The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)
Chapter 13. Obsessed with Reality
A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms, that it was idle to suppose that she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid ocean and told no tales. What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in nowise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts...
William K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief (1874)
At the borders of science - and sometimes as a carry-over from prescientific thinking - lurks a range of ideas that are appealing, or at least modestly mind-boggling, but that have not been conscientiously worked over with a baloney detection kit, at least by their advocates: the notion, say, that the Earth’s surface is on the inside, not the outside, of a sphere; or claims that you can levitate yourself by meditating and that ballet dancers and basketball players routinely get up so high by levitating; or the proposition that I have something called a soul, made not of matter or energy, but of something else for which there is no other evidence, and which after my death might return to animate a cow or a worm.
Typical offerings of pseudoscience and superstition - this is merely a representative, not a comprehensive list - are astrology; the Bermuda Triangle; ‘Big Foot’ and the Loch Ness monster; ghosts; the ‘evil eye’; multi-coloured halo-like ‘auras’ said to surround the heads of everyone (with colour personalized); extrasensory perception (ESP), such as telepathy, precognition, telekinesis, and ‘remote viewing’ of distant places; the belief that 13 is an ‘unlucky’ number (because of which many no-nonsense office buildings and hotels in America pass directly from the twelfth to the fourteenth floors - why take chances?); bleeding statues; the conviction that carrying the severed foot of a rabbit around with you brings good luck; divining rods, dowsing and water witching; ‘facilitated communication’ in autism; the belief that razor blades stay sharper when kept inside small cardboard pyramids, and other tenets of ‘pyramidology’; phone calls (none of them collect) from the dead; the prophecies of Nostradamus; the alleged discovery that untrained flatworms can learn a task by eating the ground-up remains of other, better educated flatworms; the notion that more crimes are committed when the Moon is full; palmistry; numerology; polygraphy; comets, tea leaves and ‘monstrous’ births as prodigies of future events (plus the divinations fashionable in earlier epochs, accomplished by viewing entrails, smoke, the shapes of flames, shadows and excrement; listening to gurgling stomachs, and even, for a brief period, examining tables of logarithms); ‘photography’ of past events, such as the crucifixion of Jesus; a Russian elephant that speaks fluently; ‘sensitives’ who, when carelessly blindfolded, read books with their fingertips; Edgar Cayce (who predicted that in the 1960s the ‘lost’ continent of Atlantis would ‘rise’) and other ‘prophets’, sleeping and awake; diet quackery; out-of-body (e.g., near-death) experiences interpreted as real events in the external world; faith-healer fraud; Ouija boards; the emotional lives of geraniums, uncovered by intrepid use of a ‘lie detector’; water remembering what molecules used to be dissolved in it; telling character from facial features or bumps on the head; the ‘hundredth monkey’ confusion and other claims that whatever a small fraction of us wants to be true really is true; human beings spontaneously bursting into flame and being burned to a crisp; 3-cycle biorhythms; perpetual motion machines, promising unlimited supplies of energy (but all of which, for one reason or another, are withheld from close examination by sceptics); the systematically inept predictions of Jeane Dixon (who ‘predicted’ a 1953 Soviet invasion of Iran and in 1965 that the USSR would beat the US to put the first human on the Moon*) and other professional ‘psychics’; the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prediction that the world would end in 1917, and many similar prophecies; dianetics and Scientology; Carlos Castaneda and ‘sorcery’; claims of finding the remains of Noah’s Ark; the ‘Amityville Horror’ and other hauntings; and accounts of a small brontosaurus crashing through the rain forests of the Congo Republic of our time. [An in-depth discussion of many such claims can be found in Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Gordon Stein, ed., Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1996.]
[* Violating the rules for ‘Oraclers and Wizards’ given by Thomas Ady in 1656: ‘In doubtful things, they gave doubtful answers... Where were more certain probabilities, there they gave more certain answers.’]
Many of these doctrines are rejected out of hand by fundamentalist Christians and Jews because the Bible so enjoins. Deuteronomy (xviii, 10, 11) reads (in the King James translation):
There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
Astrology, channelling, Ouija boards, predicting the future and much else is forbidden. The author of Deuteronomy does not argue that such practices fail to deliver what they promise. But they are ‘abominations’, perhaps suitable for other nations, but not for the followers of God. And even the Apostle Paul, so credulous on so many matters, counsels us to ‘prove all things’.
The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides goes further than Deuteronomy, in that he makes explicit that these pseudosciences don’t work:
It is forbidden to engage in astrology, to utilize charms, to whisper incantations... All of these practices are nothing more than lies and deceptions used by ancient pagan peoples to deceive the masses and lead them astray... Wise and intelligent people know better. [From the Mishneh Torah, Avodah Zara, Chapter 11.]
Some claims are hard to test - for example, if an expedition fails to find the ghost or the brontosaurus, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Others are easier - for example, flatworm cannibalistic learning or the announcement that colonies of bacteria subjected to an antibiotic or an agar dish thrive when their prosperity is prayed for (compared to control bacteria unredeemed by prayer). A few -for example, perpetual motion machines - can be excluded on grounds of fundamental physics. Except for them, it’s not that we know before examining the evidence that the notions are false; stranger things are routinely incorporated into the corpus of science.
