Sideshows of Science

As knowledge expands, so do the ranks of believers in fakery

San Francisco Chronicle/January 8, 2001
By David Perlman

There have long been hoaxers and jokesters in science, true believers in pseudo-science, and the end is not in sight. The modern record of delusions extends from Piltdown Man, who flummoxed anthropologists almost a century ago, to Shirley MacLaine's psychic surgeons, who can "operate" on your body with their bare hands, leaving nary a scar.

"Accredited" psychics on your TV screen proffer advice for the lovelorn or financially stressed. Sixty-three thousand Internet sites list astrologers and astrological networks. And there are more untested practitioners in varied exotic health fields - iridology, reflexology, aromatherapy - than there are licensed physicians in all the 24 recognized specialties of medicine. To the scientists and whistle-blowers who compose the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP - pronounced "sci- cop"), the credulity of Americans knows no bounds.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of CSICOP, which was founded by astronomer Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, among others, to root out fraud and pseudoscience. Today, the organization's gumshoes continue to expose the most egregious offenders. They publish a lively magazine called the Skeptical Inquirer, with fresh revelations every two months.

Paul Kurtz, a former philosophy professor and CSICOP's chairman, fears that the Internet and TV are spreading irrational ideas ever wider. "Belief in the paranormal is growing by leaps and bounds," he said, "and there are too many people eager to exploit the believers for a price."

Take the persistent case of Uri Geller, the famed Israeli spoon-bender and clairvoyant who as far back as the 1970s confounded many serious researchers with his apparent "remote viewing" and mind-over-matter powers. Despite efforts to discredit him, his "paranormal" enterprises continue to thrive. Geller's demonstrations prove, he says, that through the power of his mind, he can stop clocks and cause objects to distort their shape - a phenomenon believers call psychokinesis. Geller can "read" and reproduce drawings hidden completely from his view, and identify objects from many miles away.

Geller's fame is blazing anew in England, where the newspapers report that at a recent reception, he unaccountably caused the Lord Mayor of Liverpool's diamond-studded golden chain to crumble by the power of his mere presence nearby.

SRI Scientists Were Impressed

He still impresses thousands of audiences with his apparent psychic abilities, just as, years ago, he impressed two scientists at the former Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, a private think tank now known as SRI International. After watching Geller's demonstrations, physicists Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ of SRI vouched for his psychic powers. In an e-mail last week, Puthoff said that although Geller "was not able to demonstrate psychokinesis (metal bending) under controlled laboratory conditions, (he) was able to demonstrate `remote viewing' (as did many others) . . . under laboratory conditions."

Targ e-mailed similar views, complaining that the phenomenon of remote viewing "is repressed in this society." Although Geller failed to perform metal-bending feats, Targ said, "since that time I have seen metal bending, under excellent conditions, which makes me believe that Geller also can probably do it." But James Randi, one of the founders of CSICOP and a widely known stage magician, has shown that Geller's most mysterious feats can be easily duplicated. He brands Geller a "litigious fraud" who uses ordinary tricks that are every magician's stock in trade. Randi said that Geller has sued him for defamation four times for "millions and millions of dollars," but that every lawsuit was later dismissed.

Paranormal Pursuits

Meanwhile, both Puthoff and Targ continue to pursue their interests in the paranormal. Puthoff is now the director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, Texas, and president of an energy research company there called Earthtek International. His own research interests, he said, include "gravitation, inertia, cosmology and energy research."

Targ, a former scientist at Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space Operations, is now a writer. With his partner, Jane Katra, a "consciousness researcher," he is the co-author of four books on extrasensory perception and psychic phenomena. Their latest, published last year, is titled "The Heart of the Mind: How to Experience God Without Belief" (New World Library).

Geller calls himself "the world's most celebrated paranormalist" and is more concerned today with psychic healing and "mind medicine." His "Parascience Pack" (Abbeville Press) is sold worldwide over the Internet, and it comes with "high-quality brass dowsing rods, genuine rock crystal and much, much more for testing or using your psi abilities."

