Table of Contents
Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge

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Commentary on
Sacramento City College
Conference on Belief and Skepticism November 1997

Introductory comments: In addition to speakers on folklore and on pseudoscience in the media, the conference featured two speakers who focused on pseudoscience in their disciplines, psychology and medicine. While the speakers on psychology and medicine went into some detail about their subjects, I would like to introduce my comments on their presentations with one general comment.

There should not be a need for a person seeking treatment for an emotional, mental or physical problem to share the metaphysical beliefs of their therapist, psychiatrist or family doctor. A person's right to seek a shaman or alien abduction specialist should not be confused with the need to find a metaphysical match. I recognize that faith healing can affect anything which suggestion, diverted attention, and other agreed upon elements in any given sociocognitive structure can affect, such as weight loss or quitting smoking, temporary relief of minor pain, and a long litany of social behaviors. There is no scientific evidence that faith can cure cancer or schizophrenia or that it can restore a liver or brain damaged by years of alcohol abuse. For me, the most basic sign that a psychotherapy or health practice is questionable and to be avoided is the requirement that I must share the metaphysical belief system of the practitioner in order to be helped. I never discuss religion or metaphysics with my physicians. I assume some of them have been Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, etc. It should not matter. When I had surgery, I didn't discuss my personal life with my surgeon and he didn't tell me about his personal life. To me, such things are irrelevant. He may have been a very spiritual man, but all I was interested in was his knowledge and experience as a surgeon. For him to have required me to share his faith, or for me to have required him to share my beliefs, would have been inappropriate and unnecessary. I realize my attitude would be different had I been born into a pre-scientific world of shamans, high priests and witch doctors. But I wasn't. I was born into a scientific culture, and I do not long for the good old days when the life expectancy was one-quarter of what it is now and the mentally ill were believed to be possessed by devils or gods.

Carol Tavris: "The Psychology Wars: What professionals and the public should know about the growing scientist-therapist conflict"

[Dr. Tavris is a social psychologist, lecturer, essayist and author of several books, including The Mismeasure of Woman]

Dr. Tavris opened the conference with a talk on the growing influence of psychotherapies which have not been scientifically tested (e.g., repressed memory therapy) or cannot be scientifically tested (e.g. projective tests such as the Rorschach) or which have been tested and shown to be false therapies (e.g., facilitated communication). According to Tavris, over 90 people are in prison today because of bad science, particularly in the area of allegations of child abuse and satanic ritual abuse. Many therapists and social workers are not only practicing bad science, they are promoting it with unproved or false claims regarding the relationship of child abuse and adult behavioral problems.

For example, repressed memory therapists begin with a number of false or questionable assumptions. They start with the assumption that specific problems such as bulimia or depression are due to childhood sexual abuse which has been repressed and forgotten by the patient and that therapy must ferret out these repressed memories in order to "cure" the patient. Despite the fact that no scientific study has yet uncovered any specific set of symptoms in adults which are associated with childhood sexual abuse, the repressed memory therapists continue to maintain the following false notions:

  1. Abused children become abusers.
    This is not true. Two-thirds of those abused as children do not become child abusers themselves.
  2. Children who have been abused will reveal this abuse by the particular way in which they handle questions while presented with anatomically correct dolls.
    This is not true. Studies have shown that about 50 % of children who have not been touched, much less abused, claim they have been touched and will use the dolls to graphically display the way they were touched. (The children were video taped while being examined by a doctor who did not touch their genitals, yet the children under continued questioning eventually confabulated detailed stories of genital and anal touching and penetration.)
  3. Children are too young and inexperienced to make up the stories of sexual abuse they tell.
    This is not true. Children have very vivid imaginations and can confabulate with the best of humanity. What is true is that children who initially deny having been touched in the genital or anal area will usually change their story if they are very young, repeatedly asked the same question, encouraged by the interviewer to fantasize, threatened if they don't agree they were touched and reminded that other children have already admitted they were touched.

It is not surprising that interviewers of children can get the most preposterous and incredible stories from their young wards, such as leaving day-care and taking airplane trips to the desert where giraffes are sacrificed along with human babies. What is surprising and frightening is that such poor interviewing techniques and therapy can put people in prison.

Two other false beliefs among many psychotherapists and the general public mentioned by Tavris are that children of alcoholics become alcoholics (the majority do not) and that subliminal messages influence behavior (there is no evidence that they do).

