May 1989 +quot;BASIS+quot;, newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics Bay Area Skeptics Informat
May 1989 "BASIS", newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics
Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet
Vol. 8, No. 5
Editor: Kent Harker
IS SCIENCE UNNATURAL?
by George O'Brien
[George O'Brien is a management consultant and long time student
One recurring theme in most debates between proponents of the
paranormal and the skeptics is a dispute about the scientific
method. One of the problems that skeptics have to face is that the
scientific method is not the NORMAL way most people obtain
knowledge or decide what they believe.
Historically, the most common sources of knowledge and beliefs have
- Common knowledge or tradition
COMMON KNOWLEDGE often comes from informal sources such family,
friends, co-workers, business associates, etc. Common knowledge may
not be traced to any particular source, but it is believed by a
fairly large proportion of reputable people.
AUTHORITY relates to the credibility of a particular, identifiable
source. This credibility may come from official status, academic
achievement, divine revelation, or simply reputation. Publications
such as "Scientific American", "The Wall Street Journal", and the
"New York Times" are often quoted because they have a good
reputation for checking their facts.
INSIGHT refers to intuition, visions, mental associations, etc.
Insight is often extremely important in "reading"
people. In some cultures, insight is given extremely heavy
considerations, while in others it is not.
EXPERIENCE refers to the personal knowledge an individual gains as
a response to various events that directly effect that person.
Often knowledge results from a combination of these factors: common
knowledge that originates from authority, insights that result from
experience which seems to confirm common knowledge, etc. Cultures
seem to vary on which methods predominate, but these four sources
of knowledge can be found in all cultures throughout history.
Critical rationality as a source of knowledge seems to be a fairly
recent phenomenon (the Hellenic Civilization from about 600 BC.
Prior to that, reason was apparently strictly "instrumental
rationality" which applied or manipulated knowledge. The Greek
philosophers seem to have been the first to have applied critical
rationality (inductive or deductive reasoning) to actually
challenge common knowledge, authority, insight and experience. This
approach was not only unpopular with the priests and social
hierarchies, but was also unpopular with the average person.
Critical rationality is not natural in the sense that it is obvious
to most. History seems pretty clear that most people prefer
conventional wisdom and pleasant myths to unpleasant truths. Reason
can lead to some unpleasant conclusions. So even when reason plays
an important role, it is often subordinated to some other factor
such as authority as was the case of the scholastics in the
medieval Catholic Church.
It is in this context that the emergence of the modern scientific
method in the late l7th century seems so extraordinary. There was
a great deal of opposition from the beginning. Nonetheless, once
this method was implemented, knowledge of the physical universe
expanded at a geometric rate up to the present.
In a sense, the scientific method combined elements of insight,
experience, and reason into an interactive system. A pattern of
data (experience) might lead to an insight (a hypothesis) which
would lead to a set of testable conclusions (reason) which would
be tested (experience) to verify or refute the hypothesis. If the
hypothesis fails, it is either modified or rejected.
The rules of hypothesis creation and testing are quite rigid. The
hypothesis must be logical, testable, etc.; the testing must be
conclusive, free of bias, and duplicatable by others. The new
hypothesis is not going to be fully accepted unless there are no
other hypotheses which can equally explain the same data. If the
hypothesis contradicts other, well-supported theories, then it is
necessary to develop and verify alternative hypotheses to replace
those theories as well. Only then will a new hypothesis be accepted
as an established theory.
Insight, reason, and experience outside of this rigid set of rules
may provide interesting observations about the physical universe,
but it is not science. (Attempts to apply the scientific method to
the social sphere has not been fully successful because of the
problem with performing controlled experiments.)
Real science is difficult to do. While invention can be done simply
through trial and error, science requires training to design proper
experiments or tests. This is part of the reason that most science
is performed by people with formal degrees. The formal degrees
appear to give professional scientists authority, but this is a
different kind of authority than traditional authority. The degree
shows the individual knows how to apply the scientific method. A
scientist who fails to properly apply the scientific method quickly
loses that authority.
