My father finally became inactive in the Society for Psychical Research partly because nothing ever seemed to lead anywhere.
On display in bookstores around town is a flashy paperback entitled Somebody Else Is on the Moon, by George H. Leonard. The cover painting shows an astronaut coming upon huge tracks in the lunar soil, a big white dome and a crater with pipes sticking out of it. “For 200 years astronomers have suspected—now we know!” announces the cover. “Incredible proof of an alien race on the moon! The evidence: immense mechanical rigs, some over a mile long. Constructions several times higher than anything built on earth. Lights, flares, vehicle tracks, towers, pipes, conduits.”
A book like this simply begs to be bought. Anyone who believes the cover blurbs will feel ripped off as soon as he starts reading, but to the connoisseur of a certain type of literature the book is a delight. It is a rambling, highly personal narrative of how the author sees amazing things in photographs of the moon. He gets them mail order from NASA. The chapters bear such titles as “A Motor As Big As the Bronx,” “Service Station in a Crater?” and “If They Aren't Dust Clouds and Mists, What Are They?” Thirty-five pages of moon photos with circles and arrows illustrate the marvels discussed in the text. Unfortunately, squint and stare as you will, the circles and arrows point to nothing at all. The photos are ordinary moonscapes of hills, plains, and craters.
One faraway perspective of rolling hills is captioned, “Power source plate with knobs and cord at right, and constructions and gas spray at lower center.” Another distant view of hills is supposed to show “small craters in the process of being worked on with marking crosses on their lips and spraying drones inside. Also notice X-drone and puff-like orbs. ” Under a fuzzy picture of a boulder field is the explanation, “Manufactured objects and vehicle are visible in Mare Tranquillitatis.”
At one point Leonard vents his frustration at being unable to figure it all out. “Operation Cover-up is a common theme on the moon,” he pouts. “Sometimes, in examining closely a particular patch of ground, one gets the feeling that everything is fake, sham; that the moon’s occupants do not wish us to see the surface for what it really is.”
The biggest cover-up, of course, is by NASA (even though the agency freely gave Leonard the telltale photos). “Did we pay $27 billion to learn that a rock from the highland breccia is almost 4.1 billion years old?“ he asks. Obviously not. Astronauts flew to the moon to study its inhabitants, and everything else is a government charade that dwarfs Watergate.
Someone Else Is on the Moon does not deserve the title of “borderland science” or “New Age research“ or any of the other such terms that have lately become fashionable. It is the work of a grade-A crackpot. There have always been crackpots around, but the mass marketing of Leonard’s book is one small symptom of an enormous shift that has taken place in American popular thought. Never before would a reputable publishing house like Simon and Schuster have had the chutzpah to print Somebody Else Is on the Moon, place it in the Science and Nature section of bookstores everywhere, and put this sell line on the opening page: “What NASA knows but won’t divulge! With careful logic and reason, George Leonard has studied all the data to prove his theory of a highly advanced underground civilization that is working the face of the moon.” Not until the Seventies, that is. In times past, purveyors of paranormal ideas used to charge bitterly that they were being censored out of print by conspiracies of publishers and orthodox scientists. No more; all holds are off. Sunken continents, ancient astronauts, colliding planets, pyramid power, astrology, scores of holistic health beliefs, undersea UFO bases, and a thousand similar ideas are getting a hearing in America like never before. Anyone who reads print or watches TV is steadily bombarded by the borderland subjects that go under the name of “paranormal.”
To someone who confronts the question of whether a few of these things might actually be true, and just about everyone does sooner or later, this presents a dilemma. Never has discussion of the paranormal come so far out of the closet, but never has so much garbage spilled out as well. Rather than providing more information from which to judge, this no-holds-barred atmosphere has made the Search, as devotees of the paranormal call it, more confusing than ever.
