- which is how, I think, it turned out."
Just how WAS the committee constituted? It evidently was
constituted in defiance of the education code and the PPED's own
"Guidelines for the Approval of Degree Granting Institutions
Pursuant to California Education Code Section 94310.2", a document
issued in May 1987. The code clearly called for an assessment of
"each degree program offered by the institution", and page 26 of
"Guidelines" said: "Visiting Committees for first-time applicants
will consist of a minimum of five technically qualified educators
for each program offered. Reapproval Visiting Committees will
consist of three and may, if designees prescribe, consist of five
or more technically qualified educators for each program
But Steeves, for assessing the ICRGS's program in biology, enlisted
not three "technically qualified educators" but two: Hurlbert and
Howe. For geology, he had only one: Woodhead. For
"astro/geophysics", he had only the geophysicist Kovach. And for
science education, he had nobody.
On 15 February 1989, in a letter, I asked Steeves some questions
about the composition of the committee. One question dealt with the
absence of a science-education expert. In his reply, sent on the
17th, Steeves asserted that the committee HAD had such an expert:
"It is true", he wrote, "that Dr. Howe received his training in the
field of biology, but he is the Chairperson of the Division of
Natural Sciences at The Master's College. I have enclosed the
appropriate pages of the catalog for your perusal. His professional
assignment ideally prepared him for the review of the Science
Education program at ICR."
This was just a wild bluff, for the catalog pages lent no support
to Steeves's assertion. Howe's division at The Master's College(4)
did not offer any program in education, did not offer even one
course in the theory or practice of education, and had nothing
corresponding to any of the education courses claimed by the
ICRGS.(5) (Howe taught in the division's four-man Department of
Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Mathematics, which
"seeks to promote a broad understanding of scientific facts and
principles and exposes the unwarranted interpretations of
scientific evidence that have damaged the cause of Christ.")
So: For assessing the ICRGS's program in science education, Roy
Steeves's committee had had nobody at all. That program had
received a free ride.
In my letter of 15 February, I also asked Steeves about the absence
of an astrophysicist. His answer was: "We did have a professor of
geophysics [i.e. Kovach] who advised us that in the field there is
no real distinction between the study of astrophysics and
geophysics. As a matter of fact, Dr. Kovach also has received
training in astrophysics."
How the committee operated cannot be reconstructed fully, for its
members have some conflicting recollections. All, however, seem to
agree on these points:
=> THE PPED DID NOT FURNISH THE COMMITTEE MEMBERS WITH ANY
SIGNIFICANT INFORMATION ABOUT THE ICR, OTHER THAN THE ICRGS'S
APPLICATION FOR APPROVAL, UNTIL THE COMMITTEE MET AT THE ICR ON 3
AUGUST. Steeves admits this, and defends it as standard practice.
"To depart would have possibly raised due-process questions", he
says. (This presumably is why the PPED denied Hurlbert's request
for copies of the ICR men's curricula vitae.) Steves says that all
the committee members knew that the ICR was clouded in controversy.
Kovach disagrees. He did not know what he was getting into, he
says, and he later "was surprised that it turned out to be so
emotional and controversial".
=> THE COMMITTEE'S CHAIRMAN WAS KOVACH. This was not told in the
committee's report, Kovach says, because there was an explicit
agreement that the chairman would not be identified.
=> STEEVES INSISTED THAT THE COMMITTEE'S REPORT HAD TO BE SHORT AND
HAD TO AVOID DETAIL. Steeves confirms this. If he had allowed
elaboration, he says, we would have had a much longer report but
no conclusion. As an administrative task, we had to get closure.
We were trying to accomplish a purpose -- making a recommendation."
=> THE REPORT WAS DRAFTED BY KOVACH FROM PIECES THAT THE MEMBERS,
WORKING SEPARATELY, HAD WRITTEN. THERE WAS NO SIGNIFICANT REWRITING
BEFORE THE REPORT WAS PRESENTED FOR THE MEMBERS' SIGNATURES.