From the start, the rise of the scientific method has been
extremely controversial. It challenged everything people believed
about the physical universe. Opponents included organized religion,
traditionalists, mystics, and often social and political
hierarchies. If there had been a vote, very few people would have
voted to permit scientists the right to spread their ideas.
Fortunately, a few countries permitted scientists to work. One side
effect was an explosion of technical innovations with a dramatic
impact on economic output and the standard of living. People might
resent science, but they became increasingly dependent on it.
Over the past 300 years, there have been numerous waves of
anti-science, anti-technology and anti-intellectualism. The recent
popularity of the occult and parapsychology is only the latest
example. These ideas are attractive to people who prefer
traditional methods of gaining knowledge rather than to apply the
rather alien techniques of critical rationality and the scientific
The situation is not encouraging. Most school systems continue to
promote authority rather than critical rationality and the
scientific method. Even school science classes tend to treat
scientific experiments more like cooking from recipes than as a
real discovery process. They never really learn the scientific
The mass media conveys almost no understanding of what science is
about. It tends to treat unsubstantiated claims with equal
seriousness to well supported scientific theories. Even
revealing a claim to be a hoax or a fraud is not enough to convince
many media people the claim is not true.
The desire by psychics and mystics to obtain some sort of
scientific support for their claims suggests they feel threatened
by the authority of the scientists. They want the sanction of
science without having to apply the method of science.
Scientists need to be careful about their language to avoid
sounding dogmatic. They should avoid using their status as
scientists to make pronouncements about whether something is
possible or impossible unless they have actually done the research.
The role of the skeptics should be to ensure that claims about the
physical universe are subjected to the scientific method. In
addition, the skeptics need to educate people about the scientific
method -- what it is and how it works. Skeptics need to show people
that critical rationality is not dogmatic negativism and how they
can use it in their daily lives.
This will not be easy. Intellectually and temperamentally, most
people are uneasy with science. They like the benefits, but as long
as critical rationality and the scientific method is felt to be
unnatural they will be open to claims of "unknown powers". We are
going to be kept very busy.
DEGREES OF FOLLY: PART IV
by William Bennetta
The first three parts of this article ran in "BASIS" in February,
March and April, respectively. Part III ended with a promise: In
May I would tell of a plan calling for the State Department of
Education to make a new examination of the ICR Graduate School
(ICRGS), an arm of the Institute for Creation Research.
I must renege. There is indeed a plan, and it evidently revolves
around a formal agreement between the Department and the ICR. The
agreement is embodied in two documents: a letter sent to the
Department by Wendell R. Bird, the ICR's lawyer, on 10 January; and
a reply sent to Bird by Joseph P. Barankin, director of the
Department's Private Postsecondary Education Division (PPED), on
3 March. Not until 27 March, however, did Barankin respond to my
several requests for a copy of the second letter; and so I have not
had time to analyze the agreement or to get Baranakin's answers to
my questions about it.
I shall delay my account of the agreement, and I shall consider
here some other aspects of the ICR case. One aspect is this: The
committee that the PPED sent to the ICR last August included TWO
ringers -- not just one. Another aspect is this. The Department
has begun an effort to obscure the PPED's fiasco and to justify the
conduct of Roy W. Steeves, the PPED's man who chose and managed the
committee. This cover-up includes the dissemination of foolish,
false or misleading statements in the name of the Department's
chief, Bill Honig.
In writing here, I assume that my readers have seen the earlier
parts of this article. -- W.B., 8 April
In its issue for the winter of 1986, the "California Science
Teacher's Journal" printed a fine analysis of creationism and
"creation-science" by the paleontologist Richard Cowen, of the
University of California at Davis. One of Cowen's best points was
in his annotated bibliography. Commenting on a creationist tract,
he stated the grand rationalization that all "creation-scientists"
seem to revere: "Telling a lie for Jesus is presumably OK!"