The Search has been a part of my own life about as long as I can remember. It runs in the family, as a matter of fact. My grandfather was a devout spiritualist. He held seances with the great mediums of the day—Arthur Ford, Eileen Garrett—and he took my mother and father to all the famous spiritualist camps. My parents were more skeptical. My father joined the American Society for Psychical Research and became one of its directors. He investigated haunted houses, poltergeists, clairvoyants, and telepaths long before such investigators were the stars of TV shows. Up in the attic we still have a set of fake spirit photographs a medium tried to pass off on him; spirit photography was the popular equivalent in those days of key-bending. All this was part of the background of my childhood. Some of my earliest reading materials were the “psychic books” that filled our family’s bookcases. In one of them I ran across an engraving of my great-grandfather Emerson J. Mac-Robert, a spiritualist in London, Ontario. He had held seances in the top-floor room of an old house with velvet tacked over the windows at a time when holding a seance was seen as a scandalous thing to do. Word got out and he was nearly forced from his post on the London School Board by righteous churchgoers. I ran across an old reference to something called the “Treborcam" ethereal healing machine. The name is my own spelled backwards.
There were times when I believed in it all and times when I didn’t. My father was always noncommittal. He had run across plenty of frauds and exaggerations, but aside from them, unlike on the TV shows, the best the Society for Psychical Research seemed able to do, year after year, was draw a blank. Usually someone claiming to have one paranormal power or another would explain that he was just having a bad day when he failed objective tests. Or would get huffy with the Society for being “skeptical.” With suspicious regularity, the spectacular things seemed to occur only where nobody was around to check closely. Sometimes a psychic who flopped tests would nevertheless milk publicity from the fact that his powers “had been tested by the American Society for Psychical Research.” The more carefully the investigators checked, he says, the more the phenomena were not there.
The longer I’ve followed the whole subject, the more I’ve seen of this same thing. I have come through the Search somewhat disillusioned, totally impatient with the intellectual mushiness that lets so much flummery pass as the real thing, but still ready for the day when UFO creatures land on the White House lawn and are interviewed by Walter Cronkite, or when one single psychic somewhere can predict the future or levitate paperclips reliably so that anyone can see it's so.
If anybody picked up this paper hoping for the word that psychic power exists, I'm sorry to disappoint you. In the meanwhile, here, culled from all the time I've spent in the Search, are some guidelines by which to evaluate the flood of paranormal claims as they roll in. These guidelines, carefully applied, should help eliminate claims that are worthless—at least ninety-five percent—and will provide grounds for evaluating anything that’s left.
LOOKING THE OTHER WAY
Almost everyone with a paranormal theory to tout, you will discover, is unwilling to scrutinize the phenomena. Whatever he's claiming, he’s liable not to examine it too closely even when he gets an excellent chance. You get the impression that these people are afraid deep down they’ll see there’s nothing there. They’ll talk about the inadequacy of the linear Western scientific mind and so on, but let's get a handle on that. Science is not linear men in white coats with test tubes. Science is merely the art of looking carefully. The test tubes are just a means to that end. What most paranormal advocates mean when they condemn Western scientific attitudes, as they almost always do, is that they are afraid of being looked at carefully.
An example: A few years ago when the pyramid power movement was at its height, it was widely claimed that a razor blade would grow sharp if kept in a pyramid. Countless pyramid freaks and fellow-traveler journalists said in countless publications that yes. they really got more shaves from a razor blade stored in a pyramid. But, as every man knows who has run out of blades at an inconvenient time, even a very dull blade will last if you want it to. It’s a very' poor test.
The thing to do would have been to look at the blade under a microscope instead. In a high-power microscope a dull razor edge looks like the Rocky Mountains. If the Rocky Mountains knit back into a clean, smooth edge inside the pyramid, defying all the laws of physics before your very eyes, you would have something. If the blade just sat there, pyramid power would come down a peg. No pyramid writer to my knowledge has ever done this. It never seems to have even occurred to them. Perhaps they were too afraid of disappointment.