=> STEEVES EMPHATICALLY PRECLUDED ANY PROTRACTED DELIBERATION, AND
INSISTED THAT THE REPORT HAD TO BE TYPED AND SIGNED BY THE EVENING
OF 5 AUGUST. Woodhead says: "Steeves was in charge, and he vetoed
the idea of taking [Kovach's draft] home for pondering." Kovach
says: "Steeves set the theme. It had to be done then and there, not
later. What he said amounted to 'You are not getting out of this
motel room until we get this report finished and signed.'"
All of this, if infer, represents the PPED's standard practice as
well as the PPED's version of due process.
I infer, too, that the PPED's regular practice includes a patently
meaningless vote like the one in which the examination of the ICR
culminated. There is no evidence that the committee made a
discrete, identifiable assessment of each of the ICR's degree
programs; but if such work was done, it was then negated. In the
end, the committee voted on only one question: Should the ICRGS as
a whole -- including its financial and administrative structure,
as well as its four degree programs -- be approved?
In effect, then, everyone voted on everything. Kovach, a
geophysicist, voted on the biology program; Hurlbert, a biologist,
voted on financial practices; Miller, an expert in finance and
administration, voted on all four degree programs, even though he
apparently did not claim expertise in any of the related
disciplines; and so forth. Why had Steeves bothered to recruit any
experts at all?
My inquiry into the ICR case has convinced me that the PPED acted
with foolish insouciance and with only one objective: to create a
nominal report by filling some sheets of paper with words. I do not
think that the PPED took the examination seriously or cared about
getting a valid result, even if (as things turned out) some
individuals in the committee DID care. I see no sign that the PPED
had any qualm about producing a farcical document, even if this
would create a fierce dilemma for Bill Honig.
A question remains: Given that the report was incompetent, false,
and misleading, why did the members of the committee sign it?
Woodhead says that he signed because he had promised to take part
in a job and had been led to understand that the job included
finishing and signing a report by the evening of 5 August. "What
my signature means", he explains, "is that I was there".
Hurlbert says: "I signed as a statement that I was present and had
participated. I did not think that it was a valid report. There
were too many omissions and too much wrong information."
Kovach says that he signed because "It was a competently prepared
report for the committee in the time that we had to prepare it."
Miller thought that "it was a reasonably representative view of
what we saw during our two- or three-day stay there." Howe "felt
it was a very good report and said what we wanted to say."
I do not know how much of this history was known to Bill Honig in
November, when he started to clean up the mess that the PPED had
made. But I suspect that, after his meeting on 10 November with
Woodhead, Hurlbert, and Howe, he understood that the committee's
proceedings had included much sham and that at least two signatures
on the committee's report did not mean what readers would surely
imagine them to mean.
Early in December, after the Department had sent additional
information about the ICR case to Robert Kovach, and after Kovach
had examined that information, Honig called him. Kovach later gave
me this account of the conversation:
"[Honig] did not ask me to change my vote. He asked, 'Given this
[new information], what would you do?' My answer was 'I would
concur with what the new material said.' So, in effect, I changed
my vote. IF WE [THE COMMITTEE] HAD HAD ALL THAT INFORMATION
AVAILABLE TO US IN A TIMELY MANNER, I WOULDN'T HAVE VOTED FOR
APPROVAL TO BEGIN WITH."(6)
On 8 December, in a story by Sandra Blakeslee, the "New York Times"
told that Honig had barred the ICR from granting science degrees.
Honig was quoted thus: "No one is stopping the [ICR] from granting
degrees in religion or creation. But they are holding their people
out to have science degrees, which they don't. The vast bulk of
what they learn is not science."
Blakeslee recounted that a committee had visited ICR and had voted
3-to-2 for approval, and that Honig had asked the committee to
reconsider. She quoted Honig again: "They had grave reservations
about the science, but did not want their recommendation to put the
school out of business. We then made the institute an offer. We
will recommend approval and all you need to do is come up with a
new name. Just don't call it science."
The ICR had refused, Blakeslee wrote; and Kovach, after discussion
with Honig, had switched his vote.