Cowen's insight is valuable, for nobody can understand the antics
of creationists and "creation-scientists" without understanding
that their endeavors revolve around continual misrepresentation.
Their need to misrepresent themselves and their enterprise is
inevitable and quite irreducible because the very core of
"creation-science" is a sham -- an illusion in which Bible stories
are not Bible stories but are something else.
Misrepresentation is certainly the central theme of the ICR case,
for the entire affair sprang from the ICR preachers' deciding to
issue degrees in fields for which they had no qualifications --
fields for which, in fact, they had only hostility and contempt.
In principle, they might have chosen to distribute degrees in
fundamentalist religion, the thing to which they and the ICR were
quite explicitly devoted. Instead, they picked geology, biology,
"astro/geophysics" and science education.
Why? Did they think that mining companies were desperate for
geologists whose work would be guided by stories of the Flood? That
biotechnology labs were crying for biologists who could declare the
mysterious biblical doctrine of "kinds"? That universities were
clamoring for professors of education who could show young teachers
how to count a beetle's feet and find only four?
Probably not. A more credible explanation lies in Henry Morris's
repeated declarations that creationism and "creation-science" had
to be injected into public schools. The ICR had even published a
model resolution that state legislatures could use for that
purpose.* It seems likely that all four of the ICRGS's programs -
- the three named after branches of science, as well as the one in
science education -- were aimed at that objective. They would equip
fundamentalists with diplomas that would be useful in securing
certification and employment as public-school science teachers.
This view, in which the degrees are seen as political devices,
provides the only evident explanation for the ICR's rejecting the
deal that Bill Honig offered last autumn: The Department would
expedite approval of the ICR if the ICR would stop misrepresenting
its programs and would retitle its degrees to reflect the fact that
it teaches religious doctrines, not science. As the "New York
Times" told on 8 December, the ICR said no.
NONSENSE FROM THE START
Because my article has focused on events during and after the three
days when the PPED's committee visited the ICR, I may not have made
clear that the PPED's exercise was nonsense from the start. Even
before Roy Steeves chose the committee, the PPED had accepted, and
so had dignified, the ICR's application; and that document was
patently defective, sometimes self-contradictory and often absurd.
It did not give information that it purported to give, nor did it
provide a comprehensible picture of curricula, courses or faculty.
Instead of academic resumes of the ICR men, it offered baseball-
card sketches. It included a dummy catalog that had been assembled
and edited by hand, but (according to my reading) it did not
explain why the ICR was not submitting a REAL catalog. And so
There were only three things, I think, that the application really
made clear. First: The ICR's "science" was taught by men who had
to swear, each year, that "science" was the business of believing
ancient religious scriptures. Second: If only for that reason, the
ICR was being absurd in claiming that its programs were comparable
to those at state universities. Third: The ICR was mocking the
Department of Education to its face.
Did anyone in the PPED really read the application? If yes, then
the PPED -- from the time when it accepted and began to process
the application -- was derelict. If no, then the same conclusion
THE SECOND RINGER
Part III of this article told that George F. Howe, a member of the
committee that the PPED sent to assess the ICR last August, was an
old pal of the ICR's president, Henry Morris, and was allied with
Morris in an organization that seeks to "blow evolution out of the
public schools". (The lCR's lawyer, Wendell Bird, serves the same
organization. See the box on page 5.)
It now is clear that another committee member, G. Edwin Miller,
was another of Morris's buddies. From 1973 to 1985, Miller had held
a series of administrative posts at Christian Heritage College, a
Bible school in El Cajon. During most of that time -- specifically,
from 1973 to 1980 -- the ICR had been a part of the college; and
from 1978 to l980, the college's president had been Morris.