You will spot this theme everywhere in the world of the paranormal once you start looking for it. Somebody Else Is on the Moon contains a fine example. All of Leonard’s moon constructions are at the very limit of resolution of the photos. When he had a chance to get better photos and see the terrain more clearly, he didn’t. One of his pictures is supposed to show miles-long bridges. The photo is a very distant shot, hardly better than the view in a telescope from earth, and the bridges are the vaguest smudges. Most of Leonard’s other photos are close-ups of just a few miles of lunar terrain. Equally good close-ups have been taken of the bridge areas, and if the bridges were there they would reach from one side of the frame to the other like a wallposter of the Golden Gate. For some reason Leonard did not get those particular close-ups. readily available from NASA. He was unwilling to look carefully.
Here’s another instance, an example of the peculiar dullness that overcomes so many paranormal followers when they have a chance to confront the question,4 ‘Is this so?" The planet Venus has figured in practically every psychic and astral travel movement since Emanuel Swedenborg in the middle of the Eighteenth Century. The psychics usually got messages that Venus has a climate and wildlife rather like the Garden of Eden. Sometimes they went there in their astral bodies and saw for themselves. A few years ago the first spacecraft flew to Venus. The planet turned out to be a horrible place. It’s always 900° Fahrenheit, the air pressure is as heavy as under more than 2500 feet of ocean, and the clouds are made of sulfuric acid. As Carl Sagan has noted, this serves to calibrate the accuracy of psychic messages and astral travel reports, giving us a means to judge how valid they are for places we cannot so readily check.
Mentioning this will not make you any friends in psychic circles. They completely missed the lesson of Venus. Mystics are still getting messages from, and sending their astral bodies to. a tropical-garden Venus, and the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian) is still in business. When my father was investigating mediums, they often claimed that the spirits would stay away if there was a skeptic in the room. So if an investigator frisked the medium for gadgets the spirits would fail to materialize. This is a very elegant explanation for why paranormal phenomena disappear when someone looks closely, and it is invoked in many ways by many people. Maybe it’s true: the concept is set up so that it’s impossible ever to be disproved. But a simpler explanation for why something isn’t there when you look carefully is that it isn’t there at all. Beware of anyone who says you mustn't look closely. Apply this guideline and many alleged mysteries will come clear.
CLOAKS OF FUZZ
This next guideline grows out of the first. Watch out for paranormal phenomena that are cloaked in noise.
“Noise” in this sense means any kind of confusion, static, or fuzz that obscures what you’re looking for. Leonard’s moon marvels are an example, lost as they are in the details of his photographs where everything gets fuzzy and random. A recent TV show promoting the paranormal featured a tape recording that reviewers were told contained voices of spirits in a graveyard. If there really were any voices on the tape, they were well cloaked in the noise of the wind on the microphone. Why?
Another example comes from the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research on my father’s bookshelves. One psychic investigator theorized that psychokinesis—the mind’s alleged ability to move objects by will power—might depend on what elements are in the objects. Zinc might respond differently than zirconium. The straightforward way to test this would be to suspend a piece of each element in such a way that the slightest force would move it. then sit back and concentrate on each one and see which moves the most in response. Of course, the objects would probably sit there and do nothing. The experimenter seemed to realize this. So instead, he made dice out of different elements and rolled them thousands of times down a sloping board, concentrating on what numbers he wanted to turn up.
Note that the amount of force needed to turn a bouncing die is far greater than the force needed, say, to deflect a needle suspended on a thread in a vacuum. But the rolling of dice added statistical noise to the experiment, giving the experimenter something to work with. His results were not outstanding, but with an experiment like that you can fiddle around endlessly matching good and bad runs to your mood, the weather, the phases of the moon, and so on, making a nice thick report for the psychical research journal.
Virtually every classic ESP test involves a great deal of statistical noise—dice rolling, card guessing—and we have a right to wonder why. If ESP were really there, it could be detected in clearer ways. Any legitimate researcher, no matter what his field of study, always tries to eliminate the noise from his data. None will needlessly cloak their data in noise, unless trying, perhaps unconsciously, to cover up the fact that maybe there’s nothing there.
Once you get the hang of checking the data-to-noise ratio, it can be applied in many ways. Take, for instance, the shroud of Turin.