The question, as always, is how good is the evidence? The burden of proof surely rests on the shoulders of those who advance such claims. Revealingly, some proponents hold that scepticism is a liability, that true science is inquiry without scepticism. They are perhaps halfway there. But halfway doesn’t doit.
Parapsychologist Susan Blackmore describes one of the steps in her transformation to a more sceptical attitude on ‘psychic’ phenomena:
A mother and daughter from Scotland asserted they could pick up images from each other’s minds. They chose to use playing cards for the tests because that is what they used at home. I let them choose the room in which they would be tested and insured that there was no normal way for the ‘receiver’ to see the cards. They failed. They could not get more right than chance predicted and they were terribly disappointed. They had honestly believed they could do it and I began to see how easy it was to be fooled by your own desire to believe.
I had similar experiences with several dowsers, children who claimed they could move objects psychokinetically, and several who said they had telepathic powers. They all failed. Even now I have a five-digit number, a word, and a small object in my kitchen at home. The place and items were chosen by a young man who intends to ‘see’ them while travelling out of his body. They have been there (though regularly changed) for three years. So far, though, he has had no success.
‘Telepathy’ literally means to feel at a distance, just as ‘telephone’ is to hear at a distance and ‘television’ is to see at a distance. The word suggests the communication not of thoughts but of feelings, emotions. Around a quarter of all Americans believe they’ve experienced something like telepathy. People who know each other very well, who live together, who are practised in one another’s feeling tones, associations and thinking styles can often anticipate what the partner will say. This is merely the usual five senses plus human empathy, sensitivity and intelligence in operation. It may feel extrasensory, but it’s not at all what’s intended by the word ‘telepathy’. If something like this were ever conclusively demonstrated, it would, I think, have discernible physical causes -perhaps electrical currents in the brain. Pseudoscience, rightly or wrongly labelled, is by no means the same thing as the supernatural, which is by definition something somehow outside of Nature.
It is barely possible that a few of these paranormal claims might one day be verified by solid scientific data. But it would be foolish to accept any of them without adequate evidence. In the spirit of garage dragons, it is much better, for those claims not already disproved or adequately explained, to contain our impatience, to nurture a tolerance for ambiguity, and to await - or, much better, to seek - supporting or disconfirming evidence.
In a far-off land in the South Seas, the word went out about a wise man, a healer, an embodied spirit. He could speak across time. He was an Ascended Master. He was coming, they said. He was coming...
In 1988, Australian newspapers, magazines and television stations began to receive the good news via press kits and videotape. One broadside read:
TO APPEAR IN AUSTRALIA
Those who have seen it will never forget. The brilliant young artist who has been talking to them suddenly seems to falter, his pulse slows dangerously and virtually stops at the point of death. The qualified medical attendant, who has been assigned to keep constant watch, is about to sound the alarm. But then, with a heart-stirring burst, the pulse is felt again -faster and stronger than ever before. The life force clearly has returned to the body - but the entity inside that body is no longer Jose Luis Alvarez, the 19-year-old whose unique painted ceramics are featured in some of the wealthiest homes in America. Instead, the body has been taken over by Carlos, an ancient soul, whose teachings will come as both a shock and an inspiration. One being going through a form of death to make way for another: that is the phenomenon that has made Carlos, as channelled through Jose Luis Alvarez, the dominant new figure in New Age consciousness. As even one sceptical New York critic puts it: ‘The first and only case of a channeller offering tangible, physical proof of some mysterious change within his human physiology.’
Now Jose, who has gone through more than 170 of these little deaths and transformations, has been told by Carlos to visit Australia - in the words of the Master, ‘the old new land’ which is to be the source of a special revelation. Carlos already has foretold that in 1988 catastrophes will sweep the earth, two major world leaders will die and, later in the year, Australians will be among the first to see the rising of a great star which will deeply influence future life on earth.
Following a 1986 motorcycle accident, the press kit explained, Jose Alvarez, then 17 years old, suffered a mild concussion. After he recovered, those who knew him could tell that he had changed. A very different voice sometimes emanated from him. Bewildered, Alvarez sought help from a psychotherapist, a specialist in multiple personality disorders. The psychiatrist ‘discovered that Jose was channelling a distinct entity who was known as Carlos. This entity takes over the body of Alvarez when the body’s life force is relaxed to the right degree.’ Carlos, it turns out, is a two-thousand-year-old spirit disincarnate, a ghost without bodily form, who last invaded a human body in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1900. Unfortunately, that body died at age 12 in a fall from a horse. This may be why, the therapist explained, Carlos could enter Alvarez’s body following the motorcycle accident. When Alvarez goes into his trance, the spirit of Carlos, focused by a large and rare crystal, enters him and utters the wisdom of the ages.
Included in the press kit was a list of major appearances in American cities, a videotape of the tumultuous reception that Alvarez/Carlos received at a Broadway theatre, his interview on New York radio station WOOP, and other indications that here was a formidable American New Age phenomenon. Two small substantiating details: an article from a South Florida newspaper read, ‘THEATER NOTE: The three-day stay of channeler CAR-LOS has been extended at the War Memorial Auditorium ... in response to the requests for further appearances’, and an excerpt from a television programme guide listed a special on THE ENTITY CARLOS: This in-depth study reveals the facts behind one of today’s most popular and controversial personalities’.