Another target of the fraud-busters is "psychic surgery," in which healers claim to be able to extract diseased tissue from the body with only their hands. Actress MacLaine, who makes no secret of her belief in spiritualism and just about every other psychic phenomenon, has even undergone her own treatment and lived unscarred to tell about it.

In her best-selling book, "Going Within: A Guide for Inner Transformation," MacLaine describes how Alex Orbito, a "spiritual healer" from the Philippines, treated her surgically by removing "negative energy clots" and "negative stress clots" from her body without instruments.

Psychic surgery is big business particularly in the Philippines, but also through a kind of psychic underground in America, England, Russia and many other countries. Last month, Orbito presided over an "International Healing Festival" in Manila, where crowds of American and European believers paid $1, 750 each to attend 10 days of inspirational lectures and testimony.

Chicken Innards, Fake Blood

"Sometimes the spirit causes the healer's hands to enter the body and attract diseased tissue," says a description of the technique in a link from one faith healer's Web site. "This tissue is pulled out without leaving a scar.

Energy projected from the healer's hands opens body tissue much as an orthodox surgeon uses a scalpel to do the same thing. Spiritual energy is cleansing and cannot contaminate." Over and over again, so-called psychic healers have been caught doing their act by sleight-of-hand - apparently pulling clumps of bloody tissue from a patient's body without anesthetics just when sharp-eyed investigators reach over the body and find bits of chicken innards and imitation blood.

Randi, in fact, has performed the identical "surgery" on late-night television, and counts his own surgical act as one of his most successful exposes of outright quackery. He has founded the James Randi Educational Foundation ( to spread awareness of the fakes in pseudoscience and the supernatural.

Piltdown Man

Even very reputable scientists have been tarred with fraud. It was almost a century ago, in 1912, that the world of anthropology was startled and conned by the discovery near Piltdown in southern England of "Eoanthropus dawsoni," a skull hailed by scientists as being from the true ancestor of all modern humans. Charles Dawson was an amateur geologist, and his co-discoverer of "Dawson's Dawn Man" was Arthur Smith Woodward, the British Museum's leading paleontologist. Another irreproachable colleague was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a young French Jesuit who later gained fame as a philosopher of science.

Forty years later, a few skeptical scientists charged that the skull was a fake. But it wasn't until 1953 that new age-dating techniques established that far from being humanity's long-sought missing link, Piltdown Man was a glued- together hoax, with the cranium of a modern human and the jawbone of a juvenile orangutan.

Lots of Suspects

Dawson and Woodward have been accused of the fraud, but so has Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. More recently, Stephen Jay Gould has even implicated Teilhard de Chardin himself. Speculation persists over who created one of the most famed scientific frauds of all time, but most probably no one will ever know, and scientific papers examining the hoax are still being published.

Not all instances of fossil faking are old stuff. Only a few months ago, Shinichi Fujimura, a Japanese archaeologist who claimed to have found the Paleolithic "cradle of Japanese man," turned out to be a faker, too. His discoveries of 600,000-year-old artifacts at 33 sites in Japan were hailed by his colleagues until a newspaper photographer caught him planting real Stone Age tools from his own collection into holes he had just dug in the ground.

A Quarter-Century of Combatting Credulity

"A vast and growing undercurrent of irrationality and pseudoscience" in America is what worries Paul Kurtz, the former professor of philosophy who founded CSICOP, the international fraud-fighting network, 25 years ago. The acronym stands for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Among its co-founders were Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer, and Isaac Asimov, the biochemist who became the world's most prolific author of science fiction and books on science.

With a membership of more than 70 scientists, engineers, physicians and magicians who serve as "fellows," the committee has a network of volunteer groups in 35 foreign countries and 27 states. The Bay Area Skeptics in Castro Valley and the East Bay Skeptics in Oakland are part of the network. CSICOP, Kurtz says, "encourages the critical investigation of paranormal and fringe-science claims from a responsible, scientific point of view."

The organization publishes a bimonthly magazine, the Skeptical Inquirer, with a circulation of 50,000.

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