The shroud is an ancient cloth bearing the vague image of a mournful-looking man. It is widely claimed to be the shroud that wrapped Jesus, imprinted by a miracle. It turned up in a church in the Middle Ages; its earlier history is unknown. The trouble is, whole museumloads of false relics also come out of the early Middle Ages, when practically every church had to have a piece of the True Cross, a plate from the Last Supper, one of Jesus’s sandals, and so forth. The shroud appeared in the middle of all this noise, any single item of which would be as hard to evaluate as the shroud itself.
Ray N. Rogers, a leading shroud advocate, has said he can hardly think of a better way, if you were a deity, to prove your existence to a skeptical modern world than by leaving us the shroud. I can think of plenty of better ways. You could do something clean and clear, like materializing as a figure fifty miles tall and speaking loud enough to shake the Great Pyramid. That would make people take notice. The shroud is a pretty forlorn miracle by comparison, since it is lost in the trivia of the Middle Ages like a needle in a haystack (which, by the way, is the perfect example of a data-to-noise problem).
This is not proof that the shroud is not what it’s cracked up to be, or that mind power didn’t occasionally tilt a zirconium die, or that the moon is not covered with artificial objects just a little smaller than the best photographs can show. “Noise” in information theory means, literally, you don’t know. But data swamped in noise are unworthy of belief, and when the evidence of the paranormal is so consistently cloaked this way, you have a right to wonder why.
Watch out for believers. Watch out for stories told and retold. Anyone who starts poking into claims of the paranormal quickly learns these two guidelines, which go together.
The human mind is an amazing thing. Put something in, and it comes out magically transformed. A "believer” doesn’t have to be a zealot. Anyone qualifies who deep down might get excited at the idea that maybe that mysterious crashing noise in the woods beyond the campfire is Big-foot. Whenever a newspaper has invented a land, lake, or sea monster as a hoax, intelligent, rational people often come forward who swear they saw it. Anyone can work the believer’s magic.
Someone notices Venus sparkling in a clear dawn sky. It bothers him a little, and he tells someone about it at work. This person scoffs, prompting him to defend his sighting and amplify it. Later the second person passes it on, with elaborations, to a third. By the time the story gets across town it occurs to no one that the object was Venus since Venus does not have portholes, a flashing dome light and yellow jet exhaust.
This is the garden variety flying-saucer sighting that clutters up the work of serious UFO investigators. Some of them, like J. Allen Hynek, have concluded that after the garbage is sorted out a few unexplainable cases remain. Others, like Philip Klass, don’t think so. “In twelve years of investigating some of the most famous and highly acclaimed UFO reports,” says Klass, ”I have yet to find one that could not be explained in prosaic terms. . . .I’m not skeptical on principle, just on the evidence.” This particular question simply cannot be called with certainty, and anyone who claims otherwise can be pegged as a believer.
Often the paranormal claim gets thoroughly debunked but continues to travel far and wide. One of the classics of UFO lore is the Incident of Flight 19, which figured in the opening scene of Close Encounters. Five Avenger torpedo bombers, the story goes, went out on a training mission over the Gulf of Mexico on a calm, sunny afternoon in December, 1945. Everything went routinely. Then the lead pilot radioed back that the squadron had flown into something indescribable, like an unearthly, alien sky. All five planes vanished. Not a scrap of debris was ever found.
That is a story. Investigators who took the trouble to go back and check found the facts. It was not a calm, sunny afternoon; the flight was on a dark, stormy night with high winds and seas. Most of the pilots were students, one was an instructor. The radio message about an alien sky simply never happened; it was apparently invented out of nothing somewhere along the line as the story was told and retold. There turned out to be nothing mysterious about the loss of Flight 19; presumably the squadron got disoriented in the dark and the storm and went down somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. The weather could easily account for the lack of debris by the time a search was mounted.
On the subject of lost planes, the Bermuda Triangle is another paranormal belief that has become entrenched in the public mind despite a thorough debunking. Lawrence Kusche, a pilot and investigator for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, has examined all the allegedly mysterious Triangle disappearances—more than a hundred, including some that actually happened elsewhere—and found nothing really mysterious about any of them. And, he showed, the Triangle claims no more victims than any other heavily traveled area. Kusche wrote a book on the results of his investigations, but it sold poorly. “I assumed that people who read the weird books would naturally want to read the other side of the story and find out the truth,” he commented. “I was wrong.” Bermuda Triangle lore continues to percolate through American culture. A Triangle movie has recently been released, its TV promotions full of flying saucers, underwater horrors, time warps, and planes full of screaming people.