In his book "A History of Modern Creationism", Morris tells
explicitly of his close association with Christian Heritage College
and with Miller, whom he sometimes denotes by a nickname. On page
227 he says: "[The fundamentalist preacher Tim] LaHaye was
president of the College until 1978. I then served as president for
two years, then Art Peters for two years. Dr. Eddy Miller, who
originally came as Dean in 1973, is now president (as of 1984)."
About two weeks ago, in response to a written request, Roy Steeves
sent to me copies of the resumes that had been submitted to him by
the five men whom he eventually named to the committee. When I
looked at the resume furnished by Miller, I saw that he had not
declared his association with Henry Morris and the ICR. I was not
In Part III, I called Miller "an expert in finance and
administration". That was naive. I had not finished looking into
Miller, and I was taking him (and some statements by Roy Steeves)
at face value. Now I say: I myself do not know Miller to be an
expert in anything. On his resume, he claims a doctorate in "human
behavior" and lists some job-titles, but he describes no work or
WHAT DID STEEVES KNOW?
Although Miller had failed to declare his association with the ICR,
Roy Steeves may have known about it. The dummy catalog submitted
with the ICR's application mentioned (on its page 10) the years
when the ICR had been a division of Christian Heritage. And
Miller's resume showed HIS years at Christian Heritage. Taken
together, the two documents could have told Steeves the story --if
Steeves looked at them.
As soon as I learned (in February) that George Howe was a crony of
Henry Morris, I informed several people who are following the ICR
case; and some of them sent queries to Bill Honig. The Department
has replied with a form-letter that ends with a typewritten "Best
regards, BILL HONIG" but is signed by "Shirley A. Thornton, Deputy
Superintendent for Specialized Programs". I assume that it was
composed by Thornton. Her essential message seems to be: The
Department is committed to an attempt at obscuring and
rationalizing what the PPED did. Her rationale seems to be: Folly
and dereliction are quite alright if they are STANDARD folly and
dereliction, and we do not need brains if we have lists. Here is
her whole text:
This responds to your recent letter regarding the
Education code Section (ECS) 94310.2 reapproval
application of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).
You had expressed concerns regarding one of the members
of the qualitative review and assessment committee.
Standard Policy allows the nomination of one committee
member by the school undergoing the committee visitation.
Dr. Howe was ICR's nomination. The Department does not
inquire into the political or religious beliefs of any
educator who serves on a review committee, although the
Department facilitator, Roy Steeves, did inquire of each
member by telephone in advance as to their [sic]
willingness to set aside personal religious beliefs in
carrying out the duties of a committee member.
Dr. Howe is listed in the catalog of an accredited
institution [The Master's College] as the person
responsible for science education in that accredited
institution. That school, accredited by the Western
Association of Schools and Colleges, also is recognized
by the Commission on Teacher Credentialing for the
preparation of teachers for the public school system.
We were not aware that Dr. Howe was affiliated with the
Creation Science Legal Defense Fund. However, Dr. Howe's
duties as a committee member were confined to the review
of the teaching of science and science education in that
institution, and he was not required or expected to
defend or deny the religious beliefs of the faculty or
the administrators of the school.
Thank you for your continuing interest in private
I comment on Thornton's effort:
"Standard policy allows the nomination . . ." That is bafflegab.
"Nomination" can mean the mere recommending or proposing of a
person for a post, or it can mean the definitive choosing or
appointment of that person. Which meaning applies here? "Dr. Howe
was ICR's nomination." Does that mean that the other ringer,
Miller, was NOT "ICR's nomination"? Did Steeves -- by a stupefying
coincidence, and with no prompting by the ICR or its agents -- just
happen to name a second pal of Henry Morris to the committee? Or
did Steeves perhaps let the ICR make two "nominations", even though
"standard policy allows only "one"?
". . . the Department facilitator, Roy Steeves did inquire of each
member. . . ." Stuart Hurlbert and James Woodhead deny that. Each
man, after I recited Thornton's text to him, said that Steeves had
not inquired, by telephone or otherwise, about "willingness to set
aside personal religious beliefs".
"Dr. Howe is listed . . ." My friend Tom Jukes, who teaches
biochemistry at Berkeley and is an eminent quack-watcher, had a
basset hound -- Bellman by name -- who for many years was listed
as an expert by the American Association of Nutritional
Consultants. I must ask Tom whether the Department ever sought
". . . as the person responsible for science education. . . ." That
is false. In the context of the ICR case, a program in "science
education" means a program for preparing teachers of science. As
I told in Part III, the catalog of The Master's College does not
show that Howe or his Division of Natural Sciences is responsible
for any such function. The school's only acknowledgment of science
education seems to be a course called Elementary Curriculum II,
which deals with "teaching science and social studies in the
elementary school." It is given in the Division of Social Sciences.
"That school . . . also is recognized by the Commission on Teacher
Credentialing. . . ." If Howe's Bible school is certifying teachers
for public classrooms, then the Commission has an error to correct.
But alleged attributes of the school are irrelevant to the matter
at hand: Steeves named Howe, not the school, to the committee.
If Thornton thinks that attributes of the school are important, let
her notice: The committee was impaneled to examine master's-degree
programs in science and science education, but Howe's school does
not offer master's degrees in any of those fields or in any others
but one. That one is religion, the very thing that the ICRGS
stridently professes not to be teaching. Let her note too that the
"Statement of Faith" in the catalog of Howe's school precludes the
school's offering legitimate instruction in science.
"We were not aware that Dr. Howe was. . . ." That seems odd. Howe
is listed -- yes, Thornton, LISTED -- on the Defense Fund's
"However, Dr. Howe's duties . . . he was not required or expected.
. . ." But a "creation-scientist" is still a "creation-scientist",
and "creation-science" is still quackery, and the notion of sending
George Howe to make a "review of the teaching of science and
science education" is still as absurd as it was last August. And
an imposture is still an imposture, no matter what may have been
"expected" by the people who fostered it, and no matter how
desperate those people now may be to hide what they did.
*The model ran in issue 26 of "Impact", one of the ICR's monthly
bulletins about creationism. Issue 26 was undated but probably was
printed in 1975. Appended to the model was "documentation" that
included stuff like this: "It can be documented that the
evolutionary philosophy has served as the pseudo-scientific basis
and justification for racism, modern imperialism, nazism,
anarchism, communism, behaviorism, animalistic amoralism, humanism
and practically all other anti-Christian and anti-theistic social
philosophies and movements of the past century and more."
SIDEBAR: WHO IS THIS BIRD?
The ICR, in its recent negotiations with the Department of
Education, has been represented by Wendell R. Bird, a lawyer from
Atlanta. Bird has been prominent in creationist causes during the
past decade or so, but his record does not seem enviable.
In December l98l, during the trial that led to the nullification
of the Arkansas "creation-science" law, Bird tried to dissuade
several witnesses from testifying. (In at least one case, he
succeeded.) According to an article in "Christianity Today" for 22
January 1982, Bird admitted doing this; and Steven Clark, the
state's attorney general at the time of the trial, said that Bird's
efforts were "tantamount to tampering with justice.
Bird also made a marginal appearance in the opinion that Judge
William Overton issued when he found the Arkansas law
unconstitutional: "The defendants argue that the teaching of
evolution alone presents both a free exercise problem and an
establishment problem which can only be redressed by giving
balanced treatment to creation science, which is admittedly
consistent with some religious beliefs. This argument appears to
have its genesis in a student note written by Mr. Wendell Bird. .
. . The argument has no legal merit."
Despite this, Bird's student note (which had appeared in a l978
issue of the "Yale Law Journal") has been glorified, reprinted and
sold by creationist organizations (including the ICR) as if it were
a benchmark in jurisprudence.
From the summer of l98l through the spring of l987, Bird led the
defense of the Louisiana "creation-science" law as it was ruled
unconstitutional by a federal district court, a court of appeals,
and the Supreme Court. In that campaign, he acted as a "special
assistant attorney general" of Louisiana and also as counsel to the
Creation Science Legal Defense Fund -- the private group of
fundamentalists, headquartered in Shreveport, that supplied nearly
all the money for the defense. The Fund's Board of Reference
included Henry Morris and Duane Gish (of the ICR) and George F.
Bird's strategy in the Louisiana case was futile but amusing. The
defense lawyers knew that any description or documentation of
"creation-science" would show it to be fundamentalist religion;
so, while asking court after court to uphold the teaching of
"creation-science" in public schools, they refused to say what
"creation-science" was. (See my article in the July/August l988
issue of "Terra", published by the Natural History Museum of Los
Bird, Morris, Gish and Howe still serve that group in Shreveport,
but the group now is called the ACADEMIC FREEDOM Legal Defense
Fund. Its idea of academic freedom was shown in a solicitation that
its president issued in August l987. "Our best and most victorious
days are still in the future!" he wrote. "We're still going to blow
evolution out of the public schools!" -- W.B.
SIDEBAR: TAKE IT AWAY?
State Senator Becky Morgan has introduced a bill (S.B. 190) that
would overhaul California's regulation of unaccredited schools,
take that function away from the Department of Education, and
abolish the PPED. For information about the bill, write to The
Honorable Becky Morgan, The Senate, State Capitol, Sacramento, CA
95814. -- W.B.
BAS BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Chair: Larry Loebig
Vice Chair: Yves Barbero
Secretary: Rick Moen
Treasurer: Kent Harker
William J. Bennetta, Scientific Consultant
Dean Edell, M.D., ABC Medical Reporter
Donald Goldsmith, Ph.D., Astronomer and Attorney
Earl Hautala, Research Chemist
Alexander Jason, Investigative Consultant
Thomas H. Jukes, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
John E. McCosker, Ph.D., Director, Steinhart Aquarium
Richard J. Ofshe, Ph.D.,U. C. Berkeley
Bernard Oliver, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center
Kevin Padian, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
James Randi, Magician, Author, Lecturer
Francis Rigney, M.D., Pacific Presbyterian Med. Center
Wallace I. Sampson, M.D., Stanford University
Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D., Anthropologist
Robert Sheaffer, Technical Writer, UFO expert
Robert A. Steiner, CPA, Magician, Lecturer, Writer
Lowell D. Streiker, Ph.D., Anthropology, Religion
Jill C. Tarter, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
LETTERS TO "BASIS"
The April issue of "BASIS" was interesting as always: but I'm
especially moved to comment on "A Note on Scientism" by Yves
Barbero. He performs a service in focusing attention on this term.
But I'm not sure that Barbero has grasped what is the main point
about it, in my opinion. There are certain to be different opinions
on this point precisely because the word itself was invented to
make sure this would be so. Here's what I mean.
Take the definition quoted by Barbero from the "Random House"
dictionary (a better definition, by the way, than you'll find in
the "Merriam-Webster"). Three different meanings are given. The
third, by itself, comprises two different meanings: "Scientific or
pseudoscientific language," it says.
Well, if you're charged with "scientism" (a high crime in some
contexts),is your offense due to using scientific language, as is
done daily by 100,000 scientists, or is it due to your use of
pseudoscientific language? In the first case, you're accused of
being properly scientific, in the second of being nonscientific.
These accusations are, then, diametric opposites. You can show the
same pattern for the two other definitions given.
Or if you want to throw in the equally bemusing efforts of
"Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary", you will find two
definitions given, the first of which is: "methods and attitudes
typical of or attributed to the natural scientist." You see, this
too gives a choice. Again, if you're charged with "scientism," is
your sin that your methods and attitudes are typical of a natural
scientist, or are they attributed to the natural scientist?If
attributed, then by whom? (Anybody, of course.)
You see what follows: once again, if you are on the carpet for
scientism, you may have to defend yourself -- if you don't simply
collapse and wither under the weight of the charge -- against
diametrically opposite accusations, unless, of course,the term
"scientism" is accompanied by an explanation of its intended
I have an extensive collection of uses of the term in current
literature (all pejorative, it should be said quickly), and never
once have I seen the term accompanied by ANY clarification of the
sort. And that's not accidental, as they say. The whole point of
using this noncommunicative term in the first place would be
nullified if a content were ascribed to it.
Why? I offer an hypothesis to Barbero. In every case I have
collected, the word "scientism" -- used pejoratively always, as
mentioned, and therefore as an accusation of some claimed
malfeasance or transgression -- is used as a stand-in for science
itself, for scientific methodology or attitudes, and not for some
claimed distortion of science. It is used for the purpose of taking
a fallout of science without taking responsibility for any
demonstration of error that can be checked, in fact without taking
responsibility for saying anything about the implied offense. It
is a device of pure intellectual cowardice,a hit-and-run operation.
It is true, as Barbero reminds us, that some accuse scientists or
scientifically minded people of making a religion of science. That
is even an accusation that may be discussable -- if any specifics
are urged -- and if the accuser can make any rational statement
about what he thinks a religion is. (It is easy to propose a
definition of religion which makes it equivalent to "anything you
believe in.") But if, instead of making a point which can be proved
or disproved, or even discussed pro and con, you hurl the charge
of "scientism," just see how you grab the advantage immediately!
"Scientism" is the lexicographical equivalent of a snarl or a
spitting. I strongly recommend that its use NOT be met with a
rational discussion of what you conceive the other fellow means by
it. He doesn't mean that, whatever it is. Just tell him that it's
a meaningless grunt until he tells you what content he gives it.
I would add,incidentally, that its use is an almost infallible
indicator of a person who can't think straight from A to B. But
don't mention that to begin with. It's both impolitic and impolite.
-- Hal Draper
You know how it is when people learn you are a skeptic. Reactions
are varied, but typical, and generally fall into three categories:
(1) The person is mildly put off -- even a little frightened by
you. He or she is at least a little uncomfortable and afraid to
talk about some experience for fear that it might evoke your
ridicule. (2) The person is curious and will call you after some
personal experience to either show you how you are wrong or to let
you try to explain the experience. (3) The person is hostile
because he or she assumes that you are ready to attack, and he or
she is ready to counterattack. There is definitely a
confrontational attitude in the air.
A friend from category (2) called me, breathless, to relate his
experience,sounding certain that I would fall out of my chair. I
could tell from his voice that he had been deeply moved by what had
happened to him. In the throes of an impending marital breakup, he
had sought counsel from a psychic card reader. He began by telling
me she had revealed some things that "she could not have known."
"Well," I began, "usually these little women in possession of the
secrets of the universe are in the back room of some seedy little
row house. Palaces next to royalty should be their providence for
the wisdom they possess." He was surprised that I knew she was in
a seedy little row house. He said it was a perfect description.
"So, how did you find her and how did you make the appointment to
see her?" I asked.
He responded, "My mother knows her. She's been going to her for
years." He noted that his mother is very superstitious. "She comes
from the old country," he added, as if to explain.
"Then how do you know your mother didn't tell the psychic all this
stuff?" I immediately queried. "If your mother has been seeing this
woman for years, isn't it reasonable to think that the woman knows
a fair amount about you and your circumstances?"
He assured me that even if I accepted his assessment (which I
didn't), mama didn't know anything about his private life. When I
said that mama wouldn't have to have gotten all her information
directly from him -- apparently he was not too close to her -- he
assured me that his brother-in-law and sister would not have talked
with their mother either, even though his sister was quite close
to her. I told him he was dreaming. Skepticism didn't score points
with that remark.
"Now then, what did this psychic say?" I asked. "Tell me the exact
words, to the best of your recollection, she said about your soon-
"Well, I can't say the EXACT words because she spoke in Spanish,"
came his astonishing reply.
"Spanish!" I blurted in disbelief. "You can't speak Spanish. How
do you know WHAT the hell she said?"
"My mother translated for me," was his simple answer.
I choked back a burst of gasping laughter. "You mean your mother
went with you to the seance -- your deeply superstitious mother -
- and SHE told you what the psychic said?" I drilled.
He didn't seem to think there was anything to be suspicious about
in such an arrangement. I spent a little time trying to help him
understand that sensory leakage in his little episode was more like
tidal hemorrhage. If nothing else, the information from the psychic
was being filtered through a superstitious brain and then
translated into a non-native tongue. Under the best of conditions,
even the translation in the hands of a competent linguist is
subject to interpretation difficulties without all the problems of
a superstitious mind to boot.
"What were some of the astonishing things your mother said she
said?", I asked. "What struck you as particularly significant?"
"She said that my wife had had an abortion in a previous marriage,
and there is no way she could have known that. She has never met
my wife and there is just no way she could have known," he
I asked him if he had ever talked about such details with any of
the other members of his family. He couldn't remember for sure, but
didn't think he had. His lack of certainty did not seem to bother
him that that might have been a source of information, and he could
not entertain of the possibility that the little psychic could have
taken the time and trouble to have done a little research before
My suggestion that the psychic might not have PRECISELY said that
his wife had had an abortion elicited a disgusted expletive
followed by, "Do you think my mother would lie to me about what the
psychic said?" He thought that was the only alternative.
The crux of the matter came when I asked how he felt about the
whole thing. What benefit had he derived from hearing this little
Mexican woman look at his cards?
She had told him things "no one could have known."
"But someone knew these things, didn't he?" I observed.
"What do you mean?" he puzzled. "NO one knew!" he insisted.
"YOU knew. You paid her $50 to find out things that you already
knew. Information that doesn't do anything except astound you
because you can't figure out how she knew it. It made you feel good
because you thought for a moment that you were in the presence of
some other-worldly power," I said.
A long silence. "You, just don't know, Kent," he retorted. "I was
there. I tell you she couldn't have known. She has some special
power, some special abilities. I know it. I could feel it. It made
me feel GOOD."
That was it. I let it go. The case seemed so clear cut and easy.
Feeling good is hard to talk down. Feeling good is more important
than thinking good, isn't it. So it seems. The psychic's business
is to take the client out of his or her mundane little world to Rod
Serling's "Twilight Zone", where the week's laundry, the boss's
harangues and the pain of a nagging backache are out of the
picture. The psychic tells the client what he or she wants to hear.
The legitimate family counselor or psychotherapist must tell us
what we NEED to hear, and at a higher fee than $50. The psychic is
certainly more attractive.
Skepticism isn't for everyone.
Who is the dean of all UFO skeptics? Who has done more than anyone
else, living or dead, to bring a measure of sanity to UFOdom? Who
is insulted and reviled by the UFO believers and fence-sitters more
than anyone else? The answer is obviously none other than Philip
J. Klass, the author of numerous books and articles on the subject,
including "UFOs Explained", "UFOs -- The Public Deceived", and,
most recently, "UFO Abductions -- A Dangerous Game".
On Sunday, May 14, Phil Klass will be in town to tell us about the
epidemic of UFO abductions that seems to be gripping America.
Listen to tales recounting the aliens' remarkable obsession with
the sexual organs of earth people. Learn the shocking facts about
genetic experiments that the aliens seem to be performing upon the
helpless women and men they kidnap.
Learn the incredible truth about the documents concerning the
"Majestic 12," which is claimed to be a top-secret UFO retrieval
and investigation group (and should not be confused with the
Magnificent 7, which was a stupid movie). What is the REAL story
behind Whitley Strieber's frightening humanoid visitors? Phil Klass
will tell us all this -- and more.
To cover Mr. Klass' travel costs we are asking a nominal fee for
admission. Check the BAS Hotline for possible last-minute changes.
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 May, 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