Alvarez and his manager arrived in Sydney first class on Qantas. They travelled everywhere in an enormous white stretch limousine. They occupied the Presidential Suite of one of the city’s most prestigious hotels. Alvarez was attired in an elegant white gown with a golden medallion. In his first press conference, Carlos quickly emerged. The entity was forceful, literate, commanding. Australian television programmes quickly lined up for appearances by Alvarez, his manager, and his nurse (to check his pulse and announce the presence of Carlos).
On Australia’s Today Show, they were interviewed by the host, George Negus. When Negus posed a few reasonable and sceptical questions, the New Agers exhibited very thin skins. Carlos laid a curse on the anchorman. His manager doused Negus with a glass of water. Both stalked off the set. It was a sensation in the tabloid press, its significance rehashed on Australian television. ‘TV Outburst: Water Thrown at Negus’, was the front-page headline in the 16 February 1988 Daily Mirror. Television stations were flooded with calls. One Sydney citizen advised taking the curse on Negus very seriously: the army of Satan had already assumed control of the United Nations, he said, and Australia might be next.
Carlos’s next appearance was on the Australian version of A Current Affair. A sceptic was brought in who described a magician’s trick by which the pulse in one hand is made briefly to stop: you put a rubber ball in your armpit and squeeze. When Carlos’s authenticity was questioned, he was outraged: ‘This interview is terminated!’ he thundered.
On the appointed day, the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was nearly filled. An excited crowd, young and old, milled about expectantly. Entrance was free, which reassured those who vaguely wondered if it might be some sort of scam. Alvarez seated himself on a low couch. His pulse was monitored. Suddenly it stopped. Seemingly, he was near death. Low, guttural noises emanated from deep within him. The audience gasped in wonder and awe. Suddenly, Alvarez’s body took on power. His posture radiated confidence. A broad, humane, spiritual perspective flowed out of Alvarez’s mouth. Carlos was here! Interviewed afterwards, many members of the audience described how they had been moved and delighted.
The following Sunday, Australia’s most popular TV programme - named Sixty Minutes after its American counterpart - revealed that the Carlos affair was a hoax, front to back. The producers thought it would be instructive to explore how easily a faith-healer or guru could be created to bamboozle the public and the media. So naturally, they contacted one of the world’s leading experts on deceiving the public (at least among those not holding or advising political office) - the magician James Randi.
‘[T]here being so many disorders which cure themselves and such a disposition in mankind to deceive themselves and one another’, wrote Benjamin Franklin in 1784 —
…and living long having given me frequent opportunities of seeing certain remedies cried up as curing everything, and yet soon after totally laid aside as useless, I cannot but fear that the expectation of great advantage from the new method of treating diseases will prove a delusion. That delusion may however in some cases be of use while it lasts.
He was referring to mesmerism. But ‘every age has its peculiar folly’. Unlike Franklin, most scientists feel it’s not their job to expose pseudoscientific bamboozles, much less, passionately held self-deceptions. They tend not to be very good at it either. Scientists are used to struggling with Nature, who may surrender her secrets reluctantly but who fights fair. Often they are unprepared for those unscrupulous practitioners of the ‘paranormal’ who play by different rules. Magicians, on the other hand, are in the deception business. They practise one of the many occupations - such as acting, advertising, bureaucratic religion and politics - where what a naive observer might misunderstand as lying is socially condoned as in the service of a higher good. Many magicians pretend they don’t cheat, and hint at powers conferred by mystic sources or, lately, by alien largesse. Some use their knowledge to expose charlatans in and out of their ranks. A thief is set to catch a thief.
Few rise to this challenge as energetically as James “The Amazing’ Randi, accurately self-described as an angry man. He is angry not so much about the survival into our day of antediluvian mysticism and superstition, but about how uncritical acceptance of mysticism and superstition works to defraud, to humiliate, and sometimes even to kill. Like all of us, he is imperfect: sometimes Randi is intolerant and condescending, lacking in empathy for the human frailties that underlie credulity. He is routinely paid for his speeches and performances, but nothing compared to what he could receive if he declared that his tricks.derived from psychic powers or divine or extraterrestrial influences. (Most professional conjurors, worldwide, seem to believe in the reality of psychic phenomena, according to polls of their views.) As a conjuror, he has done much to expose remote viewers, ‘telepaths’, and faith-healers who have bilked the public. He demonstrated the simple deceptions and misdirections by which some psychic spoonbend-ers had conned prominent theoretical physicists into deducing new physical phenomena. He has received wide recognition among scientists and is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation (so-called ‘genius’) Prize Fellowship. One critic castigated him for being ‘obsessed with reality’. I wish the same could be said of our nation and our species.
Randi has done more than anyone else in recent times to expose pretension and fraud in the lucrative business of faith-healing. He sifts refuse. He reports gossip. He listens in on the stream of ‘miraculous’ information coming to the itinerant healer - not by spiritual inspiration from God, but at the radio frequency of 39.17 megahertz, transmitted by his wife backstage.*
[* Whose minions had interviewed the gullible patients only an hour or two earlier. How, except through God, could the preacher know their symptoms and street addresses? This scam by the Christian fundamentalist faith-healer Peter Popoff, and exposed by Randi, was thinly fictionalized in the 1993 film Leap of Faith.]