There are those who have concluded that every last paranormal mystery can be accounted for by these twin forces of believer’s magic and tales amplified in the retelling.
THE POST IS PROLOGUE
Check out the history of the phenomenon. The past can put current events into a clear perspective that could be gained in no other way.
A writer I know has a friend right now who is severely shaken by a Canadian psychic’s prediction that the world is about to end. The psychic has a circle of followers whom she knows and trusts. Her mind might be more at ease if she knew that not a year has passed since the Sixteenth Century without there being at least one sect on record as predicting that year would be the end of the world. This fact calibrates the accuracy of such predictions in a way that could never be done merely by paying attention to one particular seer.
Many of the paranormal claims and movements that people assume are new for the Seventies actually have long and colorful histories. Here’s one example that has been showing up in New Age periodicals and on leaflets on college bulletin boards: the Bates eye-healing system. The leaflets offer a new, holistic way to treat poor eyesight by means of easy exercises.
Dr. William Horatio Bates was born in 1860 and graduated from medical school in 1885. His medical career was disrupted by spells of total amnesia, but these did not prevent him from publishing, in 1920, his great work: Cure of Imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses. Bates claimed, contrary to reality, that changes in the shape of the eye lens are not responsible for changing one’s focus from distant objects to near ones. Bates said the lens never changes shape at all, that focussing is purely mental, and that all the problems orthodox doctors attribute to imperfect lenses are actually caused by an “abnormal condition of mind” or “a wrong thought.” He invented a series of mental exercises to be done while “palming,” covering the eyes with the palms, to correct these problems. Other exercises involved “shifting” and “swinging” vision from side to side, and reading under difficult conditions such as in dim light or on a lurching streetcar. He also advocated staring directly at the sun for brief moments (which can cause genuine eye damage).
Bates died in 1931, but disciples kept his theories alive. Dozens of popular books were published on the Bates method, and “Throw away your glasses!” became the rallying cry of an international movement in the Thirties and Forties. Thousands of people sincerely believed the Bates exercises had cured them of nearsightedness, astigmatism, cataracts, and glaucoma. Unfortunately, tests did not bear them out.
One of the most prominent converts to the Bates system was Aldous Huxley. The corneas of his eyes had been scarred since childhood, but he believed the Bates exercises had repaired them. He wrote a book about it, The Art of Seeing. Huxley was a vindication to the Bates sympathizers trying to fend off criticism from eye doctors. But sometimes Huxley was an embarrassment, too, such as the time he addressed a Hollywood banquet. This account is by Bennett Cerf in the April 12, 1952, Saturday Review:
“When he arose to make his address he wore no glasses, and evidently experienced no difficulty in reading the paper he had planted on the lectum. Had the exercises really given him normal vision? I, along with 1200 other guests, watched with astonishment while he rattled glibly on ... . Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn't reading the address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn't read it, and he had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket. It was an agonizing moment. ...”
Eventually the Bates movement ran its course. In 1956 a Manhattan optometrist, Philip Pollack, wrote the definitive book taking it apart. ‘ ‘It is a rare occasion indeed when anyone so well informed troubles to take apart a pseudoscientific cult in such a thorough and painstaking manner,” wrote Martin Gardner in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957.
Now the Bates system has been resurrected. minus some of Bates’ more obvious blunders and clothed in New Age rhetoric for the Seventies, while the Pollack book sits forgotten on library shelves.
The pattern is common: a new paranormal claim or movement turns out to be a very old one, debunked long ago, long enough for the debunking to be forgotten.
