Wilder shores of nonsense

April 20, 2001

Philip Anderson appreciates a good debunking of pseudo-science.

Martin Gardner is always a good read, whether as the world's pre-eminent expositor of mathematical puzzles and games or in his second persona as an indefatigable pursuer of "Fads and Fallacies", as an early book was titled. The present book is the fifth in a series exploring the wilder shores of human gullibility, based mostly on his writings for the Skeptical Inquirer . He takes aim, successively, at creationism, medical quackery, New Age psychology and anthropology, UFOlogy, gematria (the search for numerical codes in the Bible, the Koran and other religious texts) and other miscellaneous kinds of science on or beyond the fringes. For these subjects, merely to describe the claims they make and the practices they advocate is to destroy any respect rational readers might have for their promulgators. A particular strength of the book is that Gardner adds an addendum to each piece that appeared as a column, detailing yet more implausible rebuttals by the subjects, as well as fresh instances of nonsense contributed by correspondents. Sprinkled among these rather trivial bits of idiocy there are a few more thought-provoking pieces where questions arise that provoke serious discussion, such as one on David Bohm's quantum mechanics, and another on Stephen Gould's and Darwin's views of religion.

First let me indulge myself by picking out a few of the more amusing aberrations that Gardner describes. The title piece sets forth the depths of theological controversy that biblical literalists have indulged in over the centuries concerning the navel: whether or not God would have given his first man and woman this unnecessary feature in order to make them "perfect". Repercussions persisted until at least 1944, when the military affairs committee of the House of Representatives quashed a pamphlet against racism for distribution to the United States armed services, on the basis that illustrations in it of Adam and Eve had navels.

On a similar plane come Gardner's two ventures into unconventional medicine: urine therapy and reflexology. The latter claims to bring all the benefits claimed for acupuncture, say, simply by poking or rubbing the appropriate spots on the feet. One hesitates to take this kind of thing seriously except for the remarkable way in which books and magazines about it proliferate, aided by the willingness of supposedly reliable sources such as Prevention magazine to give it editorial space. Urine therapy at least has a long history, having been recommended by some of the ancients as well as by the 17th-century chemist Robert Boyle, and is a not-uncommon practice among Hindus - an Indian prime minister attributed his long life to a daily draft of his own byproduct. There are, in fact, a few underlying realities, such as the fact that urea is used legitimately in certain rare neurological diseases, and is incorporated into fertilisers and, in pure form, beauty products, and the fact, known to most skindivers, that it is a convenient acid to neutralise sea-urchin stings. In his addendum, Gardner consults an expert who says that, in general, urine drinking is a harmless practice but not reliably sanitary.

Among the most disturbing examples of pseudo-science are those in which serious academic or other institutions are the victims of the misleading or the misguided, in the guise of academic freedom and the institution of tenure. Gardner details two instances: Temple University's Center for Frontier Sciences, and the American Anthropological Association's Section on the Anthropology of Consciousness. Temple's is, regrettably, not a unique case: a powerful and generous chairman of the board of trustees combined with a complaisant, expansion-minded president to establish such a centre in the alleged hope that it could maintain "high academic standards", while providing a forum for "critical examination of frontier research that holds promise of future breakthroughs". This sounds good, but wait: topics of the most recent conference sponsored by the centre included "attacks on relativity and evolution, favourable lectures on spoon-bending, miraculous creation of objects... alien abductions, the face on Mars, measuring bacterial contamination from thousands of miles away, psychokinesis, reincarnation, spirit mediums". A sad aspect of such ideas is the lack of true creative imagination - as an eminent physicist once said, most crackpot papers are rejected not because they are imaginative but because they are not imaginative enough.

The august University of California is at least partially to blame for a mess in the field of anthropology. In 1972, it awarded a PhD to Carlos Castaneda for a description of his supposed experiences with an imaginary shaman whom he called Don Juan, a description which, appearing in 1968, had become an instant bestseller in the hippie culture of the time. Protests from legitimate anthropologists were rejected by the head of the UCLA department, who had written a fulsome preface for this work of fiction. The UC Press continued to publish, very profitably, nine succeeding books about Castaneda's adventures with Don Juan, capping it all off with a 30th-anniversary edition of the original thesis, not as a "work of pseudo-anthropology" but as a "classic still relevant to those readers desiring to escape to a land of Oz".

Meanwhile, the Section on the Anthro-pology of Consciousness continues to meet annually (at UC Berkeley) to issue such gems as: "Regarding the multiple problems of any transcultural hermeneutics, the present discussion implies only a slight twist of the viewing angle. It turns the view from the apparently grand to the modest attitude of the lowered gaze, directed to the 'refuse' and the 'side products' of research, to 'lies', imagination, and the seepage waste of amnesia." This might seem harmless enough if Castaneda's admirers were not still teaching students "anthropology" at respectable universities, and at least in one case, testifying against scientific examination of a 9,000-year-old skeleton on the basis that the relevant American Indian creation myth "had as much validity as evolution". Extreme cultural relativism has retained more than a fringe presence in anthropology since Margaret Mead, who had a surprisingly gullible side.

In a lighter vein, Gardner tells the story of the epidemic of egg-balancing that infected the United States 20 years ago or so, touched off by a claim in a national magazine that eggs would balance on their ends at midnight on the vernal equinox. I can remember, myself, successfully doing so at the prescribed instant after a dinner party, even slightly handicapped as we were. However, apparently unlike Gardner, we tried again the next day and found that, with a little patience, it is actually rather easy to balance an egg on its end, so that the remarkable mechanisms for performing this feat, of which he illustrates a few, seem unnecessary.

Among the many pieces about the fascinating (or frightening) gullibility of our fellow citizens, there are a few that are more serious discussions. In several cases, they started out as reviews of books that Gardner thinks will interest his readers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found myself not always in agreement. He takes up the cause of William Arens, an anthropologist who has written a debunking book claiming that most stories of cannibalism are just that. But why Arens should expect cannibalism to be a nearly universal taboo is a little beyond me, when one has highly reliable testimony to such practices as scalping, head shrinking, and the extraordinarily bloodthirsty rituals of human sacrifice of the Aztecs and the Maya. Even now, the morning news tells me that in Borneo, the Dayaks eat the hearts of unwelcome immigrants from a neighbouring island. Possibly Gardner merely wanted to show off his entertaining collection of jokes and limericks about cannibalism.

As for my own speciality, physics, Gardner also takes up the cause of David Bohm and his "pilot wave" approach to the apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics. I am one of that great majority of working quantum theorists who reject Bohm's ideas "with fervour". The general opinion among science journalists, philosophers and the like seems to be that we quantum theorists are exhibiting an unfounded prejudice based either on our irrational admiration of Niels Bohr and other founders of the theory, or on our defensiveness as an in-group. These laymen should consider the idea that if so many intelligent and thoughtful people have such a negative response to an idea, it may indeed be mistaken, for reasons that are a little subtler than they have considered. One of these reasons is that the structure of the quantum theory is not a static thing, not the same now as when Bohm wrote the original papers, and it is not clear how Bohm's ideas can be generalised to fit this much more flexible and useful instrument. None of Bohm's defenders has made any effort to modernise his ideas to fit the real quantum theory as it is actually used, nor do any of us feel that that is our responsibility, since the whole point of Bohm is to arrive at identical results in the end.

In another serious chapter, Gardner seems to endorse Stephen Gould's "non-overlapping magisterias" panacea for the conflict of religion and science, finding justification for it in Darwin's struggles to deal with his own youthful religiosity - but Darwin ended up an agnostic. Gould seems not to state his own position. I, on the other hand, see "Noma" as something of a cop-out. Most scientists are careful not to step unnecessarily on theological toes, and it is easy enough for scientists unilaterally to declare that the two kinds of truth can be independent. But who is to stop the fanatics from straying to our side and teaching the children nonsense? Who is to stop the occasional real tragedy such as the suicide cult Heaven's Gate (which started out looking as harmlessly silly as the Bible Code)? Nor am I quite as willing as Gould to agree that science is and will remain completely ethically neutral. (Here I think I speak for a considerable cohort of scientists.) For instance, though Gould has fought the idea bitterly, there can be no doubt that human behaviour too, including ethical behaviour, is subject to evolution.

In a 1996 book ( The Demon-Haunted World ) on similar subjects, Carl Sagan took a more serious line than Gardner - discussing the psychology of self-deception, for instance, and realistic dreaming, in order to try to understand why people believe what they want to believe. Gardner prefers to quote Jeremy Bernstein in support of his own conscious choice of ridicule over polemic in dealing with pseudo-science and superstition. His weapon is his dry, sparkling wit and the thoroughness of his scholarship in pursuing the real stories of his bizarre cast of characters. This book has a plethora of both. It was fun, if occasionally excoriating, to read, from beginning to end.

Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is professor of physics, Princeton University, New Jersey, United States.

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