He discovers that those who rise from their wheelchairs and are declared healed had never before been confined to wheelchairs -they were invited by an usher to sit in them. He challenges the faith-healers to provide serious medical evidence for the validity of their claims. He invites local and federal government agencies to enforce the laws against fraud and medical malpractice. He chastises the news media for their studied avoidance of the issue. He exposes the profound contempt of these faith-healers for their patients and parishioners. Many are conscious charlatans, using Christian evangelical or New Age language and symbols to prey on human frailty. Perhaps there are some with motives that are not venal.
Or am I being too harsh? How is the occasional charlatan in faith-healing different from the occasional fraud in science? Is it fair to be suspicious of an entire profession because of a few bad apples? There are at least two important differences, it seems to me. First, no one doubts that science actually works, whatever mistaken and fraudulent claim may from time to time be offered. But whether there are any‘miraculous’ cures from faith-healing, beyond the body’s own ability to cure itself, is very much at issue. Secondly, the expose of fraud and error in science is made almost exclusively by science. The discipline polices itself, meaning that scientists are aware of the potential for charlatanry and mistakes. But the exposure of fraud and error in faith-healing is almost never done by other faith-healers. Indeed, it is striking how reluctant the churches and synagogues are in condemning demonstrable deception in their midst.
When conventional medicine fails, when we must confront pain and death, of course we are open to other prospects for hope.
And, after all, some illnesses are psychogenic. Many can be at least ameliorated by a positive cast of mind. Placebos are dummy drugs, often sugar pills. Drug companies routinely compare the effectiveness of their drugs against placebos given to patients with the same disease who had no way to tell the difference between the drug and the placebo. Placebos can be astonishingly effective, especially for colds, anxiety, depression, pain, and symptoms that are plausibly generated by the mind. Conceivably, endorphins -the small brain proteins with morphine-like effects - can be elicited by belief. A placebo works only if the patient believes it’s an effective medicine. Within strict limits, hope, it seems, can be transformed into biochemistry.
As a typical example, consider the nausea and vomiting that frequently accompany the chemotherapy given to cancer and AIDS patients. Nausea and vomiting can also be caused psycho-genically, for instance by fear. The drug ondansetron hydrochlo-ride greatly reduces the incidence of these symptoms; but is it actually the drug or the expectation of relief? In a double-blind study 96 per cent of patients rated the drug effective. So did ten per cent of the patients taking an identical-looking placebo.
In an application of the fallacy of observational selection, unanswered prayers may be forgotten or dismissed. There is a real toll, though: some patients who are not cured by faith reproach themselves - perhaps it’s their own fault, perhaps they didn’t believe hard enough. Scepticism, they are rightly told, is an impediment both to faith and to (placebo) healing.
Nearly half of all Americans believe there is such a thing as psychic or spiritual healing. Miraculous cures have been associated with a wide variety of healers, real and imagined, throughout human history. Scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis, was in England called the ‘King’s evil’, and was supposedly curable only by the King’s touch. Victims patiently lined up to be touched; the monarch briefly submitted to another burdensome obligation of high office, and, despite no one, it seems, actually being cured, the practice continued for centuries.
A famous Irish faith-healer of the seventeenth century was Valentine Greatraks. He found, somewhat to his surprise, that he had the power to cure disease, including colds, ulcers, ‘soreness’ and epilepsy. The demand for his services became so great that he had no time for anything else. He was forced to become a healer, he complained. His method was to cast out the demons responsible for disease. All diseases, he asserted, were caused by evil spirits, many of whom he recognized and called by name. A contemporary chronicler, cited by Mackay, noted that
he boasted of being much better acquainted with the intrigues of demons than he was with the affairs of men ... So great was the confidence in him, that the blind fancied they saw the light which they did not see - the deaf imagined that they heard - the lame that they walked straight, and the paralytic that they had recovered the use of their limbs. An idea of health made the sick forget for awhile their maladies; and imagination, which was not less active in those merely drawn by curiosity than in the sick, gave a false view to the one class, from the desire of seeing, as it operated a false cure on the other from the strong desire of being healed.
There are countless reports in the world literature of exploration and anthropology not only of sicknesses being cured by faith in the healer, but also of people wasting away and dying when cursed by a sorcerer. A more or less typical example is told by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who with a few companions and under conditions of terrible privation wandered on land and sea, from Florida to Texas to Mexico in 1528-36. The many different communities of Native Americans he met longed to believe in the supernatural healing powers of the strange light-skinned, black-bearded foreigners and their black-skinned companion from Morocco, Este-banico. Eventually whole villages came out to meet them, depositing all their wealth at the feet of the Spaniards and humbly imploring cures. It began modestly enough:
[T]hey tried to make us into medicine men, without examining us or asking for credentials, for they cure illnesses by blowing on the sick person... and they ordered us to do the same and be of some use... The way in which we cured was by making the sign of the cross over them and blowing on them and reciting a Pater Noster and an Ave Maria... [A]s soon as we made the sign of the cross over them, all those for whom we prayed told the others that they were well and healthy...
Soon they were curing cripples. Cabeza de Vaca reports he raised a man from the dead. After that,
we were very much hampered by the large number of people who were following us ... their eagerness to come and touch us was very great and their importunity so extreme that three hours would pass without our being able to persuade them to leave us alone.
When a tribe begged the Spaniards not to leave them, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions became angry. Then,
a strange thing happened... [M]any of them fell ill, and eight men died the next day. All over the land, in the places where this became known, they were so afraid of us that it seemed that the very sight of us made them almost die of fear. They implored us not to be angry, nor to wish for any more of them to die; and they were altogether convinced that we killed them simply by wishing to.
In 1858, an apparition of the Virgin Mary was reported in Lourdes, France; the Mother of God confirmed the dogma of her immaculate conception which had been proclaimed by Pope Pius IX just four years earlier. Something like a hundred million people have come to Lourdes since then in the hope of being cured, many with illnesses that the medicine of the time was helpless to defeat. The Roman Catholic Church rejected the authenticity of large numbers of claimed miraculous cures, accepting only sixty-five in nearly a century and a half (of tumours, tuberculosis, opthalmitis, impetigo, bronchitis, paralysis and other diseases, but not, say, the regeneration of a limb or a severed spinal cord). Of the sixty-five, women outnumber men ten to one. The odds of a miraculous cure at Lourdes, then, are about one in a million; you are roughly as likely to recover after visiting Lourdes as you are to win the lottery, or to die in the crash of a randomly selected regularly scheduled airplane flight -including the one taking you to Lourdes.
The spontaneous remission rate of all cancers, lumped together, is estimated to be something between one in ten thousand and one in a hundred thousand. If no more than five per cent of those who come to Lourdes were there to treat their cancers, there should have been something between fifty and 500 ‘miraculous’ cures of cancer alone. Since only three of the attested sixty-five cures are of cancer, the rate of spontaneous remission at Lourdes seems to be lower than if the victims had just stayed at home. Of course, if you’re one of the sixty-five, it’s going to be very hard to convince you that your trip to Lourdes wasn’t the cause of the remission of your disease... Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Something similar seems true of individual faith-healers.
After hearing much from his patients about alleged faith-healing, a Minnesota physician named William Nolen spent a year and a half trying to track down the most striking cases. Was there clear medical evidence that the disease was really present before the ‘cure’? If so, had the disease actually disappeared after the cure, or did we just have the healer’s or the patient’s say-so? He uncovered many cases of fraud, including the first exposure in America of ‘psychic surgery’. But he found not one instance of cure of any serious organic (non-psychogenic) disease. There were no cases where gallstones or rheumatoid arthritis, say, were cured, much less cancer or cardiovascular disease. When a child’s spleen is ruptured, Nolen noted, perform a simple surgical operation and the child is completely better. But take that child to a faith-healer and she’s dead in a day. Dr Nolen’s conclusion:
When [faith]-healers treat serious organic disease, they are responsible for untold anguish and unhappiness... The healers become killers.
Even a recent book advocating the efficacy of prayer in treating disease (Larry Dossey, Healing Words) is troubled by the fact that some diseases are more easily cured or mitigated than others. If prayer works, why can’t God cure cancer or grow back a severed limb? Why so much avoidable suffering that God could so readily prevent? Why does God have to be prayed to at all? Doesn’t He already know what cures need to be performed? Dossey also begins with a quote from Stanley Krippner, MD (described as ‘one of the most authoritative investigators of the variety of unorthodox healing methods used around the world’):
[T]he research data on distant, prayer-based healing are promising, but too sparse to allow any firm conclusion to be drawn.
This after many trillions of prayers over the millennia.
As Cabeza de Vaca’s experience suggests, the mind can cause certain diseases, even fatal diseases. When blindfolded patients are deceived into believing they’re being touched by a leaf such as poison ivy or poison oak, they produce an ugly red contact dermatitis. What faith-healing characteristically may help are mind-mediated or placebo diseases: some back and knee pains, headaches, stuttering, ulcers, stress, hay fever, asthma, hysterical paralysis and blindness, and false pregnancy (with cessation of menstrual periods and abdominal swelling). These are all diseases in which the state of mind may play a key role. In the late medieval cures associated with apparitions of the Virgin Mary, most were of sudden, short-lived, whole-body or partial paralyses that are plausibly psychogenic. It was widely held, moreover, that only devout believers could be so cured. It’s no surprise that appeals to a state of mind called faith can relieve symptoms caused, at least in part, by another, perhaps not very different state of mind.
But there’s something more: the Harvest Moon Festival is an important holiday in traditional Chinese communities in America. In the week preceding the festival, the death rate in the community is found to fall by 35 per cent. In the following week the death rate jumps by 35 per cent. Control groups of non-Chinese show no such effect. You might think that suicides are responsible, but only deaths from natural causes are counted. You might think that stress or overeating might account for it, but this could hardly explain the fall in death rate before the harvest moon. The largest effect is for people with cardiovascular disease, which is known to be influenced by stress. Cancer showed a smaller effect. On more detailed study, it turned out that the fluctuations in death rate occurred exclusively among women 75 years old or older. The Harvest Moon Festival is presided over by the oldest women in the households. They were able to stave off death for a week or two to perform their ceremonial responsibilities. A similar effect is found among Jewish men in the weeks centred on Passover - a ceremony in which older men play a leading role - and likewise, worldwide for birthdays, graduation ceremonies and the like.
In a more controversial study, Stanford University psychiatrists divided eighty-six women with metastatic breast cancer into two groups - one in which they were encouraged to examine their fears of dying and to take charge of their lives, and the other given no special psychiatric support. To the surprise of the researchers, not only did the support group experience less pain, but they also lived, on average, eighteen months longer.
The leader of the Stanford study, David Spiegel, speculates that the cause may be cortisol and other ‘stress hormones’ which impair the body’s protective immune system. Severely depressed people, students during exam periods, and the bereaved all have reduced white blood cell counts. Good emotional support may not have much effect on advanced forms of cancer, but it may work to reduce the chances of secondary infections in a person already much weakened by the disease or its treatment.
In his nearly forgotten 1903 book, Christian Science, Mark Twain wrote
The power which a man’s imagination has over his body to heal it or make it sick is a force which none of us is born without. The first man had it, the last one will possess it.
Occasionally, some of the pain and anxiety or other symptoms of more serious diseases can be relieved by faith-healers - however, without arresting the progress of the disease. But this is no small benefit. Faith and prayer may be able to relieve some symptoms of disease and their treatment, ease the suffering of the afflicted and even prolong lives a little. In assessing the religion called Christian Science, Mark Twain - its severest critic of the time -nevertheless allowed that the bodies and lives it had ‘made whole’ by the power of suggestion more than compensated for those it had killed by withholding medical treatment in favour of prayer.
After his death, assorted Americans reported contact with the ghost of President John F. Kennedy. Before home shrines bearing his picture, miraculous cures began to be reported. ‘He gave his life for his people,’ one adherent of this stillborn religion explained. According to the Encyclopedia of American Religions, ‘To believers, Kennedy is thought of as a god.’ Something similar can be seen in the Elvis Presley phenomenon, and the heartfelt cry: “The King lives.’ If such belief systems could arise spontaneously, think how much more could be done by a well-organized, and especially an unscrupulous, campaign.
In response to their inquiry, Randi suggested to Australia’s Sixty Minutes that they generate a hoax from scratch, using someone with no training in magic or public speaking, and no experience in the pulpit. As he was thinking the scam through, his eye fell upon Jose Luis Alvarez, a young performance sculptor who was Randi’s tenant. ‘Why not?’ answered Alvarez, who when I met him seemed bright, good-humoured and thoughtful. He went through intensive training, including mock TV appearances and press conferences. He didn’t have to think up the answers, though, because he had a nearly invisible radio receiver in his ear, through which Randi prompted. Emissaries from Sixty Minutes checked Alvarez’s performance. The Carlos personality was Alvarez’ invention.
When Alvarez and his ‘manager’ - likewise recruited for the job with no previous experience - arrived in Sydney, there was James Randi, slouching and inconspicuous, whispering into his transmitter, at the periphery of the action. The substantiating documentation had all been faked. The curse, the water-throwing and all the rest were rehearsed to attract media attention. They did. Many of the people who showed up at the Opera House had done so because of the television and press attention. One Australian newspaper chain even printed verbatim handouts from the ‘Carlos Foundation’.
After Sixty Minutes aired, the rest of the Australian media was furious. They had been used, they complained, lied to. ‘Just as there are legal guidelines concerning the police use of provocateurs,’ thundered Peter Robinson in the Australian Financial Review,
there must be limits to how far the media can go in setting up a misleading situation ... I, for one, can simply not accept that telling a lie is an acceptable way of reporting the truth... Every poll of public opinion shows that there is a suspicion among the general public that the media do not tell the whole truth, or that they distort things, or that they exaggerate, or that they are biased.
Mr Robinson feared that Carlos might have lent credence to this widespread misperception. Headlines ranged from ‘How Carlos Made Fools of Them AH’ to ‘Hoax Was Just Dumb’. Newspapers that had not trumpeted Carlos patted themselves on the back for their restraint. Negus said of Sixty Minutes, ‘Even people of integrity can make mistakes,’ and denied being duped. Anyone calling himself a channeller, he said, is ‘a fraud by definition’.
Sixty Minutes and Randi stressed that the Australian media had made no serious effort to check any of ‘Carlos’s’ bona fides. He had never appeared in any of the cities listed. The videotape of Carlos on the stage of a New York theatre had been a favour granted by the magicians Penn and Teller, who were appearing there. They asked the audience just to give a big hand of applause; Alvarez, in smock and medallion, walked on; the audience dutifully applauded, Randi got his videotape, Alvarez waved goodbye, the show went on. And there is no New York City radio station with call letters WOOP.
Other reasons for suspicion could readily be mined in Carlos’s writings. But because the intellectual currency has been so debased, because credulity, New Age and Old, is so rampant, because sceptical thinking is so rarely practised, no parody is too implausible. The Carlos Foundation offered for sale (they were scrupulously careful not actually to sell anything) an ‘Atlantis crystal’:
Five of these unique crystals have so far been found by the ascended master during his travels. Unexplained by science, each crystal harnesses almost pure energy... [and has] enormous healing powers. The forms are actually fossilized spiritual energy and are a great boon to the preparation of the Earth for the New Age ... Of the Five, the ascended master wears one Atlantic crystal at all times close to his body for protection and to enhance all spiritual activities. Two have been acquired by kindly supplicants in the United States of America in exchange for the substantial contribution the ascended master requests.
Or, under the heading THE WATERS OF CARLOS’:
The ascended master finds occasionally water of such purity that he undertakes to energize a quantity of it for others to benefit, an intensive process. To produce what is always too little, the ascended master purifies himself and a quantity of pure quartz crystal fashioned into flasks. He then places himself and the crystals into a large copper bowl, polished and kept warm. For a twenty-four hour period the ascended master pours energy into the spiritual repository of the water... The water need not be removed from the flask to be utilized spiritually. Simply holding the flask and concentrating on healing a wound or illness will produce astounding results. However, if serious mischance befalls you or a close one, a tiny dab of the energized water will immediately assist recovery.
Or, TEARS OF CARLOS’:
The red colour imparted to the holding flasks that the ascended master has fashioned for the tears is proof enough of their power, but their affect [sic] during meditation has
been described by those who have experienced it as ‘a glorious Oneness’.
Then there is a little book, The Teachings of Carlos, which begins:
I AM CARLOS.
I HAVE COME TO YOU
FROM MANY PAST
I HAVE A GREAT LESSON TO
THE TRUTH IS HERE.
The first teaching asks, ‘Why are we here...?’ The answer: ‘Who can say what is the one answer? There are many answers to any question, and all the answers are right answers. It is so. Do you see?’
The book enjoins us not to turn to the next page until we have understood the page we are on. This is one of several factors that makes finishing it difficult.
‘Of doubters,’ it reveals later, ‘I can say only this: let them take from the matter just what they wish. They end up with nothing - a handful of space, perhaps. And what does the believer have? EVERYTHING! All questions are answered, since all and any answers are correct answers. And the answers are right! Argue that, doubter.’
Or: ‘Don’t ask for explanations of everything. Westerners, in particular, are always demanding long-winded descriptions of why this, and why that. Most of what is asked is obvious. Why bother with probing into these matters? ... By belief, all things become true.’
The last page of the book displays a single word in large
letters: we are exhorted to ‘THINK!’
The full text of The Teachings ofCarlos was of course written by Randi. He dashed it off on his laptop computer in a few hours.
The Australian media felt betrayed by one of their own. The leading television programme in the country had gone out of its way to expose shoddy standards of fact-checking and widespread gullibility in institutions devoted to news and public affairs. Some media analysts excused it on the grounds that it obviously wasn’t important; if it had been important, they would have checked it out. There were few mea culpas. None who had been taken in were willing to appear on a retrospective of the ‘Carlos Affair’ scheduled for the following Sunday on Sixty Minutes.
Of course, there’s nothing special about Australia in all of this. Alvarez, Randi, and their co-conspirators could have chosen any nation on Earth and it would have worked. Even those who gave Carlos a national television audience knew enough to ask some sceptical questions - but they couldn’t resist inviting him to appear in the first place. The internecine struggle within the media dominated the headlines after Carlos’s departure. Puzzled commentaries were written about the expose. What was the point? What was proved?
Alvarez and Randi proved how little it takes to tamper with our beliefs, how readily we are led, how easy it is to fool the public when people are lonely and starved for something to believe in. If Carlos had stayed longer in Australia and concentrated more on healing - by prayer, by believing in him, by wishing on his bottled tears, by stroking his crystals - there’s no doubt that people would have reported being cured of many illnesses, especially psycho-genie ones. Even with nothing more fraudulent than his appearance, sayings and ancillary products, some people would have gotten better because of Carlos.
This, again, is the placebo effect found with almost every faith-healer. We believe we’re taking a potent medicine and the pain goes away - for a time at least. And when we believe we’ve received a potent spiritual cure, the disease sometimes also goes away - for a time at least. Some people spontaneously announce that they’ve been cured even when they haven’t. Detailed follow-ups by Nolen, Randi and many others of those who have been told they were cured and agreed that they were - in, say, televised services by American faith-healers - were unable to find even one person with serious organic disease who was in fact cured. Even significant improvement in their condition is dubious. As the Lourdes experience suggests, you may have to go through ten thousand to a million cases before you find one truly startling recovery.
A faith-healer may or may not start out with fraud in mind. But to his amazement, his patients actually seem to be improving. Their emotions are genuine, their gratitude heart-felt. When the healer is criticized, such people rush to his defence. Several elderly attendees of the channelling at the Sydney Opera House were incensed after the Sixty Minutes expose: ‘Never mind what they say,’ they told Alvarez, ‘we believe in you.’
These successes may be enough to convince many charlatans, no matter how cynical they were at the beginning, that they actually have mystical powers. Maybe they’re not successful every time. The powers come and go, they tell themselves. They have to cover the down time. If they must cheat a little now and then, it serves a higher purpose, they tell themselves. Their spiel is consumer-tested. It works.
Most of these figures are only after your money. That’s the good news. But what worries me is that a Carlos will come along with bigger fish to fry - attractive, commanding, patriotic, exuding leadership. All of us long for a competent, uncorrupt, charismatic leader. We will leap at the opportunity to support, to believe, to feel good. Most reporters, editors and producers, swept up with the rest of us, will shy away from real sceptical scrutiny. He won’t be selling you prayers or crystals or tears. Perhaps he’ll be selling you a war, or a scapegoat, or a much more all-encompassing bundle of beliefs than Carlos’s. Whatever it is, it will be accompanied by warnings about the dangers of scepticism.
In the celebrated film The Wizard ofOz, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion are intimidated - indeed awed - by the out-sized oracular figure called the Great Oz. But Dorothy’s little dog Toto snaps at a concealing curtain and reveals that the Great Oz is in fact a machine run by a small, tubby, frightened man, as much an exile in this strange land as they.
I think we’re lucky that James Randi is tugging at the curtain. But it would be as dangerous to rely on him to expose all the quacks, humbugs and bunkum in the world as it would be to believe those same charlatans. If we don’t want to get taken, we need to do this job for ourselves.
One of the saddest lessons of history is this: if we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back. So the old bamboozles tend to persist as the new ones rise.
Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best. If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish. They’re shy, we’re told, and some of us believe it. In twentieth-century parapsychology laboratories, there is the ‘observer effect’: those described as gifted psychics find that their powers diminish markedly whenever sceptics arrive, and disappear altogether in the presence of a conjuror as skilled as James Randi. What they need is darkness and gullibility.
A little girl who had been a co-conspirator in a famous nineteenth-century flimflam - spirit-rapping, in which ghosts answer questions by loud thumping - grew up and confessed it was an imposture. She was cracking the joint in her big toe. She demonstrated how it was done. But the public apology was largely ignored and, when acknowledged, denounced. Spirit-rapping was too reassuring to be abandoned merely on the say-so of a self-confessed rapper, even if she started the whole business in the first place. The story began to circulate that the confession was coerced out of her by fanatical rationalists.
As I described earlier, British hoaxers confessed to having made ‘crop circles’, geometrical figures generated in grain fields. It wasn’t alien artists working in wheat as their medium, but two blokes with a board, a rope and a taste for whimsy. Even when they demonstrated how they did it, though, believers were unimpressed. Maybe some of the crop circles are hoaxes, they argued, but there are too many of them, and some of the pictograms are too complex. Only extraterrestrials could do it. Then others in Britain confessed. But crop circles abroad, it was objected, in Hungary for example, how can you explain that”! Then copycat Hungarian teenagers confessed. But what about...?
To test the credulity of an alien abduction psychiatrist, a woman poses as an abductee. The therapist is enthusiastic about the fantasies she spins. But when she announces it was all a fake, what is his response? To re-examine his protocols or his understanding of what these cases mean? No. On various days he suggests (1) even if she isn’t herself aware of it, she was in fact abducted; or (2) she’s crazy - after all, she went to a psychiatrist, didn’t she?; or (3) he was on top of the hoax from the beginning and just gave her enough rope to hang herself.
If it’s sometimes easier to reject strong evidence than to admit that we’ve been wrong, this is also information about ourselves worth having.
A scientist places an ad in a Paris newspaper offering a free horoscope. He receives about 150 replies, each, as requested, detailing a place and time of birth. Every respondent is then sent the identical horoscope, along with a questionnaire asking how accurate the horoscope had been. Ninety-four per cent of the respondents (and 90 per cent of their families and friends) reply that they were at least recognizable in the horoscope. However, the horoscope was drawn up for a French serial killer. If an astrologer can get this far without even meeting his subjects, think how well someone sensitive to human nuances and not overly scrupulous might do.
Why are we so’easily taken in by fortune-tellers, psychic seers, palmists, tea-leaf, tarot and yarrow readers, and their ilk? Of course, they note our posture, facial expressions, clothing and answers to seemingly innocuous questions. Some of them are brilliant at it, and these are areas about which many scientists seem almost unconscious. There is also a computer network to which ‘professional’ psychics subscribe, the details of their customers’ lives available to their colleagues in an instant. A key tool is the so-called ‘cold read’, a statement of opposing predispositions so tenuously balanced that anyone will recognize a grain of truth. Here’s an example:
At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary and reserved. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety, and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. Disciplined and controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a strong need for other people to like you and for them to admire you.
Almost everyone finds this characterization recognizable, and many feel that it describes them perfectly. Small wonder: we are all human.
The list of ‘evidence’ that some therapists think demonstrates repressed childhood sexual abuse (for example, in The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis) is very long and prosaic: it includes sleep disorders, overeating, anorexia and bulimia, sexual dysfunction, vague anxieties, and even an inability to remember childhood sexual abuse. Another book, by the social worker E. Sue Blume, lists, among other telltale signs of forgotten incest: headaches, suspicion or its absence, excessive sexual passion or its absence, and adoring one’s parents. Among diagnostic items for detecting ‘dysfunctional’ families listed by Charles Whitfield, MD, are ‘aches and pains’, feeling ‘more alive’ in a crisis, being anxious about ‘authority figures’, and having ‘tried counseling or psychotherapy’, yet feeling ‘that “something” is wrong or missing’. Like the cold read, if the list is long and broad enough, everyone will have ‘symptoms’.
Sceptical scrutiny is not only the toolkit for rooting out bunkum and cruelty that prey on those least able to protect themselves and most in need of our compassion, people offered little other hope.
It is also a timely reminder that mass rallies, radio and television, the print media, electronic marketing, and mail-order technology permit other kinds of lies to be injected into the body politic, to take advantage of the frustrated, the unwary and the defenceless in a society riddled with political ills that are being treated ineffectively if at all.
Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlour magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious and economic issues in every nation.