On the same day when Blakeslee's story appeared, the director of
the PPED, Joseph Barankin, sent a letter to Henry Morris. It said
that the PPED had decided to deny approval and that the case would
be reviewed on 10 January by the Council on Private Postsecondary
Educational Institutions. (This is a state agency, separate from
the Department of Education. It had no authority over approvals,
but it can hear appeals and advise the superintendent.)
Early in January, however, things changed abruptly. Honig's
Department drew back from the decision to deny approval, and the
PPED began to negotiate with the ICR. On 6 January, functionaries
of the Department -- in conversations with me and with others who
had heard rumors of a deal -- said that the Department and the ICR
had completed an agreement, and that the ICR case was no longer on
the council's agenda. They would not tell the agreement's
On 10 January, Barankin told me that an agreement was being
wrought, and he listed some terms that he expected it to have, but
he denied that it actually had been completed and signed.
What was going on? I shall try to answer that question next month.
End of Part III
(1) Later parts of the creed endorse the doctrine of organic
"kinds", the worldwide extent and effect of Noah's Flood, and the
special creation of a man named Adam and a woman named Eve. I have
not yet seen the Society's report of the research by which those
names were discovered.
(2) "Designees" evidently means the director and other
functionaries of the PPED, who act for the superintendent of public
(3) During inquiries to the PPED, I have found no suggestion that
the May 1987 rules have been changed or superseded. As far as I
know, they were in force during the examination of the ICR and are
in force now. For a copy of "Guidelines", write to Joseph P.
Barankin, Director, Private Postsecondary Education Division, State
Department of Education, P.O. Box 944272, Sacramento, CA 94244.
(4) Until 1985, the school's name had been Los Angeles Baptist
(5) According to the ICRGS's dummy catalog, the core of the ICRGS's
science-education program included courses called Curriculum Design
in Science, Curriculum Implementation in Science, and Instructional
Design and Production.
(6) Emphasis added.
[Editor's note: This is the last of our long installments about the
ICR case, but we will continue to report on it. Next month,
Bennetta will tell about the Department's putative plan to send a
new committee to make a new assessment of the ICR.]
SIDEBAR: THE GURU SAYS NO
Are the "creation-scientists at the Institute for Creation Research
really doing creation research? According to Henry Morris, the
ICR's president and guru, the answer is a flat NO. Morris has
pronounced that no such research is possible.
Look, for example, at his book THE TWILIGHT OF EVOLUTION (1963;
twenty-fourth printing in 1986; available today by mail from the
ICR's publishing arm, Master Books). On his page 56, Morris says:
"[S]ince nothing in the world has been created since the end of the
creation period, everything must THEN have been created by means
of processes that are no longer in operation and that we therefore
cannot study by any of the means or methods of science. We are
limited exclusively to divine revelation as to the date of
creation, the duration of creation, and method of creation, and
every other question concerning the creation."
So much for "creation-science" and creation research. -- W.B.
SIDEBAR: THE OLD MILL STREAM
On 26 January, United Press International distributed a report
about Joseph Barankin, the director of the PPED. Written by Teresa
Simons, of UPI's Sacramento bureau, it told that Barankin was
conducting a "romantic relationship" with Catherine Sizemore, the
chief lobbyist for the trade association that represents many
schools that the PPED regulates.
Articles based on the UPI dispatch ran in the "San Diego Union" on
29 January and in the "San Francisco Examiner" on 12 February.
(The "Examiner" had printed on 5 February a general story, also
based on Simons's reporting, about dubious schools and their
doings. It included a luminous quotation in which Catherine
Sizemore equated classroom instruction with suffering.)
From the UPI report, I learned of the book "Diploma Mills: Degrees
of Fraud", by David W. Stewart and Henry A. Spille. I now have read
it, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the ICR case
and who wants to understand the regulatory environment that makes
such a spectacle possible. Indeed, I recommend it to anyone who is
interested in the integrity of education.
The authors say that California is the nation's main haven for
diploma mills, and -- in their chapter called "California: A Very
Special Case" -- they tell some reasons for this.
To order a copy of "Diploma Mills", send $20 to the Mail-Order
Dep't, Macmillan Publishing Co., Front and Brown Streets,
Riverside, New Jersey 08075. The price includes the shipping cost.