How does such bad science get established? According to Tavris, one major problem is that there is no connection between academic/scientific training and getting a certificate which allows one to legally practice psychotherapy. This is true. In some cases all it takes is a few dollars and a weekend seminar on AIDS counseling or hypnotherapy and the participant can become a certified therapist. Nevertheless, it seems to me that much of the bad science and misinformation about child abuse, psychological problems and proper treatment for those problems, arises from those with Ph.D.s in psychology, who have been trained in accredited academic institutions. I tried to get Dr. Tavris to address this issue in the question and answer session, and I must say that I did not feel as if I had been given an adequate answer. There is something else going on besides inadequately trained therapists, since adequately trained psychologists and psychiatrists are often the greatest perpetrators of pseudoscience and false claims. She mentioned Dr. Bruno Bettleheim's claim that bad mothering causes autism, as well as Dr. Freud's claims about penis envy. This list is actually a very long one and deserves exploring, but this is not the time for it. Suffice it to say, that all this bad science cannot be blamed on bad therapist education or training and the tawdry way therapists are certified. A consumer cannot tell the difference between a good therapist and a quack therapist by looking at their degrees and certificates. If the popularity of junk science among therapists is due to poor education and training, then the best schools in the world ought to be scrutinized, for it is often their graduates who are advancing the cause of questionable science, science cloaked in metaphysics, and pseudoscience, e.g., Dr. John Mack (professor), Dr. Andrew Weil (graduate) and Dr. Deepak Chopra (visiting lecturer) all associated with Harvard medical school.

Furthermore, as a profession, psychologists and psychiatrists (and the more degrees and credentials the better here) don't share the kind of tentativeness that characterizes most scientists. Witness their willingness to testify as to their "expert opinion" on human behavior. Where even the layperson recognizes it is dicey to predict what anyone will do in the future, these "experts" offer their contradictory opinions in the courtroom without hesitation. Granted, this indicates a major flaw in our legal system, nevertheless, if these experts expect the general public to have any faith in them, they ought to admit that they don't really know how a person will behave in the future .

She pointed out that there seems to be a great deal of post hoc reasoning among therapists who reason from certain symptoms to the cause of those symptoms as childhood sexual abuse. She also noted that many therapists are deluded by confirmation bias and selective perception. They do not set out to falsify or disconfirm hypotheses, but are on the constant outlook for confirming "evidence." Many seem undisturbed with basing their therapies on non-falsifiable claims. They seem more interested in their personal insights than in scientific testing of hypotheses. Some, as those in facilitated communication, seem unmoved by empirical tests which repeatedly falsify the fundamental claims of FC. And these therapists seem oblivious to facts such as "70% of all abused children do not become abusers themselves." Why there is this preponderance of anti-scientific and pseudoscientific bias amongst so many therapists is intriguing, but I do not think the answer is to be found in who has the training and academic credentials and who doesn't.

Whatever the causes of the popularity of pseudoscience in psychology and psychiatry, it behooves the general public to become critical thinkers. We cannot trust the experts. We must be able to evaluate the claims of the experts and determine who is more credible. The stakes are too high to let ourselves be duped by claims which "sound true." That's not enough. We have to be willing to do some investigation ourselves. There is no other way. We may not be able to do scientific experiments ourselves, but we can read about the experiments of others. We can go to the library, use the internet, etc., to get information which we can evaluate. We have to learn how to tell when a study has been done properly, when the samples are too small, when the protocols are biased, etc. This is not easy, but it is not impossible, either. We bear the responsibility for our beliefs. If they are false, and we could have corrected them by being more critical in our thinking, we are responsible for any harm which accrues to ourselves or to others because of those false beliefs.

Dr. Tavris explored the notion that scientists seek impersonal explanations with predictive power, but therapists have as their goal "patient satisfaction" not objective truth. In fact, some therapists admit that they do not care what the objective truth is. Therapists try to come up with a narrative which makes sense of the patient's behavior and thoughts; whether the narrative bears any relation to what is true doesn't matter for therapy. But it does matter. It matters not only to the parents who have been falsely accused of abuse by their child thanks to the probing of a therapist who has facilitated the "recovery" of a "repressed memory." It matters to therapy as well. How could a whole school of therapy develop around the notion that the truth doesn't matter? This is a philosophical position; it is a matter of values. The consequences of this belief are horrendous. It is one thing to acknowledge that what a person believes affects them and can affect them profoundly even if what they believe is false. It is quite another to hold that a therapist has no obligation to correct a false belief or delusion.

Even worse is the belief that a therapist should encourage a patient's false beliefs and delusions. Do these therapists think the patient is a monad? Don't they realize that the patient lives in the world with other people and if the delusions or false beliefs are about those other people, the objective truth does matter to the well-being of the patient? Very few human beings live without relationships to family and friends. The mental health of a person is affected by those relationships. We may not be totally dependent on each other, but a network of family and friends should not be replaced by the therapist. Unfortunately, that is exactly what many therapists strive for: they isolate the patient from family and friends and create a dependency upon themselves. These bad therapists do this whether they've been trained for eight years at Harvard or 8 hours in Monterey.

Focusing on the difference in the goals and methods of therapy and scientific research can be misleading to the general audience. I heard more than one participant grumble about the lack of concern for patient satisfaction. It seems that a general audience may need to be reminded that while patient satisfaction is a good thing, when it becomes the goal of therapy or treatment, and becomes either identified with or secondary to the health and well-being of the patient, focus on it can be dangerously misleading. One wants not only a satisfied customer but one you have really cured or made well. It will not do to send people happily to their graves or forward to wreak havoc on the lives of others.

Wallace Sampson: "Pseudoscience in Modern Alternative Medicine"

[Dr. Sampson is retiring as a professor of clinical medicine at Stanford Medical School. He will be editing a new journal, the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, a peer-reviewed medical journal.]

Dr. Sampson began his talk by blaming the popularity of alternative medicine on the "cultural relativism" of medical systems which resulted from "postmodernist deconstructionism." This may be true, but it is hardly of interest to the general public. In any case, if he is right, there probably was little point in his noting that of the hundreds of papers on homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic, there is little evidence that these alternative health practices offer more than a placebo effect. There may be a group of radical feminists who maintain that science is just another way of knowing, a male way at that, but the general public probably does not hold such an opinion. I think Dr. Sampson should give the general public credit: they're not cultural relativists; they simply recognize that scientific medicine is fallible and generally recommends either drugs or surgery for what ails you. The majority of those who choose chiropractic over standard medicine do so because they are afraid of surgery or do not want to take pain killers, not because of their epistemological stance. There may be other reasons besides epistemological ones which lead so many people to seek a "natural" cure for what ails them. It does little good to show people who are mistrustful of scientific medicine how scientific studies have shown the ineffectiveness of alternative medicine. They also know about the dangers of standard medicine. It really isn't an epistemological issue; it is a pragmatic and utilitarian one. Which method is cheapest, safest and least likely to harm me?

Accusing the alternative health advocates of anti-science bias--another of Sampson's claims--is about as likely to be true in general as the accusation that standard medical doctors are all cold, indifferent fiends just waiting to amputate the wrong leg. Personally, I believe it serves little purpose to cast a blanket shadow over all alternative health practitioners. The issue is not really one of differing personalities or attitudes towards science, especially since many of those practicing alternative medicine are well-trained in science and do not reject science outright.

Sampson also noted that many alternative health practitioners claim they are persecuted by the medical establishment. This may be true, but is probably of little interest to the general public. In any case, it has nothing to do with whether any particular alternative health practice is pseudoscientific.

Another topic Sampson took up was the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. I think this is a topic he might have focused on more, perhaps exclusively in a short talk; for the history and present status of this agency affords a careful exploration of how pseudoscience and junk science, supported by powerful political leaders, has infiltrated a basic government concern: the health and well-being of its citizens. Dr. Sampson did a pretty good job in explaining the role of some of the key figures in this fiasco, but again, to note that OAM is "stacked with quacks" (which I believe is true) needs to be fleshed out with evidence as to how they are replacing standard research techniques and testing methodologies in favor of junk science and pseudoscientific concerns. Dr. Sampson did give some examples of the watering down of scientific methodologies in OAM, but attention to a lot more detail might have been more persuasive.

I know that some in the audience cringed when Dr. Sampson said things like "chelation therapy can't work" or "homeopathy can't work." Here I think there was an epistemological problem. Some took this to mean that the modalities are metaphysically impossible, i.e., we can't imagine them working without contradiction. I don't think that is what Dr. Sampson meant. I think he meant to claim that these methods are empirically impossible. I think he is correct for homeopathy, i.e., given the way the empirical world is, a substance which is so diluted as to have no molecules remaining cannot be effective without a miracle taking place. Our standard understanding of cause and effect requires the cause to be present for the effect to occur. It would be empirically impossible, for example, for a vaccine to work which had been so diluted as to have no molecules of the vaccine remaining in the inoculation. However, I do not know what his argument is to support the claim that chelation can't work to cure vascular diseases. I have seen studies and arguments that support the claim that chelation doesn't work, but none that it can't work.

If Sampson plans to take his show on the road, he might want to consider a few changes in the way he makes his case against alternative medicine.

For example, he might want to soften his all-or-nothing approach: to be a rational skeptic one must accept all of conventional medicine and reject all of alternative health care. This might fly at a CSICOP meeting but is unlikely to be met with approval by the general public. It is much more seductive to praise shamans for their great wisdom gained by trial and error in the days before scientific testing could be done to explain why their remedies work. There is some value in studying shamanic recipes and testing bark, root, plants, etc., which seem promising. It is unlikely that shamans have been giving their patients lethal herbs for generations without detection. Much more dangerous are the untested remedies being proposed by medical doctors such as Dr. Max Gerson or naturopathic doctors such as Dr. Kurt W. Donsbach and Dr. Harry R. Alsleben of the Hospital Santa Monica in Rosarito Beach, B.C., Mexico.

I know that I have been criticized by a number of alternative health advocates for my "broad brush" approach in criticizing alternative medicine. My format, however, gives me an advantage over Dr.Sampson. In a public talk the broad brush approach is dangerous. One can only cover so much. Hence, many broad claims will necessarily go unexplained and undefended. In the Skeptic's Dictionary I can flesh out my claims, not only with individual entries on specific alternative therapies or practitioners, but through responses to reader comments. Also, I don't feel any need to defend standard medicine, as Dr. Sampson does. Many of my readers criticize me for not attacking standard medicine. I have tried to explain several times why I do not, but my explanations seem to fall on deaf ears. Dr. Sampson defended standard medicine on two main grounds: the profession is dominated by scientists and by people who follow the highest of ethical standards. I would have left out the reference to ethical standards simply because it is not true: there is no scientific study which shows that medical doctors are any more ethical than any other group of people. Furthermore, many of those practicing bad science and engaging in unethical practices are medical doctors. I think if one wants to take the higher ground, one should stick to scientific methodologies, not personalities or professions. One does not have to defend standard medicine or medical practices by defending those who practice it as a higher sort of being.

I think it behooves the scientist and defender of science to be humble, not arrogant; to respect the fallible nature of scientific inquiry and knowledge, rather than gloss over errors or harms done in the name of science. Medical science is not only fallible, but skimpy. This should be admitted up front. If there is an argument in favor of medical science over alternative medicine, it ought to be in terms of the reasons for preferring control studies over intuition and insight. And, while it is probably pointless in a talk to the general public to hack through the jungle of metaphysical beliefs which underlie much of alternative medicine, one should not forget that one of the main reasons many alternative practices are attractive to many people is just because of the metaphysical baggage the alternative therapies carry with them. Dr. Sampson referred to a list of words and phrases which he said are "misused" by alternative advocates, e.g., energy and life force. These concepts have no place in scientific medicine, but many people base their lives upon such concepts. I think it is best to simply point out that metaphysical beliefs in the soul, or life forces or mysterious energies are not required for scientific medicine to work. Nor must they be denied for scientific medicine to work. They are not empirical concepts, cannot be subjected to scientific analysis and anyone who claims that science can be united with such concepts into some sort of harmonious new field of knowledge is deluded. Metaphysical claims are non-empirical, non-falsifiable and untestable by empirical methods. That does not mean they are inferior to scientific claims, but it does mean that they must be evaluated in ways differently from scientific concepts.

Many in the audience did not seem to understand the significance of Dr. Sampson's claim that concern with "patient satisfaction" is not a scientific concern, but it is a major concern of alternative practitioners. This makes it sound as if medical doctors practicing standard medicine don't care about their patient's satisfaction with their treatment. This misses Dr. Sampson's point. The scientific validity of a therapy or treatment should not be measured in terms of subjective reports because such reports are notoriously unreliable and self-validating. This does not mean that the scientist does not care about the happiness of his or her patients. It means that patients may feel they are better, when in fact they are not. If you are getting a cancer treatment and feel great, that does not mean the treatment is working. Likewise, if you are getting cancer treatment and feel awful, that does not mean that the treatment is not working. Objective tests are needed to determine whether the treatment is working. This doesn't mean that the scientist does not care how the patient feels; it simply means that how the patient feels is not a reliable measure of the effectiveness of treatment.

Dr. Sampson spent a good part of his time listing the characteristics of pseudoscientific alternative medicine advocates: their anti-scientific bias; their demand for absolute proof from science but only requiring sincere belief for their own claims; their failure to acknowledge their limitations; their claim that it is unethical to do control studies because they are then depriving control groups of help; their claim that they are persecuted by the medical Establishment (with a capital E); etc. Again, the general public is probably not too interested in these complaints and is unlikely to feel much sympathy for a medical doctor complaining about others not acknowledging their limitations. Too many M.D.s think the letters stand for Medical Divinity.

Another feature of Dr. Sampson's talk was a run though a number of "medical myths." Most of these, he claims, originated with or are perpetuated by pseudoscientific defenders of alternative medicine. For example, there is the myth that medical doctors are ignorant about nutrition. This is not true, he says. Nutrition is studied in biochemistry courses and many physicians work with nutritionists closely. Anyone who has had diabetes knows that this is true. Endocrinologists work very closely with nutritionists in establishing a healthy diet for the diabetic. My physicians have often given me information on nutrition. I have no idea how this myth got started, but I have heard the claim made more than once. In fact, this myth seems closely related to another one which Dr. Sampson did not mention, namely, the myth that medical doctors do not know or care anything about prevention of disease. This claim is preposterous on its face, but it is still very common. Who do we think is behind all those inoculation programs? Who developed the polio vaccine? Etc. Who recommends that we quit smoking? That we exercise and eat our fruits and vegetables? Who does the studies to determine exactly what, if any, effect all this good living has on our bodies? Medical scientists. Yet, a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association publicized a study by the Health Institute at the New England Medical Center in Boston which claims that while medical doctors do know more than anybody else about preventive medicine, they're keeping it a secret from us! A report on this article appeared in the Sacramento Bee (Nov. 5, 1997). The headline on the front page reads "Study: Few doctors pushing prevention." There is a nice blurb from a local internist, Dr. Robert Charm, who says: "Time is money. Doctors don't have enough time to spend with patients to practice that most important part of medicine we don't learn in medical school--prevention." Well, Dr. Charm should have learned about prevention in medical school and if he didn't he wasn't paying attention. Why did he think they had him practice giving shots? Where was he when there was a discussion in biochemistry about how carbohydrates are turned into sugars and what effect this has on the body? The article also quoted an 80-year-old retired nurse, Alice Roche, who claimed that she lost a leg to amputation because her doctor did not warn her that her cholesterol level was "dangerously high until it was too late." She says her doctor should have told her not to eat hard-boiled eggs and cheese sandwiches, her favorite meals. The Bee reporter, Dorsey Griffith, lets these claims pass without comment. No mention is made that changing her diet may have had no effect on her cholesterol. No mention is made that the blood clots the woman suffered were probably not due to her cholesterol level and that the woman may well have lost her legs if she had not eaten any eggs or cheese and had a "normal" cholesterol level. No mention was made as to whether Ms. Roche smoked, was obese, exercised regularly, abused alcohol, was diabetic or had a family history of circulatory problems. The reader was left to assume that this poor woman lost her leg because her doctor didn't give her instructions in preventive medicine. With journalists like Griffith on the loose, Dr. Sampson has his work cut out for him in his quest to correct some of the myths about medicine and medical doctors. Who does Griffith or Dr. Charm think did the studies on health and obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking? Homeopaths? Acupuncturists? Naturopaths? I don't think so. (Perhaps Dr. Charm should have attended the symposium on prevention of age-related diseases at UC Davis, held this week. It was not sponsored by alternative health advocates but by scientists at UC Davis's Center for Environmental Health Sciences.)

When the mass media is overpopulated with reporters who lack the education and knowledge needed to ask the right questions, is it any wonder why the general public often believes what is false or questionable regarding scientific matters? Another example of media incompetence I've witnessed recently was when a "reporter" for MSNBC was interviewing the research director of a company which sells herbal remedies. During the question and answer period, someone asked whether it was likely that many of the so-called cures due to herbal remedies weren't just due to the placebo effect. The research director replied that no, that couldn't be the case because "that's illegal." She elaborated by noting that her company never puts placebos in its products. The interviewer demonstrated that she, too, had no idea what the placebo effect is, by nodding her head and not saying, "I think our caller wants to know whether the effects of herbal remedies are due to the beliefs of the users rather than to the herbs."

Related to the myth that medical doctors know little about nutrition or prevention of disease is the notion that they are against taking vitamins. Dr. Wallace pointed out that scientists are the ones who study vitamins and the diseases caused by lack of proper mineral or vitamin intake. Yet, because medical doctors do not blindly advise patients to take megadoses of vitamins, they are criticized. Vitamin and mineral supplements are no substitute for good nutrition. And there is no evidence that people who eat well need or can benefit from megadoses of vitamins and minerals. People who take supplements do not live longer than people who don't. The attitude of the medical profession towards vitamins and minerals is appropriate. The fact that a person who is taking vitamin supplements feels great is irrelevant to whether those supplements are needed by that person's body. Because of the placebo effect, a person might believe they have more energy and are thinking more clearly or are stronger, etc. But for anyone to recommend taking megavitamins because of the potential placebo effect would not be morally right, even if naturopaths consider it good medicine because it produces patient satisfaction.

Another myth perpetuated by defenders of alternative health practices is that 90% of all conventional medical practices and treatments have not been tested. This claim is based upon a study published in Britain in 1948. Dr. Sampson asserts that the study is wrong and that over 90% of today's treatments have reasonable proof of their effectiveness. He did not say on what he based this claim; however, I think it is interesting to view this claim that most medical treatments are untested in light of a common criticism made by defenders of alternative therapies, namely, that it costs too much to do all the testing which the FDA and other demanding scientists require before they approve of a drug or treatment. The scientific testing of new drugs is very rigorous. The likelihood that most surgical techniques are untested is about zero. So, the claim that most medical treatments are untested seem false on its face.

Dr. Sampson also listed as another myth the claim that medical doctors ignore "mind" and deal only with the body in an impersonal way. I think he should have just admitted that unfortunately this is true for too many doctors. However, it does not follow from the fact that many physicians are indifferent to their patient's "mind" or "soul" that someone who is concerned about their "soul" is necessarily going to know how best to treat their body. Being metaphysically compatible with one's doctor may be a luxury most of us will have to do without if we are mainly concerned with good medical treatment. I for one would prefer a competent, knowledgeable physician to a loving, caring incompetent spiritwalker who hallucinates during surgery. Dr. Sampson refuted this myth by noting that standard medical training involves instruction in psychosomatic disorders. This is true, but I doubt if that is what the critics had in mind. What attracts people to Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra is their inclusion of metaphysical entities, not their belief that some physical problems are "in your head." In fact, one gripe many people have with standard medicine is that if a physical cause for a problem can't be found, the patient is told that the problem is "in their mind."

Dr. Sampson discussed several other myths, but one thing he did not discuss is the claim that alternative practitioners are attacked by the medical Establishment because of the economic competition. This attack on the motives of physicians is an ad hominem attack but a very successful one and difficult to defend against. I think that when this criticism comes up I would just note that attacking a person's motives rather than his or her arguments is an ad hominem fallacy and it would be preferable to hear a response to the criticisms made of alternative medicine. On the other hand, we all know how enjoyable an ad hominem can be, especially when they are aimed at unorthodox gurus who take their vegetarian dogs to holistic, non-conventional veterinarians who give unorthodox treatments such as therapeutic touch for the pet in an unconventional setting based upon Eastern principles of energy and life forces hovering in the shadows of pyramids.

Allan Dundes: "The Psychological Approach to Legends and Other Forms of Contemporary Folklore"

[Dr. Dundes is professor of anthropology and folklore at UC Berkeley and the author of many books on folklore.]

Professor Dundes focused on folk legends (he dislikes the expression "urban" legends because they are not restricted to urbania). These are stories which are set in the real world and are told as if they are true. The folk legends are not true but they do reveal our true fears, prejudices, taboos and anxieties. Why do so many people believe stories like the Nieman Marcus cookie recipe story, the poodle in the microwave story or the secretary's coffee tray in the computer story? He didn't say or even offer a theory as to why there is so little skepticism about such stories. I think the answer has something to do with selective perception, but folk legends are beyond my scope of interest.

Fritz Stevens

Mr. Stevens is the executive director of Center for Inquiry-West, Los Angeles, funded by CSICOP. He joined in a panel discussion and commented on the media's role in perpetuating junk science and pseudoscience. He praised the film Contact as a hopeful sign and compared it favorably to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. (In my view, there is no comparison as a film or as a story. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick are light years ahead of Sagan's story.) Mr. Stevens made one comment I found most interesting. Contrary to what many of us think, Hollywood junk science is not made just to satisfy a hungry audience who craves such stuff. Rather, in Mr. Stevens' view, the movies reflect the very real interests and beliefs of those who make them. I must say that Mr. Stevens was rather convincing.

Mr. Stevens also promoted the Skeptical Inquirer and had for sale several copies of the September/October 1997 issue which is devoted to Alternative Medicine in a Scientific World and includes articles by Wallace Sampson, Robert Park ("Alternative Medicine and the Laws of Physics") and Barry Beyerstein ("Why Bogus Therapies Seem to Work").

The Audience

One man announced that "all the great scientists have been mystics." This is false, of course. Some have been: Newton, Boyle and Kepler, for example, were certainly very spiritual, even if one quibbles about whether they were mystics. But this man used Einstein as his paradigm of the mystical scientist. "God does not play dice," said Einstein. True. Einstein said it and New Age mystics and other spiritualists love to cite this passage as evidence of Einstein's spirituality. The truth is that Einstein wrote to Max Born on December 12, 1926, and said:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.

What did he mean? Years later he wrote to James Frank:

I can, if the worst comes to the worse, still realize that the Good Lord may have created a world in which there are no natural laws. In short, a chaos. But that there should be statistical laws with definite solutions, i.e., laws which compel the good Lord to throw the dice in each individual case, I find highly disagreeable.

His point, in both cases, does not seem to be spiritual, but rather has to do with his reluctance to accept quantum mechanics. The fundamental laws of physical reality should not be couched in terms of statistical probabilities. Einstein did not waver in his reluctance to accept quantum mechanics. In 1937, he wrote to Herbert Samuel:

It is therefore an uncritical attitude to declare the statistical character of nature to be a fact. It may only be excused by the fact that up to now we do not have any other theory.

Thus, rather than relish Einstein's comments about God playing dice with the world, New Agers should cringe, since one of their favorite misconceptions is Quantum Mechanics, which many New Agers take to be a blank check allowing them to claim that since nothing is certain and all is energy, anything goes. Einstein didn't like Quantum Mechanics and he certainly didn't think that quantum mechanics was a gateway to the mind of God. Far from it.

What did Einstein believe about God, then? In 1929 he wrote to a rabbi that he believed "in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men." Spinoza identified Nature with God and both with Everything.

I have no problem with calling both Einstein and Spinoza mystics. They identified God with the Cosmos and found it comfortable to talk about becoming one with God by knowing more and more about the Cosmos. But it would be foolish to look in any of Einstein's scientific papers for appeals to God, to intuitions, to mystical visions or insights, to voices heard in the night or to channeled books from Cro-Magnon warriors or Atlantean demi-gods. When he argued as a scientist, he argued like a scientist.

In conclusion, this debate about mystics and science is a diversion from the real question: are science and spirituality irreconcilable? The answer is, of course not. But it does not follow from that fact that there are no boundaries which separate the two. There are. Some spiritual claims are irreconcilable with some scientific claims. It does not follow that both require equal acts of faith. It may be the case that I cannot prove with absolute certainty that I will die if I jump from an airplane at 30,000 feet without a parachute, but it is not an act of faith which keeps me from jumping. Or, if it is, the faith I would need to jump would be infinitely greater than the faith I would need to stay in my seat. The faith needed to believe in stories like that of Adam and Eve or Noah's Ark is much greater than the "faith" needed to believe in evolution. The faith needed to disregard your intellect and rational powers in order to believe something on authority is exceedingly greater than the "faith" needed to use your intellect and rational powers to evaluate information, arguments and the claims of authorities.

"The dice of God are always loaded."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

R. T. Carroll, November 7, 1997

further reading

Clark, Ronald W. Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: World Publishing Co., 1971).

Jammer, Max. Einstein and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999).

ęcopyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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