Often, the history of a paranormal movement will reveal very clearly why it exists at all, as opposed to the reasons its followers cite. Chiropractic does not quite fit the paranormal category, hut with its assumption that by manipulating the spine one can treat most diseases, it hovers around the edges. Chiropractic, too, is going through a Seventies boom after a generation when it seemed on the way out. It was invented in 1895 by Daniel D. Palmer, an itinerant grocer. Anyone who studies the history of chiropractic can only conclude that the reason it exists at all, instead of disappearing with dozens of other forgotten nineteenth-century remedies, is not because its theory is valid but because of the extraordinary, evangelistic fervor of its inventor’s son. He salvaged chiropractic from his father’s crankdom and spent his every moment for sixty years building a chiropractic empire. By the time he died in 1960 he had left the world with 20,000 chiropractors. The livelihoods and self-images of all of them depended on D. D. Palmer’s crankish spinal science being accepted as valid, and they have worked hard to this end ever since.
The rate at which old, disproven, and forgotten theories are being revived shows a certain unimaginativeness in the field, as if new paranormal movements cannot be invented fast enough to meet demand. Even pyramid power goes back more than 110 years. Not long ago I went to a natural living festival and noticed an iridiagnosti-cian on the program. An iridiagnostician! I felt like a biologist who discovers a living fossil.
Iridology was invented around 1880 by Ignatz Peczely of Budapest. He declared that every human disease can be diagnosed by looking at the iris of the eye. He claimed—no one knows why—that the iris is divided into forty zones corresponding to different body parts. The zones run clockwise in one eye, counterclockwise in the other. Peczely gained disciples and in 1904 his works were translated into English. Orthodox doctors ridiculed the iridiagnosticians, who did fail to detect diseases accurately when tested. (Pranksters had their day, too. The Textbook of Iridiagnosis, fifth edition, 1921, carefully explains how to recognize glass eyes so as to avoid being caught making lengthy diagnoses from them.) The movement petered out around the time of my grandfather.
I expected the iridiagnostician at the natural living festival to be a doddering old man in his eighties, full of reminiscences about Henry Lindlahr, J. Haskell Kritzer, and other bygone greats of the movement. But no. He was a young, hip-looking fellow as enthusiastic about iridology as if it were brand new.
A similar resurgent movement is zone therapy, based on the belief that every organ of the body is connected to a different spot in the bottom of the foot, the roof of the mouth, and the hands. Zone therapy was another turn-of-the-century invention, by a Dr. William H. Fitzgerald of St. Francis Hospital, Hartford, Connecticut. His first book-length manual came out in 1917. Zone therapy flourished fora while, aided by testimonials of spectacular cures. But the cures somehow didn’t stand the test of time, and zone therapy slowly faded out. By 1950 it was said to be nearly extinct. Now all of a sudden it has been resurrected under the name of reflexology, and poster charts of the bottom of the foot can be found in health food stores everywhere.
BY THEIR FRUITS YOU SHALL KNOW THEM
These examples lead into the next guideline: Watch whether the field of study remains barren over time.
In the end, the most telling argument against the Bates system, iridology, and zone therapy was not that they were founded by cranks or were based on spurious theory, but that they bore no fruit. The Bates exercises had every' chance to succeed. Thousands of people “threw away their glasses” and practiced the system religiously. Millions more probably gave it a briefer try. If palming, shifting, and swinging could really cure poor eyesight, glasses would be as obsolete by now as horsedrawn carriages.
Laetrile is another example. Tens of thousands of cancer patients have taken lactrile since E. T. Krebs invented and promoted it in the early Fifties, and it has gotten nowhere—even in countries like Mexico where it is dispensed legally.
My father finally became inactive in the Society for Psychical Research partly because nothing ever seemed to lead anywhere. At home we have a shelf lined with issues of the society’s Journal, marching back through the decades. Unlike other scientific journals, it contains nothing with any real meat to it. In essence, the society is just where it began in 1885, and where its precursor, the London Society for Psyc.hical Research, began before that. It has yet to demonstrate that psychic powers exist at all. much less learn anything about them.
A genuine science constantly builds on itself. When a fact is discovered and verified. it is known for all time. It is the foundation from which the next fact can be discovered and laid down, until a whole edifice of knowledge is built. The paranormal sciences have never made this kind of advance, only changes in hypoth-css to match current philosophical fads. Paranormal researchers are forever trying to lay that first foundation.
The UFO controversy is one more case in point. It has been more than thirty years since the first great UFO flap of modern times but the field has remained barren. We know nothing more about UFOs than in 1947. There are far more UFO stories on record now, and the literature has grown enormous, but we know nothing more about them. We only have more people’s guesses. This does not prove they are not real; maybe we’ve just had bad luck. But if the last thirty years of UFOIogy have been barren, you could probably sit out the next thirty years and not miss anything.
When something floats just out of reach for so long. looking so near and enticing but dissolving whenever you reach to take hold of it. year after year without exception, you would normally conclude you are grasping at an illusion.
In addition to these guideline, I’ve come up with some simpler rules of thumb.
If someone making paranormal claims compares himself to Einstein, Galileo, or Pasteur, dismiss him right away. This is the sure mark of a crank; real geniuses let their work speak for itself. If he believes he is being conspired against by doctors, “orthodox oxen,” and “would-be scientists” with “frozen beliefs” and “hi-de-hi mathematics” (to quote George F. Gillette, discoverer of an incomprehensible something he calls the “spiral maximotc universe”), then you may safely ignore him. The scientific world is not a monolith and even the strangest theories can get a hearing if they have any merit at all. Paranoia is the refuge of the incompetent.
The crank usually works in isolation from anyone else who knows the field of study, making grand discoveries alone in his basement lab. Whenever a paranormal movement can be traced back to such a person, once more it can be dismissed out of hand. Take Kirlian photography. Pump high-voltage electricity into anything and it will emit glowing sparks—as has been known to electrical workers and hobbyists for a century. It took a lone basement crank to declare that the sparks represent some sort of spiritual aura. Thus, as can be predicted by following this rule of thumb, his experiments don’t work when repeated by other people. (Nevertheless, TV shows and magazines continue to promote Kirlian photography as proof of the unknown.)
One obvious point to watch for is when tremendous “discoveries” are used only for trivial purposes. Whatever pyramid power is, if it were real it would have much more profound applications than sharpening razor blades or preserving apples. If clairvoyants were really clairvoyant, they would not have to eke out a living doing second-rate stage shows guessing people’s dead relatives’ names. They could make millions in Las Vegas and then billions in the stock market, and could shape the course of the world. There is a certain tawdriness to watch out for in this field, one which has nothing to do with a “genius” being scoffed at or ignored.
And finally, of course, there are plenty of outright fakes. A fake can easily give rise to a movement that persists long after the fakery is exposed. Spiritualism,the religion of my family for two generations, began in 1848 when twelve-year-old Margaret Fox in Wayne County, New York, became the world’s first medium. People would sit with her in a darkened room, ask questions of the spirits, and unexplained rapping noises would reply. More and more people came to witness this prodigy, and soon Margaret and her sisters went on tour. Much later, in 1888, she confessed. It was all a hoax; she did it by snapping her big toe joint against the floor. But by now spiritualism had grown far beyond the “spirit rapping” stage, and a seance could be full of flying spirit trumpets, spirit voices, gauzy figures appearing in the dark, and a medium foaming ectoplasm from various bodily orifices. Spiritualists continued to revere Margaret Fox as the founder of their religion even after her confession. My grandfather took my parents once to visit the Fox sisters’ cabin, preserved as a sort of spiritualist shrine. My mother remembers sitting in Margaret Fox’s chair. She also learned to do the toe-tapping trick. She can still do it. She tried to demonstrate it to my grandfather once, but says “he was very out of patience with us for being skeptical.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
In the whole panoply of the paranormal, is there anything at all that an intelligent person can believe in?
Well, yes and no. If I had to bet, I would put long odds on the no side, but the possibility is always there. Maybe a few of the spiritualists did get messages; no one can prove otherwise. Maybe the saucers will finally land next month and show up the skeptics once and for all. ‘If we are open only to those discoveries which will accord with what we already know,” said Alan Watts, “we might as well stay shut. ” And that is as far as an honest person can go. Sorry, folks.
The real significance of the paranormal boom may be that people are willing to take it so uncritically. It is as if the question "Is this so?" has become irrelevant; and has been replaced with the attitude, “If it feels good it must be right for me. ’’This is a very fundamental shift. The concept that an objective reality exists outside of our internal feelings and viewpoints, and that studying this objective reality is a worthwhile thing to do, is relatively new in the history of the world. It dates only from the Renaissance, and though it rapidly led to the sciences that have transformed the world, perhaps it is harder to accept than most people suspect.
Some spokesmen for the scientific community feel especially threatened by this trend and predict the coming of another Dark Age if the “New Nonsense” is not halted. They compare swallowing such beliefs uncritically to swallowing drugs; they’re fulfilling and loads of fun at first, but get into them too heavily and you become a junkie, a miserable slave to superstition. These scientific spokesmen tend to sound pompous and defensive. But just maybe they have a point.
In the last two years I have witnessed people being drawn into, believing in, and trying to extricate themselves from one of the more famous of the authoritarian religious cults. All the charges of mind control and behavior modification against this particular cult are true, but there is another aspect that rarely gets mentioned in the talk shows and newspaper stories. The people who are most vulnerable are those who somehow never quite learned that in questions of fact, the head should precede the heart. Once the group gets a hold on a person’s heart it can twist and turn him or her into swallowing the most outlandish doctrines, to his, or her own total confusion. The most vulnerable are those who have traded in the habit-of-mind "Is this, so?" for the Seventies version, ‘‘If it feels good it must be right.” It’s a poor trade. I’ve seen people come out of this particular group so shattered, guilty, and confused that it takes a year to readjust to normal life. This is an extreme example, but the principle is fundamental.
Even if a paranormal belief is harmless, as most are, if it’s not true it can eat up years of someone’s life for nothing. Everyone knows someone who renounced political activity to devote themselves to something “that will really change the world,” like raw carrot juice or a particular massage therapy—and then reappeared a few years later tacitly admitting it was a dead end. This has a lot to do with the failure of. the great movements of the Sixties to flower in the Seventies. People interested in social change have been strangely prone to getting stuck in dead ends this decade. It’s because the dead ends have signs on their entrances that say, “It’s not nice to look carefully. If it feels good it must be right.”
Interestingly enough, the paranormal movements used to draw adherents more from the right wing than the left. No nation has a bigger crackpot literature than Germany, and never did paranormal beliefs of every kind get such a hearing as in that country between the two world wars. The Nazis’ racial theories were only a small part of the pseudoscience that overran Germany. (Many of these movements are analyzed in Dusty Sklar’s excellent recent book, Gods and Beasts, the Nazis and the Occult.)
One of the most widespread beliefs was the World Ice Doctrine, or WEL, which held that the Milky Way was not made up of stars but blocks of ice spiraling toward the earth. This was connected to Aryan racial superiority. The WEL acted almost as a political party, issuing leaflets, posters, and magazines. So successful was it that Hitler’s propaganda ministry was obliged to announce, “One can be a good National Socialist without believing in the WEL.” Then there was the rival doctrine that the earth is the interior of a hollow sphere—so that if you pointed a line straight upward you would hit Australia. The sun and sky were just optical illusions in the middle. This idea was so widely accepted that a military party of ten was dispatched to the Isle of Riigen to photograph the British fleet by pointing an infrared telescope forty-five degrees up in the sky. It was as if a whole people had lost the habit of questioning, ‘‘Is this so?”
The sight of intelligent, educated people walking around with pyramids on their heads, a sight you can witness at any New Age festival, is comical. Perhaps the next such movement will not be so funny.
On those notes I will close. This is not a hospitable time for the old rationalist concepts that knowledge is light, superstition is darkness, and only the truth will set you free. Ironically, if there really are psychic powers in the universe, or if Jesus really was an astronaut, it will be the careful, rationalist researchers who finally get a handle on it—if, that is, they are not having to spend all their time sorting through nonsense. Just don't hold your breath.
Reprinted from The ReaI Paper ©1979