A NOTE ON SCIENTISM
by Yves Barbero
Skeptics, especially those organized into groups such as BAS, are
often accused of "scientism". When the term is used, it is usually
misused to mean that we make a religion of science.
My "Random House Dictionary" defines "scientism" as 1. Often
disparaging; the style, assumptions, techniques, practices, etc.,
typifying or regarded as typifying scientists. 2. the belief that
the assumptions, methods of research, etc., of the physical
sciences are equally appropriate and essential to all other
disciplines, including the humanities and the social sciences. 3.
Scientific or pseudoscientific language. [scient(ist) + ism]
The curious thing is that there area people who dislike us because
if this alleged "religious" practice, and others who, on
discovering that we're not structured to unquestioningly obey
whatever their notion of science is, walk away in disappointment.
In recent weeks, an astrologer accused CSICOP of worshiping science
in the body of a letter ("Noe Valley Voice", Dec. 1988) written in
answer to one I wrote criticizing the community newspaper for
unquestioningly accepting the astrologer's statements.
In another case, a caller to the BAS electronic bulletin board was
angry that we had left a bulletin on the opening screen of the
Catholic Information Network BBS promoting B. Premanand's recent
talk in San Francisco about the state of skepticism in India. The
caller didn't think we should traffic with "miracle mongers". It
struck me that he thought we were somehow anointed and that we were
soiling our purity by talking to a religious group.
Much of the problem has to do with our culture, which has many
carryovers from a time when it was acceptable to lay down a
foundation of a premise, ideology, or religious dogma before even
attacking a problem. To the novice, sound, scientific methodology
is sometimes mistaken for absolute and rigid rules when it should
simply mean insuring that personal prejudice doesn't interfere with
research (this can require some pretty involved and precise
procedures and still not need a foundation of blindly accepted
It is perfectly true that skeptics "borrow" from scientific
methodology, and it is unfortunately true that without proper
scientific training, it's easy to fall into the trap of making
skepticism an ideology or a set of dogmas closely resembling
religion. Add to that the passion that often shows itself when a
group is expressing a minority viewpoint, and a potent brew can
Indeed, there are fanatics expressing, as dogma, what mainline
skeptics only hold as tentative conclusions. Few of us, for
example, think astrology or telepathy will ever be proven
scientifically. But we have to recognize that our prejudice against
these notions cannot stand in the way of our analysis of such
claims. We are therefore careful in the way we design experiments.
Undoubtedly, more than a few people get involved with us because
they want to have like-minded people to talk to (I certainly came
in that way), and few of these people have formal scientific
training (I didn't). They soon discover that Bay Area Skeptics is
not a club as such (although friendships are made), and there is
a low tolerance of any dogmatic proclamations (even those that
"agree" with skepticism). It calls for a lot of self-education and
self-discipline. This is too much for some, and they go on to
other, more club-like organizations that comfort more than they
The real goal is to understand the nature of things, to clear away
the clutter of culturally imposed assumptions about the world, and
to appreciate the raw beauty of nature. Mixed with an appreciation
of the arts and history, this approach beats the hell out of any
dogma, scientism included.
SCIENTIFIC THEORY FOR ASTROLOGY
In early January, Ms. Joan Quigley, astrologer to the Reagans, was
the guest on KCBS radio in San Francisco. It was a call-in format
where Ms. Quigley fed the sheep as they breathlessly waited to hear
Not all were waiting breathlessly.
I had heard earlier in the week she was going to be on, so I set
the time aside and called the station even before the hour to make
sure I could get in. These astrologers are popular when they hit
the mike, even when they are not of Quigley's renown.
When my turn came, I read from the S.F. "Chronicle" wherein she was
quoted as saying she is a "scientific astrologer", and I asked her
if she could confirm that. She did, and then I asked her what, as
a scientific astrologer, is the basis of astrology.
"Please tell the listening audience what scientific principle makes
astrology work", I requested.
I had to pose the question three times, interrupting her tangential
bilge each time. It was clear she didn't quite understand my
question. I told the host that for some very simple reasons of
physics, it couldn't be gravitation or tidal forces, for example.
