ELECTRONIC NEWSLETTER OF THE GEORGIA SKEPTICS
JOSEPH CAMPBELL AND THE NEW AGE, PART I of II, by Larry Johnson,
TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING WITH NOVA VIDEO: THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE, by
Randall Raymond, Georgia Skeptics
APOCALYPSE WHEN? BACK THEN!, by Mary Anne Long, Georgia Skeptics
BOOK REVIEW: INNUMERACY, reviewed by Keith Parsons, Georgia Skeptics
QI GONG, by Dale Beyerstein, British Columbia Skeptics
NCAHF POSITION ON ACUPUNCTURE, from the NCAHF Newsletter
LETTER TO THE EDITOR: AMALGAM FILLINGS, Gary Thompson
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JOSEPH CAMPBELL AND THE NEW AGE
by Larry F. Johnson, Georgia Skeptics
There were some interesting letters to the editor in the Winter 1991
issue of Skeptical Inquirer in response to an article by Murray Bob in
the Summer 1990 issue. Bob's article compared Joseph Campbell and
Bill Moyers to Shirley MacLaine, and all three of the responses in the
letters section were defenses of Campbell. The gist of the letters
was that Campbell was an analyst of mythology, not a believer, and
that Campbell shouldn't be held responsible for the misuse of his
ideas and name by the New Age movement.
The exchanges started my train of thought meandering on the subject of
mythology and skepticism. Two things made this seem important.
The first is the interest that the Bill Moyers/Joseph Campbell
interviews generated. It became evident soon after I began researching
Campbell that there was no shortage of materials. Between Campbell's
own huge body of work, and the dozens of articles written in the wake
of the Moyers interviews, one of the main problems involved in
analyzing Campbell's role is sorting through the materials.
The second factor giving importance to this subject is the question of
how skeptics examine mythology. I don't think even the most dogmatic
reductionist in the world could deny that myth and metaphor play a
powerful role in shaping human society. Yet one of the most frequent
criticisms I hear of skeptics is that skepticism attempts to deny the
human need for the spiritual and transcendental, and reduce the world
to a set of dry materialist dogma.
With this in mind I outlined two articles. The first is an attempt to
get a grip on the role of Joseph Campbell, and the second will grapple
with the relationship between skepticism and what is generally called
the "spiritual" component of people's lives.
In order to make any real sense of whether Murray Bob was justified in
placing Campbell in the New age camp, a few questions have to be
1. What are the basic ideas Campbell propagated?
2. What was Campbell's connection to the New Age movement?
3. Did Campbell believe mythology possessed any literal occult
4. What are the major critiques of Campbell's work?
Campbell and the New Age
One thing that Murray Bob is certainly correct about is that the New
Age movement has embraced Campbell's work enthusiastically. The local
New Age bookstore has devoted considerable space to Campbell's work,
and the Goddess cults and pagan religions have received considerable
impetus from the Campbell/Moyers interviews. Murray Bob mentioned a
book title from a New Age press - "Creative Visualization : The Power
of Myth". Whole Earth Review ran an article by John Lobell tying
Campbell to the "human potential movement" entitled " A Primer on
Joseph Campbell and the Mythological Dimensions of Consciousness".
Lobell emphasizes in his article that the West Coast New Age audience
formed a major part of the attendance at Campbell's lectures after his
retirement from Sarah Lawrence.
So it's definitely evident that the New Age movement has a fascination
with Campbell. The question then becomes: Are Campbell's beliefs
consistent with New Age notions, or are the New Agers merely hanging
on to Campbell's prestige, as the letter writers in Skeptical Inquirer
Who Was Joseph Campbell?
Joseph Campbell was born in New York City in 1904 and died in 1987,
shortly after filming the set of interviews with Bill Moyers which
would make him a posthumous academic superstar.
After receiving a Master's degree at Columbia in 1925, Campbell began
work on his PhD., but discontinued the program because of what he
viewed as a stifling tendency towards specialization in the academic
environment. Overt hostility to the academic world became a recurring
theme in Campbell's public interviews.
Campbell went to Europe under a travelling fellowship from Columbia.
In Europe he became exposed to Matisse, Joyce, Picasso, Mann, Jung and
Freud. An enthusiastic and unapologetic eclectic, he began
incorporating the various trends and influences he was absorbing into
a theory of the meaning and purpose of myth. He met the Hindu mystic
Jiddu Krishnamurti, added Eastern mythology to his growing repertoire,
and became increasingly convinced that mythology worldwide was
basically composed of the same set of archetypal stories.
He also totally lost interest in pursuing his Doctorate:
The world had blown open. I'm no longer in the Ph.D. bottle.
I don't want to go on with my little Arthurian pieces. I
had much more exciting things to do - and I didn't know what
Interview with Donald Newlove Esquire
Magazine (September, 1977) Cited in
In 1934 he began teaching at Sarah Lawrence, where he was given a free
hand to develop and put forward his theories with a minimum of
constraints. He remained in this post for thirty-eight years, until
I could write my own ticket there. I never had to fit into
anyone's slot. I did not give a damn about teaching in a
large university, or about whether I was an instructor or a
full professor, or about the specialist attitude, which I
never could tolerate. I was much more interested in these
Interview with Joseph Barbato Chronicle
of Higher Education (March 24, 1984)
Cited in Segal- p.16
Sarah Lawrence had no demand for publish or perish. I didn't
have to publish a lot of junk in those official scrap
baskets, Publications of the Modern Language Association and
Journal of the American Oriental Society. Who the hell reads
Interview with Donald Newlove Esquire
Magazine (September, 1977) Cited in
Campbell used his position as a platform for developing and refining
his theories of the meaning of myth, and began a prolific career as a
writer and editor.
He edited the works of the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, published as
Philosophies of India (1941), Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and
Civilization (1946), and The Art of Indian Asia (1955).
In 1944, he wrote (with Henry Morton Robinson) A Skeleton Key to
Finnegan's Wake which was a guide to Joyce's difficult pun-laden
His two best known works are a 1949 book entitled Hero With a Thousand
Faces, and the four volume series The Masks of God published between
1959 and 1968. It was in these two works that he developed the basics
of his theory of myth.
Campbell's Theory of Myth
The themes found throughout Campbell's writings are: the "four
functions of myth"; the "hero's journey" and its attendant adage to
"follow your bliss"; the theory that modern culture has lost touch
with myth due to a sort of scientific mechanistic view of the world;
and the Goddess myth.
He also takes it for granted that myths from different cultures are
basically re-tellings of the same basic tales with local variations.
A large part of his work is dedicated to the comparison of myths from
different cultures. He also takes it for granted that
institutionalized religions undermine the true purpose of myth, and
particularly that Western religions replace the mysticism which gives
myth its power with a crude historicism and literalism.
Campbell states a number of times in his writings that myth serves
four basic functions.
The first is the mystical function- that is the one I've
been speaking about, realizing what a wonder the universe
is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before
The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which
science is concerned - showing you what the shape of the universe is,
but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through...
The third function is the sociological one - supporting and validating
a certain social order. And here's where the myths vary enormously
from place to place...
But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I
think everyone must try to relate to - and that is the pedagogical
function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.
Myths can teach you that.
The Power of Myth - p. 31
The applicability of myth to modern circumstances is a recurring theme
in Campbell's writings and interviews. As a further contrast of his
position at Sarah Lawrence with what he viewed as a dead academic
atmosphere he stated :
I was teaching young women who weren't the least bit
interested in academic affairs. They wanted to know what a
myth might mean to them.... I was held to the life of my
subject, and this is the thing which built whatever I have
had as a career, which I think has been a pretty good one.
Interview with Michael McKnight Parabola
(February 1980) Cited in Segal p.17
The next recurring theme in Campbell's interpretation of myth is the
concept of the universal "hero's journey". In this journey, the hero
typically leaves home on some quest into a strange world, faces deadly
obstacles, and returns victorious, finding that the "real world" and
the "supernatural world" were the same world all along. This symbolic
joining of the two worlds (physical and spiritual) is the strongest
argument that Campbell's work belongs solidly on the New Age shelves.
His advice to his audiences to "follow your bliss", and the supposed
transformative power of the mythic journey dovetail nicely with a lot
of the New Age self-development programs. They are also the basis of
the charge that Campbell's work is a justification for self-indulgence
Campbell clearly believed that the modern world has lost touch with
the tradition of myth. In part he seems to blame the Western religious
tradition, and in part the rise of science, which replaced the
cosmological function of explaining how the world is structured and
how it operates.
Campbell did not, however, believe that the modern world was devoid of
myth. His theory was that traditional myth, which had been a function
of religion, was rendered impotent by the increasing
institutionalization of the church, and loss of faith due to the rise
of science. It was replaced by "creative mythology", in which the
artist served the role of the hero. The artist (James Joyce was a
very good example, and one of particular interest to Campbell) went
through a series of dilemmas on their "hero's journey" and then
returned to the physical world to present their findings to humanity,
in the form of their work.
Did Campbell Believe in the Supernatural?
One question that has to be asked in evaluating the relationship of
Campbell to the New Age types who have embraced his work is - did
Campbell believe in the literal truth of the Myths he described and
compared? The New Age adherants generally view their mythology as
having a literal basis in fact. The "Power of Myth" to many of the New
Age adherants represents an extension of the notion that we "create
our own reality". Using this logic an individual can draw from the
archetypal symbols and myths to create a version of the "mythic hero's
journey" for themselves which is as real as any mundane historical
A lot of the New Age fascination with shamanism isn't the
psychological aspects of the religious culture from which they derive,
but the notion that shamanism gives the practitioner occult powers. I
seriously doubt that Campbell believed the shaman could fly or turn
It is pretty clear from Campbell's writings that he didn't believe
that mythological figures represented concrete historical beings, and
felt that even the originators and those who spread the myths viewed
the myths as guides for living rather than historical fact.
Well, literal interpretation of the Bible faces the problem of
scientific and historical research. We know that there was no Garden
of Eden; we know that there was no Universal Flood. So we have to
ask, says Campbell,
What is the spiritual meaning of the Garden of Eden? What is
the spiritual meaning of the Flood? Interpreting Biblical
texts literally reduces their value; it turns them into
newspaper reports. So there was a flood thousands of years
ago. So what? But if you can understand what the Flood
means in terms of a reference to spiritual circumstances-
the coming of chaos, the loss of balance, the end of an age,
the end of a psychological posture- then it begins to talk
to you again.
Open Life -p. 67-68, cited in Segal
Campbell also recognized the origin of a lot of the myth and metaphor
as deriving from the sort of inherited adaptive behavior that causes a
chicken to run for cover at the shadow of a hawk, but ignore the
shadow of a pigeon. A large part of Primitive Mythology in the "Masks
of God" series is devoted to putting forward a theory on how evolved
instinct and the environment (including level of culture) interact to
At the same time, however, he had a clear belief that the
transformative power of myth was real and tangible. He seemed to
think that there were different levels to the myths, including the
genetic (inherited), the social and psychological, and the spiritual
And so, to grasp the full value of the mythological figures
that have come down to us, we must understand that they are
not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all
human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended
statements of certain spiritual principles, which have
remained as constant throughout the course of human history
as the form and nervous structure of the human physique
itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all
the visible structures of the world- all things and beings- are the
effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports
and fills them during the period of their manifestations, and back
into which they must ultimately dissolve.
Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 257 Cited
in Segal, P. 67
Campbell and Jung
Although he professed equal debt to Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the
development of his ideas on the psychological components of myth,
Campbell is widely viewed as a Jungian. He certainly cites Jung
frequently throughout his writings and interviews, and makes frequent
parallels between the myths he studied and Jungian archetypes. Jung
held that humanity has a "collective unconscious", common to all
cultures, and that symbols called archetypes recurred in the myths,
dreams, and ritual of all peoples, with superficial modifications due
to varying historical and cultural tradition.
Archetypal symbols could include crosses, floods, virgin births,
wheels of various sorts, stars and triangles, in fact any of the
recurring symbols in dreams, myth, and ritual.
Jung was neither the only nor the earliest theorist to attach
significance to the symbols in mythology, but the archetype and the
idea of a "collective unconscious" have become associated with Jungian
analysis. Robert Segal in _Joseph Campbell- An Introduction_ points
out a number of differences between Campbell's views and Jung's
theories, but Campbell's heavy use of Jung's theories makes the
identification of Campbell as a Jungian understandable.
Critiques of Campbell
Since the release of the Campbell/Moyers interviews there have been a
number of criticisms published of Campbell and his works from
They include charges that he was anti-semitic (Brendan Gill, New York
Review of Books, "The Faces of Joseph Campbell"[September 28, 1989 pp.
That his knowledge of the classics was uneven and that he modified
myths to fit his theories (Mary R. Lefkowitz, American Scholar, "The
Myth of Joseph Campbell" [Summer 1990 p. 429])
That he pandered to the self-development movement (John Wauck,
National Review, "Paganism, American Style" [March 18, 1990 p.43]) and
also the Gill and Lefkowitz articles.
And that he built an unsupported dogma, offering complete analyses of
surprisingly few myths, and ignored rival theories (Robert Segal
Christian Century "The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell" [April 4,
1990 p. 332])
Campbell's writing and public speaking served as a means of
popularizing mythology, but it is clear from his writing and
interviews that his main concern wasn't presenting the outlines of
specific myths. In fact his tendency was to jump all over the map,
presenting fragments of myths to make his points about the function
and meaning of myth. He had an ideological axe to grind, which at
times even led to re-writing the myth to fit his pattern. Mary
Lefkowitz states in her article "The Myth of Joseph Campbell" in The
So perhaps it isn't fair for a specialist such as me to
complain that Campbell overlooks details or occasionally
gets a mythological fact wrong. Does it really matter that
he thinks that Telemachus went to ask the god Proteus where
his father was, when in fact it was his friend Menelaus, and
that Menelaus was not looking for his father but rather
seeking to learn from Proteus about how to get home?
Shouldn't we classicists be grateful that Campbell believes
the Odyssey still has something important to say to people
living in the modern world?
Campbell stated repeatedly that mythology was a guide to living our
lives, and that the power of myth was its power of personal
transformation. One of the most common critiques of Campbell was that
his catch-phrase "follow your bliss" was a validation of the cult of
self development represented by the proliferation of personal
development techniques of the seventies (EST, Transcendental
Campbell's most adamant critics (among whom I include Gill, Lefkowitz,
and Wauck) state that Campbell's version of the hero myth validated
what Lefkowitz called "the unexamined yuppie life".
Another criticism of Campbell was anti-Semitism. Partly the charges
come from accounts of personal conversations by people who knew him.
But it partially arises from his frequent criticism of the growth of
the Yahweh cult.
Campbell places a great deal of emphasis on the victory of the Yahweh
cult (Judaism) with its Temple and laws over the Baal cult, which he
viewed as having a thrust more in keeping with the true meaning of
myth and ritual. Lefkowitz points out, accurately, that the Yahweh
cult made some improvements over the Baal cult, like the ending of
Interestingly I find some of the most serious criticisms of Campbell
to come from one of the more sympathetic analysts of the works of
Campbell, Robert Segal. In his article in Christian Century Segal
observes that the popularity of Hero With a Thousand Faces peaked in
the sixties, before the modern "yuppie" existed.
After stating that the appeal of Campbell is his romanticism of
mythology as a sort of collective Bible for humanity, Segal goes on to
list seven flaws in Campbell's body of work, including dogmatism and
inconsistency (often to the point of contradicting himself in the same
work). After a pretty thorough critique, Segal ends on the note that
"Campbell's work is an important introduction to myth. It is simply
not the last word".
Summary and Conclusions
I spent the entire time I was researching Campbell swinging back and
forth like a pendulum. I would be drowning in Campbell's fragmentary
presentation of dozens of myths, and trying to untangle what was
actually occuring in the myth from his often heavy-handed ideological
analysis of the "universal truth" of the story line - then he would
come up with a beautiful, stirring, poetic observation which would
make me understand the popularity of the Campbell interviews.
I find a great deal attractive about Campbell the eclectic- hanging
out in cafes and bookstores in Paris, going to art shows, chatting
with Krishnamurti and later Alan Watts. The rebellious artist who
scorns the dead academic world of rules and regulations is an
archetype in itself, and Campbell lived this role, and was the hero in
his own creative myth.
In the final analysis I now think of Campbell as more a literary
figure than an analyst of mythology. Once I came to that conclusion,
reading his work, whether books or interviews, became a lot more
enjoyable. It's sort of like reading Jack Kerouac. If you want
fresh, spontaneous approach to the English language, and interesting
observations from an artist who is an active participant in his
environment, Kerouac's work can be great reading. If you are looking
for coherent philosophy and sociology, go elsewhere.
Campbell, like a great number of critics and literary figures, had a
vision of the modern world as decadent and out of touch with its
spirit and traditions. At its worst this can lead to a sort of "noble
savage" stereotype, a notion that somehow earlier peoples were wiser,
and that science and bureaucracy ruined it all for us.
Each society has its own myths, its own rules and laws, and its own
institutions, and the tension between creativity and
institutionalization is always there. Romanticizing the simpler
mysticism of earlier mythological and religious traditions is
attractive, but I don't believe it presents a very accurate picture of
the history of myths.
In general there is enough overlap between the thinking of Joseph
Campbell and a lot of the New Age personal transformation notions,
that I believe Murray Bob was justified in comparing Campbell and the
New Age movement. But understanding myth, metaphor and ritual is
critical to the understanding of human culture, and the Power of Myth
interview series exposed thousands of people to an interpretation of
the meaning and function of myth from a man who immersed himself in
mythology for more than five decades. There is enough sweep and
content in the Campbell books and interviews to provide a
thought-provoking introduction to mythology, as long as his work is
read with a critical spirit.
Selected Campbell Works
A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake. With Henry Morton Robinson. 1944
Hero With a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII, 1949.
The Masks of God: Vol I : Primitive Mythology, 1959. Vol II :
Oriental Mythology, 1962. Vol III : Occidental Mythology, 1964. Vol IV
: Creative Mythology, 1968.
The Power of Myth. With Bill Moyers. Ed. Betty Sue Flowers, 1988.
An Open Life. With Michael Toms. Ed. John M. Maher and Dennis Briggs,
Segal, Robert. Joseph Campbell- An Introduction. 1987.
Gill, Brendan "The Faces of Joseph Campbell", New York Review of Books
(September, 28, 1989)
Lefkowitz, Mary "The Myth of Joseph Campbell" American Scholar (Summer
Lobell, John "A Primer on Joseph Campbell and the Mythological
Dimensions of Consciousness" Whole Earth Review (Summer 1988).
Segal, Robert "The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell" Christian
Century (April 4, 1990)
TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING WITH NOVA VIDEO: THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE
by Randall Raymond, Georgia Skeptics
PBS's NOVA series has occasionally shown a somewhat credulous attitude
toward paranormal claims. A good example of this was the show on
psychic phenomena a few years ago that could almost have been written
by Shirley MacLaine. The show on the Bermuda Triangle, however, first
aired in 1976 and now available on video, is a classic example of how
to make the debunking of a popular myth both interesting and
Anyone who glances at the tabloids as they wait in a supermarket
checkout line is probably familiar with the Bermuda Triangle story. A
large, though unclearly specified, portion of the Atlantic Ocean is
imagined to be the location of thousands of mysterious diappearances
of ships and airplanes. Various authors have claimed that the area is
a "gateway to another dimension", a base of operations for UFOs, or
even, since it is in the same vaguely defined place where the
continent of Atlantis is supposed to have sunk, the location of an
ancient Atlantean power plant. All these stories of disappearances
and conjectures about their causes began with a few magazine articles
in the sixties followed closely by a score of best selling books.
Although many of the popular explanations for the Bermuda Triangle
disappearances were mentioned, the NOVA show went right to the heart
of the matter and investigated the "mysterious" disappearances
themselves. The way the producers of the show presented each claim
and the evidence for and against it was very effective. Using clips
from a commercial network special narrated by Vincent Price, and
interviews with the best selling authors of Bermuda Triangle books,
they would establish a disappearance claim in all its mysterious
detail. Then they would try to track down the original sources of the
claim, interviewing people who were actually on the scene, and
presenting documents, for instance. Often this inquiry would reveal
that the authors had simply quoted and embellished the claims of other
authors and obviously had never gone to original sources themselves.
Next they would go back to the authors and allow them to try to rebut
the negative evidence just presented. These rebuttals would
invariably be considerably less convincing than the original claims.
Finally the show would offer alternative explanations for the
disappeances. Effectively using the resources of the visual medium of
television, they would do things like film the view from an airplane
over the Bahamas to show how featureless the ocean is in that area and
how easy it would be to become disoriented and lost. It would take a
true believer indeed to watch this show and not have serious doubts
about the secrets of the Bermuda Triangle.
It's not often that the mass media, especially television, does a a
good job presenting the skeptical point of view. This 1976
installment of NOVA, however, does just that. It's available on video
on the shelves of some video rental outlets. I highly recommend it as
a demonstration of how skeptical inquiry can be presented with nearly
as much "show-biz" flair as paranormal claims, and as a painless way
to introduce your more gullible acquaintances to critical thinking
about extraordinary claims.
APOCALYPSE WHEN? BACK THEN!
by Mary Anne Long, Georgia Skeptics
The author of _End-Times_, James M. Efird, states that many Christian
religious groups today are needlessly preoccupied with the "end-times"
as a result of a theological system originating in the teachings of
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) which misinterprets the apocalyptic
books of the Bible.
According to Efird, professor of biblical interpretation at Duke
Divinity School, Darby's theological system, known as
dispensationalism, was based primarily on a very literal translation
of the apocalyptic books of the Bible. Efird presents evidence that
this system is flawed by citing specific examples of
misinterpretations of texts, preconceived meanings applied to certain
prophetic passages, and verses taken out of context.
John Nelson Darby was a British clergyman who became the most
prominent leader of a sect which rejected the formal ritual of the
established church and placed much emphasis on the second coming of
Christ, which was felt to be imminent. The Darbyists believed that
the church was basically corrupt and therefore useless. When a
literal interpretation of biblical passages was not possible, Darby
and his followers determined what the "normal" or "plain" meaning
should be. Efird points out that Darby's biblical interpretation
system failed to take into account that in most of the world's
cultures prophetic oracles are understood to be poetic in nature and
were never intended, even by the original writers, to be interpreted
Since apocalyptic writings, such as those found in the book of
Revelation and the last part of the book of Daniel were actually
directed to the people in whose times they were written, Efird
believes that the prophecies contained in these writings have already
Apocalyptic writing is a literary style which was widely used and
completely understood by the people of the time in which it was
employed. It developed in Hebrew culture in the post-exilic period
and may, according to some scholars, have been the result of Jewish
contact with Babylonian culture, expecially Zoroastrian religion.
This religion made extensive use of numerology, colors, astrologicall
symbols, and other such devices. With the passage of time the
apocalyptic outlook became an integral part of Jewish religious life.
The apocalyptic literary stule began to decine about 100 A.D. as the
Christian church began to enter the Gentile Greco-Roman world which
did not understand this type of writing. As it declined, the key to
understanding it became lost and the church began to apply it only
toward "end-times" rather than as appropriate to contemporary times
The symbolism employed in apocalyptic wriiting required no more
interpretation by its contemporaries than today's political cartoons
do for today's regular readers of newspapers. Everyone knew that
beasts represented nations and heads on beasts represented rulers.
Both numbers and colors had specific but symbolic meanings.
Therefore, there was no real mystery in apocalyptic symbolism and
imagery and no message requiring interpretation in order to be
understood by a select few.
Some scholars believe that Zoroastrian teachings may also have
influenced apocalyptic thought by advancing the view that there is a
constant struggle in the universe . . . a battle between the forces of
good and evil in which no one can remain neutral. While the struggle
continues, the righteous minority can do little but patiently endure
cruelties, indignities, and various other types of persecution. But
if those on the side of good remain faithful, they are assured that
good will ultimately prevail. Apocalyptic ideology consistently
teaches that the faithful must undergo a time of tribution before
divine intervation inaugurates a new age of perfect happiness.
It is Efird's stated position that apocalyptic writings, especially in
the New Testament, were not designed to teach how, when, why, or in
what way the end of the world, as we know it, will come about. For
those who believe in a Supreme Being, Efird concludes the book with a
positive message, but emphasizes that preoccupation with end-time
prophecies, and attempts to use to the Bible to predict when these
events will occur, is a use for which these passages were never
intended, and is futile speculation.
by Keith Parsons, Georgia Skeptics
Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, by John
Allen Paulos, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1988) 135 pp.
A man suddenly thinks of an old friend that he hasn't heard
from in some years. At that moment the phone rings: it's
the old friend he just thought of. Such experiences lead
many people to believe in mental telepathy. Striking
coincidences also undergird much of the credulity directed
towards the forecasts of palm readers, numerologists, and
astrologers. The fortune teller predicts a serious medical
procedure. Later that year you have gallstone surgery.
Unless you are a clear-thinking Georgia Skeptic, that
fortune teller is likely to get your business again.
The inability to recognize that such "impossible"
coincidences are in fact quite common (millions of people
will have "predictive" dreams, even if there is only one
chance in 10,000 that a particular dream will match some
future event) is a symptom of what John Allen Paulos calls
"innumeracy": ignorance of basic mathematics and the lack of
fundamental mathematical skills. Paulos argues that the
innumerate is just as handicapped in a complex, high-tech
society as the illiterate. Ironically, though, while hardly
anyone is proud of being illiterate, many people flaunt
their innumeracy. Fear and hatred of mathematics are
common, even among the otherwise well educated.
However, Paulos does not bore us with stern lectures about
the evils of innumeracy or hand-wringing jeremiads on the
woes of the public school systems. He has the true
teacher's gift of making us WANT to learn what we need to
know. Leaden, lifeless equations are replaced by clear
explanations and genuinely interesting applications. Why,
one cannot help but wonder, isn't math taught this way in
the schools and colleges? Why, Paulos asks, should
graduate-level mathematics education in the United States be
first-class while it is mediocre at best at more basic
levels? He suggests some answers and possible solutions in
his chapter "Whence Innumeracy?".
Of particular interest is Paulos's chapter on
pseudo-science. He cogently argues that innumeracy,
especially ineptitude in calculating probabilities, lies at
the heart of much pseudoscience. For instance, Wilhelm
Fliess, the inventor of biorhythmic analysis, was fascinated
by the numbers 23 and 28. He impressed his friend Sigmund
Freud by showing that any number can be attained by adding
or subtracing the apprropriate multiples of 23 and 28.
However, as Paulos points out, ANY two numbers that are
relatively prime (have no common factors) can be used to
express any other number.
The profound and pervasive influence of simple ignorance on
the course of human life is one of Innumeracy's most
by Dale Beyerstein, British Columbia Skeptics
Skeptics are always accused of being closed-minded, and not examining
the evidence in favor of paranormal claims. On the face of it, this
charge seems to have some validity, since, first, so few psychics and
miracle mongers are tested under proper conditions, and second, those
who are tested make such fools of themselves in the process it would
appear that skeptics single out the worst of the lot and ignore the
good ones. However, this accusation can be seen to be unfair when one
examines the lengths skeptics are prepared to go to test the best of
the psychics, only to be rebuffed.
The BC Skeptics discovered recently that the most renowned miracle
monger in China, Dr. Yan Xin (pronounced "Yen Shing") was on a tour of
the United States. Dr. Yan practices a traditional Chinese health
technique, Qi Gong (pronounced "chee gong"), which consists primarily
of breathing exercises. Many protoscientific, vitalistic medical
schemes identify air with the elan vital, having started out with the
perfectly sensible observation that dead people don't breathe.
(Remember that the God of Geenesis created Adam by making a clay
statue and breathing air into him.) However, some medical practices
have advanced beyond these rather jejune beginnings.
The modern Qi Gong resurgence in China has followed thee usual pattern
when New Age types rediscover old, discarded medical practices. When
we confine ourselves to comparing the old system with modern medicine
on the criterion of which is more efficacious in curing diseases, even
the New Ager with his head buried farthest from the light has to admit
that western medicine wins hands down. So, if the old system is to
fill any sort of niche, it has to promise wild and wonderful things
which the local GP, suffering under the yoke of science and Colleges
of Physicians and Surgeons, refuses to offer. Thus Qi Gong masters,
including Yan Xin, have promised cures for cancer and AIDS, as well as
claiming to show patients how to live more than 900 days without
eating, and to be able to alter the biochemical propertiees of
substances from several hundred miles away.
When the CSICOP executive council visited Beijing in 1988, they tested
a Qi Gong master with a simple double-blind protocol (Skeptical
Inquirer, Summer 1988, p. 368): The master was placed in one room,
and a subject, whom the master agreed was sensitive to external qi
(which can be sent from a master to a subject, and will cause the
latter to writhe around), was placed in another, with no communication
between them. There were ten three-minute trials. For each trial, a
coin was flipped. If it came up "heads", the master would transmit qi
for 15 seconds; if it came up "tails" he would not transmit qi during
that trial. The subject's writhings were completely uncoordinated
with the transmissions of qi, thus demonstrating that this Qi Gong
master at least relied on the placebo effect for his powers. Of
course, Yan Xin was nowehre in the vicinity when CSICOP offered this
test to Qi Gong masters, so he never participated.
When we heard that Yan Xin was touring the U.S., doing healing
performances that would put Peter Popoff to shame in front of Chinese
Student Associations on U.S. college campuses, we sent a letter to
Professor Wu Xutian, who was arranging Dr. Yan's U.S. tour. Professor
Wu's letter is reproduced below:
LETTER to BC Skeptics
September 2, 1990
Thank-you for your letter of August 8, 1990. I think your
friends never connected with some real Qigong masters in China
perhaps for political reasons.
I am sorry to say that Dr. Yan Xin and I are not interested in
the very low level test which was very popular in China ten or
fifteen years ago. He is busy on some cooperating research
subjects with several important organizations in the U.S.
Please read the materials I sent to you. It would help you and
your colleagues to understand the situation.
Department of Agricultural Engineering
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Dr. Wu is probably right on two of his points:
1) Dr. Yan treats high Communist Party officials, and regularly tours
Hong Kong, Japan, and now the U.S., as an emissary of the Chinese
government, showing the latest in Chinese medical progress. What an
embarassment it would have been if Dr. Yan failed as dismally as Dr.
Lu, the Qi Gong master tested by CSICOP. So, a natural explanation of
Yan Xin's absence from any of the places CSICOP visited in China, and
the failure of people to talk about him in their presence, might be
politely described as "political reasons."
2) Dr. Wu is also right to describe our test as "low level", if he
means by that either that it doesn't involve any "high-tech"
equipment, or that it does no more than establish whether the claims
of Qi Gong masters can really be verified. But he is dead wrong to
assert that these types of tests "were very popular in China ten or
fifteen years ago". First of all, Dr. Wu sent us no reference to such
a test being performed on any Qi Gong master, despite sending us
volumes of papers describing other sorts of tests. Second, our
independent survey of the literature turns up no evidence of such
tests being conducted. We have sent Dr. Wu a challenge to send us a
published report describing this sort of protocol being used on Dr.
Yen, and I predict he cannot deliver.
Furthermore, one of the purposes of CSICOP's visit to China was to
meet with scientists who were critical of exaggerated claims of the
paranormal, and to discuss with them how to conduct proper experiments
to test psychics. They were told that the test they conducted on Dr.
Lu had not been done previously in China (cf. article cited above,, p.
368). Many tests using sophisticated instruments to detect qi and
psychic powers have been done in China; but it is obvious from the
literature sent ot us by Dr. Wu that the lessons that CSICOP taught
researchers in the U.S. back in 1975 were not picked up in China.
Sophisticated instruments and a complex protocol are a prime breeding
ground for fraud and self deception. In North America and England
researchers with solid reputations, such as Targ, Puthoff and Taylor
believed in the psychic power of Uri Geller after conducting complex
experiments without first doing the 'low level" ones to see if the
powers were really there. Consequently, these scientists, with
impeccable credentials in their own scientific fields became laughing
stocks when their paranormal research was subjected to scrutiny. It
appears that the scientific establishment in China will continue to
suffer the same sorts of embarassments at the hands of Yan Xin, until
he falls out of political favor, and loses his current protection from
proper scientific investigation.
The above article was reprinted from the Rational Enquirer, The
Skeptics' Newsletter for Western Canada, Volume 4, No.2, November
1990. Dale Beyerstein is a philosophy instructor at Langara College,
and is a Director at Large of the BC Skeptics.
NCAHF POSITION PAPER ON ACUPUNCTURE
After nearly three years of literature evaluation, analysis and peer
review, the National Council Against Health Fraud (NCAHF) Board of
Directors has approved a position paper developed by its Task Force on
Acupuncture. The position paper describes acupuncture's theory and
practice, current use in China, scientific status, practitioner
training, hazards, legal status, and makes recommendations. NCAHF's
finndings are summarized below:
NCAHF believes: 1) acupuncture is an unproven modality of treatment;
2) its theory and practice are based on primitive and fanciful
concepts of health and disease that bear no relationship to present
scientific knowledge; 3) research during the past twenty years has
failed to demonstrate that acupuncture is effective against any
disease; 4) perceived effects of acupuncture are probably due to a
combination of expectation, suggestion, counter-irritation, operant
conditioning, and other psychological mechanisms; 5) the use of
acupuncture should be restricted to appropriate research settings;
6)insurance companies should not be required by law to cover
acupuncture treatment; and 7) licensure of lay acupuncturists should
be phased out.
The above information was reprinted from the NCAHF Newsletter, Vol.
14, No. 2, March/April 1991. The entire acupuncture position paper
will be published in the Clinical Journal of Pain in July 1991.
Copies may be obtained from NCAHF at a cost of $1, plus either 50
cents for postage and handling or a stamped self-addressed envelope.
Order from NCAHF, PO Box 1276, Loma Linda, CA 92354.