How Science Should Deal with Pseudoscience

Ignoring the cultists will not make them go away; scientists should devote time and effort to investigating the pseudoscientists' claims.


There is enough pseudoscience going around these days to worry scientists about its influence on people, particularly youth. Perhaps part of the concern can be attributed to envy: the peddlers of mediocrity, such as Hans Holzer, Uri Geller, Jeanne Dixon, and Erich von Daniken, seem to be getting rich while scientists have to beg for grants in order to conduct research. That's not the whole story, however—there is genuine worry that the spread of pseudoscience is harmful. But should scientists themselves do anything about it?


Most scientists want to keep out of the whole dirty business. They avoid professional contact with such topics as astrology, ESP, flying saucers, reincarnation, talking to plants, for fear of tarnishing their professional reputation. Such an attitude, however, is unproductive.

First, self-righteous ignoring of such topics does not make them go away. That should be evident to anyone by now. Second, and more importantly, such an attitude does not give the layman a chance to see both sides of the story. This is akin to Edith Efron's point in The News Twisters that if the news media do not show a balanced spectrum of views on social or political issues we get a "brainwashing effect." One can go to any bookstore and see dozens of books on the "occult," but seldom if ever is there a single selection debunking the occult. This does not speak ill of the public! Not at all. Popular bookstores are where people go to buy reading material, and if there are no anti-occult books available, it is not the fault of the public. In fact, the evidence shows that books refuting UFOs or the Bermuda Triangle, for example, sell rather well when they are offered. The onus of responsibility clearly falls upon those who are intellectually and technically capable of refuting the pseudoscientific claims and arguments. But they often feel it is beneath their dignity to do so.

A personal example: In my late teens I came upon the sensationalist writings on flying saucers and supernatural powers—Edwards' Flying Saucers—Serious Business and Gaddis' Invisible Horizons. Had I not then stumbled across two other books—Menzel and Boyd's The World of Flying Saucers and Keel's Jadoo—that refuted flying saucers and Eastern "feats of wonder," I might still be believing, and echoing, the occult viewpoint.


Pitting science against pseudoscience can be effective. We need only look at some of the pseudosciences that have been dealt near-deathblows by researchers.

Palmistry. M.E. Wilson and L.E. Mather, interested in its claims, set out to investigate palmistry—admittedly in a somewhat macabre fashion. They measured the "lifelines" of 51 cadavers and compared their length to the ages at which those persons had died, taking into account each person's height. They reported in the 1974 Journal of the American Medical Association that they did not find a significant correlation.

Feeling plants. The talk-to-your-plants fad is based on the claim that plants can perceive and feel emotions just like humans can. The main anchor for this fad was a 1968 report by C. Backster in the International Journal of Parapsychology. He stated that plants could perceive, as recorded by polygraph, the killing of brine shrimp. Various intrigued researchers tried to replicate the Backster experiment, using better controls, procedures, and equipment. As reported in Science (August 8, 1975) and in an April 1977 article by Kmetz in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, they found nothing of the sort purportedly discovered by Backster. Of course, by then the pseudoscience was in full swing, with books like The Secret Life of Plants proliferating.

Bermuda Triangle. Supposedly there is an area within the boundaries of Florida, Cuba-Haiti, and Bermuda wherein ships and planes have mysteriously disappeared, perhaps due to unknown magnetic or extraterrestrial forces. Incident after incident is recounted with as much mystery as can be mustered. Even Columbus, it is said, saw eerie nocturnal lights on his first voyage. Lawrence Kusche decided to actually research the topic (several of the occult writers claimed to have done research), and what he came up with was a masterpiece of investigation, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved. All the hack writers had been so busy rehashing the same cases again and again, each time rewording them even more mysteriously, replete with dark insinuations, that they had not even bothered to see whether each particular ship was on record as ever having existed. In fact, some of the ships had sunk as far away from the Bermuda Triangle as Newfoundland, the Azores, or the Pacific Ocean. Others were floating wrecks, ready to be junked, when they sailed straight into a storm and thereby "disappeared." Although Kusche does not mention the eerie lights that Columbus saw, one persistent investigator, L.R. Crawshay, in 1935 checked old almanacs for the night of October 11, 1492, when the vague lights on the horizon were reported. A local marine fireworm that mass-mates via a signaling luminous secretion does so at a particular phase of the moon, which coincided with that of October 11. (See Nature, 1935, vol. 136.)

Fortune-telling. A 1969 essay by Gresham in Panorama of Psychology is valuable. He did not actually do research but he found a fortune-teller who was quite willing to divulge his secrets, stating quite frankly that any "expose" by the writer would not diminish his clientele. Gresham was able to observe the clients, as the session began, through partly open doors. The fortuneteller's secrets would be described today as probing of his clients with Barnum Effect statements, with the clients' faces providing the cues as to the accuracy of each statement. The Barnum statements used were very similar to present personality descriptors of popular astrological signs.

Extraterrestrial visitors. Lastly, we should speak of Erich von Daniken's books Chariots of the Gods? and Gods from Outer Space (which sparked imitations). His main thesis is that in prehistoric times earth was visited by extraterrestrials. What is so irritating with von Daniken is not his thesis, which has been more competently put forth by others before him. Rather, it is his so-called evidence and logic, which works like this: We do not know how the pyramids were built; therefore, they were made by extraterrestrials. Drawings of humanoids have headdresses with feathers; obviously, they are drawings of aliens with antennae in their helmets.

Attacking archaeologists and casting himself in the role of a martyred genius, von Daniken was off and running. His evidence and his arguments were refuted, however—primarily by a group of Austrian archaeological theologians who wrote the books Some Trust in Chariots, Crash Go the Chariots, and The Chariots Still Crash. Von Daniken's archaeological ignorance is pointed out (for example, there were no ropes in Egypt, according to him); his faulty mathematics is revealed (in dividing the area of the Khufu pyramid by twice its height, the result is 593.3, not a magical pi); his knack for inconsistencies is examined (C-14 dating is cited as being both flawless and inaccurate, depending on what suits him at the time), as is his penchant for making up data whenever necessary (he refers to incidents in the Old Testament that are not to be found there).

The Chariots' pseudoscience is particularly vulnerable to debunking because it parallels areas of study that have been thoroughly investigated, like Egyptology. Here is where it differs from the other pseudosciences, which are more often more nebulous, with less hard evidence. Furthermore, von Daniken's manner of reasoning and his thirst for fame made him easily vulnerable to rebuttal. That relatively few archaeologists rose to the occasion was surprising, the above having done so because their Christian sensibilities had been injured.


Such research is rare and hard to locate in comparison with the written output of the pseudosciences. Casting a critical eye on the pseudosciences can be very lucrative, even though their adherents may be "true believers." By and large, however, scientists are staying out of the fray. As Robert Sheaffer pointed out in "UFOs, Bent Spoons, and Alternate Realities" in REASON (Aug. 1977): "The active debunkers, for the most part, are amateurs, many of them highly skilled and effective, but almost none of them professional scientists. The man who exploded the Bermuda Triangle myth, Lawrence David Kusche, is a reference librarian. The most persistent and successful debunker in UFO history, Phillip J. Klass, is a technical journalist. The effective critics of spiritualism and parapsychology have been stage magicians. Professional scientists have for the most part remained totally silent on these subjects."

Perhaps an argument against scientists' getting involved (aside from their being easily duped) is that cultists have too much invested, psychologically, to easily change their beliefs. True, those individuals probably would not be fazed by a whole barrage of books like those of Klass, Kusche, or Menzel and Boyd. In fact, such writings are invariably referred to in scorn by the UFO subculture—when they are mentioned at all—even by those at the Center for UFO Studies, which is peopled, incidentally, by scientists. The counter-objection, however, is that it is the public that needs to be reached, not the cultists. Moreover, the cultists' frame of mind itself, as well as the personality of individuals attracted to such matters, is a rich field for psychologists to mine. In his UFOs Explained, Klass, one of the few UFO debunkers, lauds the value of such scientists' involvement: "An experimental psychologist, experienced in the inherent limitations of human perception and recall, would place far less credence in UFO reports from pilots, police officers and airport-tower operators than would a physicist or an astronomer, and with good reason. Yet relatively few persons with these types of expertise have become UFO investigators, compared with those whose backgrounds are in physical science."


Another reason why scientists should get more involved with the anomalous subjects—and this may come as a shock—is that these subjects should be studied by competent people in case there is any truth to them. Far better to approach these topics with our scientific tools and methodology than to dismiss them altogether.

If the fallacies are disproved via replicable experiments, we have advanced scientifically and those opposing the pseudosciences have gained some ammunition. But, if it is found that their assertions are true, we have advanced anyway, and their assertions have now a firmer base than mere personal faith. This is just what has happened with yoga (see Shapiro Biofeedback and Self-Control). Furthermore, verifying a phenomenon does not necessarily confirm its cause. For example, if we find that persons born at a particular time have certain personality-pattern similarities, this would not confirm that the constellations are the cause. In fact, enough evidence has been amassed from ethology to support an alternative explanation—that the environment influences an organism during gestation and after birth; lengthening-of-daylight's effect on reproductive and migratory behaviors alone suggest an extension to humans.

To be sure, the adherents of each pseudoscience would vehemently affirm that their particular system of beliefs is based on fact. They have the habit, too, of repeating ad nauseam that the findings of previous great scientists like Mendel and Darwin were ignored by the so-called scientific establishment—which proves nothing of course, since a lot of worthless misinformation was also ignored.

Unfortunately, there is another problem here, what is called E bias. Whether an experimenter is for or against a particular pseudoscience may preclude impartiality in studying it. Goodstein and Bravis detail a relevant example in the 1970 Psychological Reports. They mailed to psychologists summaries of supposed experiments on the relation of astrology to personality and asked them to judge the "experiments." The experiment reporting negative findings was judged to be better designed than the comparable experiment claiming positive results. Sheaffer sounds the approximate warning: "Some people disbelieve in the pseudosciences for no better reason than because it all sounds so implausible. Yet this is a habit of mind no more excusable than the childlike credulity with which many of these cults' adherents accept tales of wonder supported by little or no proof."

Another reason for scientific attention to the pseudosciences is that, whereas the particular subject matter (pyramid power, palmistry) may be dead ends in themselves as far as research is concerned, there are incidental phenomena to be explored. This is particularly true for psychology and sociology. That is, the cult mentality of the Flat Earth Society, for example, may be of investigative worth even if their claims are not. This sort of thing was taken up by several authors in When Prophecy Fails.

The UFO matter is another case in point (see the work of Simon reported in InterAmerican Journal of Psychology and in the collection Behavioral Scientists Look at the UFO Phenomena, both forthcoming in 1978). The possible origins and physical laws of flying saucers as hypothetical extraterrestrial machines exhibiting lightning-like flight patterns, has attracted discussion by physicists and astronomers, written up by Sagan and Page in UFO's—A Scientific Debate. The phenomenon also contains a wealth of tangential data which has for the most part been neglected in the psychological fields of perception, personality, hypnotism, and social psychology. This neglect is particularly unfortunate insofar as the phenomenon has been present on and off for over three decades. Should UFOs in the end prove to be nothing more than mundane terrestrial occurrences, their examination will not have been a total waste of time, money, and effort. Aside from obtaining information on atmospheric phenomena like ball lightning and plasma, the UFO period will have provided us with sociological-psychological information—if psychologists take the trouble to examine the available data.


When research has been done on the pseudosciences, the results have often damaged their credibility. In other cases, it has supported the underlying validity of the "pseudoscience"—the case of yoga, nowadays used in biofeedback, comes to mind. In most instances, the particular pseudoscience is still locked in bitter controversy but is yielding incidental information. Many scientists interested in studying the pseudosciences, among them Carl Sagan, B.F. Skinner, and Isaac Asimov, have now formed the Buffalo-based Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (It is interesting to note that the flourishing of the pseudosciences coincided with the big push by Humanists against censuring anyone, with the exception of anyone in the Establishment, for his actions or beliefs. Only narrow-minded people, Humanists proclaimed, could object to others' mind-expanding attempts, which would ultimately end in goodness. Now, however, the reverse is true: Humanists are in the forefront in combatting the pseudosciences, particularly astrology).

Scientists should emerge from the research cul-de-sacs wherein they operate and begin to apply their skills and knowledge to the pseudosciences. There is really no good reason for snobbing them if both scientists and laymen will profit by whatever results are found. This is no great call for Social Responsibility and Social Conscience. The point is simply that, regardless of an individual scientist's position on UFOs, ESP, etc., it would be most beneficial to everyone to investigate these subject matters scientifically—trying, of course, not to contaminate the data or the design with that researcher's set of beliefs. The antitechnological groups notwithstanding, the public still listens with respect to scientists.

Armando Simon is a trilingual native of Cuba. His Ph.D. is from the University of Southern Mississippi, and he has published in various journals of psychology.