(Few astrologers assert these anymore.) Quigley agreed with that,
and then she understood what I wanted.
"It's photons", she said.
I was so astonished I could not collect myself for a few seconds.
"Photons?" I asked in stunned disbelief.
"Yes, photons", came the unequivocal affirmation.
I could feel the host's finger on the line switch -- he had already
spent a fair amount of time on my call. I wanted so much to make
her follow some of the consequences of such preposterous drivel.
Before the fickle finger of the engineer flicked the switch, I was
only able to remind her that the planets are not emitters of
photons, but only reflectors; and very poor ones at that,
especially in the case of the astrologically powerful Pluto.
At least I had been successful in getting her to take a specific
stance. If there is a theory -- any theory -- for some phenomenon,
there is something to bite one's teeth into. For example, the most
powerful source of photons during a birth is likely to be the
bright lights in the delivery room. There are as many other reasons
why a photon theory is absurd as one can imagine in only five
minutes of reflection.
It might be interesting to hear other astrologers defend this
proposition of one of their more illustrious colleagues,
particularly since Joan is a scientific (she uses a computer)
astrologer. Ask your local zodiacal wonder about Joan's photon
theory and let us know what happens. -- Ed.
["Ramparts" is a regular feature of "BASIS", and your participation
is urged. Clip, snip, and tear bits of irrationality from your
local scene and send them to the Editor. If you want to add some
comment with the submission, please do so.]
Haven't you always wondered why the government is covering up its
UFO investigations? Barry Greenwood, author of "Clear Intent: The
Government Coverup of the UFO Experience", has plenty of good
reasons, according to a report in the "Malden News".
"When you are charged with protecting the U.S., and you have these
things flying around, it's very difficult to shoot at them", said
Greenwood. "When you cannot deal with the phenomenon, the last
thing you want to do is to admit it. It could cause a full-scale
investigation by Congress into why the Armed Forces aren't equipped
to deal with this kind of thing. It saves a lot of embarrassment
to debunk the phenomenon."
Thus, CSICOP and its minions are merely tools of the government
conspiracy. Greenwood has more. The feds are learning a lot of
technical stuff about these alien ships, and the best way to keep
it out of enemy hands is to deny that the whole thing exists. The
idea is that what the Russkies don't know will hurt them. He even
suggests that our stealth bomber technology was pirated from
studying UFOs. The aeronautical engineers who expended all that
effort in R&D and production would probably like to thank the
aliens for the work it saved them.
Barry feigns a scientific approach to UFOs when he says, "Only
after you have exhausted all possibilities can you call it a UFO."
It is obvious to Barry that we have exhausted all the
possibilities, and must resort to an extraterrestrial explanation.
The "Malden" article took a rare but welcome turn as it mentions
CSICOP and quotes from a response by UFO expert Phil Klass, in
which he raises a very interesting proposition: If someone is
abducted, what is standard operating procedure? First, go to the
police. The police then contact the FBI, being as this is their
domain, and they MUST investigate. But if the FBI finds that the
person has filed a false abduction report, the person can go to
jail for up to five years and pay a fine of up to $10,000.
"The reason", says Klass, "that no one has ever reported a UFO
abduction case to the FBI is that they are afraid they'll end up
going to jail. If the Hezbollah came into your house, abducted and
impregnated your daughter, you certainly would report it to the
authorities", concluded Klass.
Opinions expressed in "BASIS" are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect those of BAS, its board or its advisors.
The above are selected articles from the April, 1989 issue of
"BASIS", the monthly publication of Bay Area Skeptics. You can
obtain a free sample copy by sending your name and address to BAY
AREA SKEPTICS, 4030 Moraga, San Francisco, CA 94122-3928 or by
leaving a message on "The Skeptic's Board" BBS (415-648-8944) or
on the 415-LA-TRUTH (voice) hotline.
Copyright (C) 1989 BAY AREA SKEPTICS. Reprints must credit "BASIS,
newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics, 4030 Moraga, San Francisco,
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank