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investigating some of the most famous and highly acclaimed UFO reports, says Klass, I have yet to find one that could not be explained in prosaic terms. . . . Im not skeptical on principle, just on the evidence. This particular question simply cannot be called with certainly, and anyone who claims otherwise can be pegged as a believer.

Often the paranormal claim gets thoroughly debunked but continues to travel far and wide. One of the classics of UFO lore is the Incident of Flight 19, which figured in the opening scene of Close Encounters. Five Avenger torpedo bombers, the story goes, went out on a training mission over the Gulf of Mexico on a calm, sunny afternoon in December, 1945. Everything went routinely. Then the lead pilot radioed back that the squadron had flown into something indescribable, like an unearthly, alien sky. All five planes vanished. Not a scrap of debris was ever found.

That is a story. Investigators who took the trouble to go back and check found the facts. It was not a calm, sunny afternoon; the flight was on a dark, stormy night with high winds and seas. Most of .the pilots were students; one was an instructor. The radio message about an alien sky simply never happened; it was apparently invented out of nothing somewhere along the line as the story was told and retold. There turned out to be nothing mysterious about the loss of Flight 19; presumably the squadron got disoriented in the dark and the storm and went down somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. The weather could easily account for the lack of debris by the time a search was mounted.

On the subject of lost planes, the Bermuda Triangle is another paranormal belief that has become entrenched in the public mind despite a thorough debunking. Lawrence Kusche, a pilot and investigator for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, has examined all the allegedly mysterious Triangle disappearancesmore than a hundred, including some that actually happened elsewhere--and found nothing really mysterious about any of them. And, he showed, the Triangle claims no more victims than any other heavily traveled area. Kusche wrote a book on the results of his investigations, but it sold poorly. I assumed that people who read the weird books would naturally want to read the other side of the story and find out the truth, he commented. I was wrong. Bermuda Triangle lore continues to percolate through American culture. A Triangle movie has recently been released, its TV promotions full of flying saucers, underwater horrors, time warps, and planes full of screaming people.

There are those who have concluded that every last paranormal mystery can be accounted for by these twin forces of believers magic and tales amplified in the retelling.


Check out the history of the phenomenon. The past can put current events into a clear perspective that could be gained in no other way.

A writer I know has a friend right now who is severely shaken by a Canadian psychics prediction that the world is about to end. The psychic has a circle of followers whom she knows and trusts. Her mind might be more at ease if she knew that not a year has passed since the Sixteenth Century without there being at least one sect on record as predicting that year would be the end of the world. This fact calibrates the accuracy of such predictions in a way that could never be done merely by paying attention to one particular seer.

Many of the paranormal claims and movements that people assume are new for the Seventies actually have long and colorful histories. Heres one example that has been showing up in New Age periodicals and on leaflets on college bulletin boards: the Bates eye-healing system. The leaflets offer a new, holistic way to treat poor eyesight by means of easy exercises.

Dr. William Horatio Bates was born in 1860 and graduated from medical school in 1885. His medical career was disrupted by spells of total amnesia, but these did not prevent him from publishing, in 1920, his great work: Cure of imperfect Eyesight by Treatment Without Glasses. Bates claimed, contrary to reality, that changes in the shape of the eye lens are not responsible for changing ones focus from distant objects to near ones. Bates said the lens never changes shape at all, that focussing is purely mental, and that all the problems orthodox doctors attribute to imperfect lenses are actually caused by an abnormal condition of mind or a wrong thought. He invented a series of mental exercises to be done while palming, covering the eyes with the palms, to correct these problems. Other exercises involved shifting and swinging vision from side to side, and reading under difficult conditions such as in dim light or on a lurching streetcar. He also advocated staring directly at the sun for brief moments (which can cause genuine eye damage).
Bates died in 1931, but disciples kept his theories alive. Dozens of popular books were published on the Bates method, and Throw away your glasses! became the rallying cry of an international movement in the Thirties and Forties. Thousands of people sincerely believed~ the Bates exercises had cured them of nearsightedness, astigmatism, cataracts, and glaucoma. Unfortunately, tests did not bear them out.

One of the most prominent converts to the Bates system was Aldous Hulxey. The corneas of his eyes had been scarred since childhood, but he believed the Bates exercises had repaired them. He wrote a book about it, The Art of Seeing. Huxley was a vindication to the Bates sympathizers trying to fend off criticism from eye doctors. But sometimes Huxley was an embarrassment, such as the time he addressed a Hollywood banquet. This account is by Bennett Cerf in the April 12, 1952, Saturday Review. When he arose to make his address he wore no glasses, and evidently experienced no difficulty in reading the paper he had planted on the lecturn. Had the exercises really given him normal vision? I, along with 1200 other guests, watched with astonishment while he rattled glibly on . . . . Then suddenly he falteredand the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasnt reading the address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldnt read it, and he had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket. It was an agonizing moment.

Eventually the Bates movement ran its course. In 1956 a Manhattan optometrist, Philip Pollack, wrote the definitive book taking it apart. It is a rare occasion indeed when anyone so well informed troubles to take apart a pseudoscientific cult in such a thorough and painstaking manner, wrote Martin Gardner in his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957.

Now the Bates system has been resurrected, minus some of Bates more obvious blunders and clothed in New Age rhetoric for the Seventies, while the Pollack book sits forgotten on library shelves.

The pattern is common: a new paranormal claim or movement turns out to be a very old one, debunked long ago, long enough for the debunking to be forgotten.

Often, the history of a paranormal movement will reveal very clearly why it exists at all, as opposed to the reasons its followers cite. Chiropractic does not quite fit the paranormal category, but with its assumption that by manipulating the spine one can treat most diseases, it hovers around the edges. Chiropractic, too, is going through a Seventies boom after a generation when it seemed on the way out. It was invented in 1895 by Daniel D. Palmer, an itinerant grocer. Anyone who studies the history of chiropractic can only conclude that the reason it exists at all, instead of disappearing with dozens of other forgotten nineteenth-century remedies, is not because its theory is valid but because of the extraordinary, evangelistic fervor of its inventors son. He salvaged chiropractic from his fathers crankdom and spent his every moment for sixty years building a chiropractic empire. By the time he died in 1960, he had left the world with 20,000 chiropractors. The livelihoods and self-images of all of them depended on D. D. Palmers crankish spinal science being accepted as valid, and they have worked hard to this end ever since.

The rate at which old, disproven, and forgotten theories are being revived shows a certain unimaginativeness in the field, as if new paranormal movements cannot be invented fast enough to meet demand. Even pyramid power goes back more than 110 years. Not long ago I went to a natural living festival and noticed an iridiagnostician on the program. An iridiagnostician! I felt like a biologist who discovers a living fossil.

Iridology was invented around 1880 by Ignatz Peczely of Budapest. He declared that every human disease can be diagnosed by looking at the iris of the eye. He claimed--no one knows why--that the iris is divided into forty zones corresponding to different body parts. The zones run clockwise in one eye, counterclockwise in the other. Peczely gained disciples and in 1904 his works were translated into English. Orthodox doctors ridiculed the iridiagnosticians, who did fail to detect diseases accurately when tested. (Pranksters had their day, too. The Textbook of Iridiagnosis, fifth edition, 1921, carefully explains how to recognize glass eyes so as to avoid being caught making lengthy diagnoses from them.). The movement petered out around the time of my grandfather.

I expected the iridiagnostician at the natural living festival to be a doddering old man in his eighties, full of reminiscences about Henry Lindlahr, J. Haskell Kritzer, and other bygone greats of the movement. But no. He was a young, hip-looking fellow as enthusiastic about iridology as if it were brand new.

A similar resurgent movement is zone therapy, based on the belief that every organ of the body is connected to a different spot in the bottom of the foot, the roof of the mouth, and the hands. Zone therapy was another turn-of-the-century invention, by a Dr. William H. Fitzgerald of St. Francis Hospital, Hartford, Connecticut. His first book-length manual came out in 1917. Zonetherapy flourished for a while, aided by testimonials of spectacular cures. But the cures somehow didnt stand the test of time, and zone therapy slowly faded out. By 1950 it was said to be nearly extinct. Now all of a sudden it has been resurrected under the name of reflexology, and poster charts of the bottom of the foot can be found in health food stores everywhere.


These examples lead into the next guideline: Watch whether the field of study remains barren over time.

In the end, the most telling argument against the Bates system, iridology, and zone therapy was not that they were founded by cranks or were based on spurious theory, but that they bore no fruit. The Bates exercises had every chance to succeed. Thousands of people threw away their glasses and, practiced the system religiously. Millions more probably gave it a briefer try. If palming, shifting, and swinging could really cure poor eyesight, glasses would be as obsolete by now as horse-drawn carriages.

Laetrile is another example. Tens of thousands of cancer patients have taken laetrile since E. T. Krebs invented and promoted it in the early Fifties, and it has gotten nowhere--even in countries like Mexico where it is dispensed legally.

My father finally became inactive in the Society for Psychical Research partly because nothing ever seemed to lead anywhere. At home, we have a shelf lined with issues of the societys Journal, marching back through the decades. Unlike other scientific journals, it contains nothing with any real meat to it. In essence, the society is just where it began in 1885, and where its precursor, the London Society for Psychical Research, began before that. It has yet to demonstrate that psychic powers exist at all, much less learn anything about them.

A genuine science constantly builds on itself. When a fact is discovered and verified, it is known for all time. It is the foundation from which the next fact can be discovered and laid down, until a whole edifice of knowledge is built. The paranormal sciences have never made this kind of advance, only changes in hypothesis to match current philosophical fads. Paranormal researchers are forever trying to lay that first foundation.

The UFO controversy is one more case in point. It has been more than thirty years since the first great UFO flap of modern times but the field has remained barren. We know nothing more about UFOs than in 1947. There are far more UFO stories on record now, and the literature has grown enormous, but we know nothing more about them. We only have more peoples guesses. This does not prove they are not real; maybe weve just had bad luck. But if the last thirty years of UFOology have never barren, you could probably sit out the next thirty years and not miss anything.

When something floats just out of reach for so long, looking so near and enticing but dissolving whenever you reach to take hold of it, year after year without exception, you would normally conclude you are grasping at an illusion.


In addition to these guidelines, Ive also come up with some simpler rules of thumb.

If someone making paranormal claims compares himself to Einstein, Galileo, or Pasteur, dismiss him right away. This is the If he believes he is being conspired against by doctors, orthodox oxen. and would-be scientists with frozen beliefs and hi-de-hi mathematics (to quote George F. Gillette, discoverer of an incomprehensible something he calls the spiral maximote universe), then you may safely ignore him. The scientific world is not a monolith and even the strangest theories can get a hearing if they have any merit at all. Paranoia is the refuge of the incompetent.

The crank usually works in isolation from anyone else who knows the field of study. He makes grand discoveries alone in his basement lab. Whenever a paranormal movement can be traced back to such a person, once more it can be dismissed out of hand. Take Kirlian photography. Pump high-voltage electricity into anything and it will emit glowing sparksas has been known to electrical workers and hobbyists for a century. It took a lone basement crank to declare that the sparks represent some sort of spiritual aura. Thus, as can be predicted by following this rule of thumb, his experiments dont work when repeated by other people. (Nevertheless, TV shows and magazines continue to promote Kirhan photography as proof of the unknown.)

One obvious point to watch for is when tremendous discoveries are used only for trivial purposes. Whatever pyramid power is, if it were real it would have much more profound applications than sharpening razor blades or preserving apples. If clairvoyants were really clairvoyant, they would not have to eke out a living doing second-rate stage shows guessing peoples dead relatives names. They could make millions in Las Vegas and then billions in the stock market, and could shape the course of the world. There is a certain tawdriness to watch out for in this field, one which has nothing to do with a genius being scoffed at or ignored. And finally, of course, there are plenty of outright fakes. A fake can easily give rise to a movement that persists long after the fakery is exposed. Spiritualism, the religion of my family for two generations, began in 1848 when twelve-year-old Margaret Fox in Wayne County, New York, became the worlds first medium. People would sit with her in a darkened room, ask questions of the spirits, and unexplained rapping noises would reply. More and more people came to witness this prodigy, and soon Margaret and her sisters went on tour. Much later, in 1888, she confessed. It was all a hoax; she did it by snapping her big toe joint against the floor. But by now spiritualism had grown far beyond the spirit rapping stage, and a seance could be full of flying spirit trumpets, spirit voices, gauzy figures appearing in the dark, and a medium foaming ectoplasm from various bodily orifices. Spiritualists continued to revere Margaret Fox as the founder of their religion even after her confession. My grandfather took my parents once to visit the Fox sisters cabin, preserved as a sort of spiritualist shrine. My mother remembers sitting in Margaret Foxs chair. She also learned to do the toe-tapping trick. She can still do it; She tried to demonstrate it to my grandfather once, but says he was very out of patience with us for being skeptical.


In the whole panoply of the paranormal, is there anything at all that an intelligent person can believe in?

Well, yes and no. If I had to bet, I would put long odds on the no side, but the possibility is always there. Maybe a few of the spiritualists did get messages: no one can prove otherwise. Maybe the saucers will finally land next month and show up the skeptics once and for all. If we are open only to those discoveries which will accord with what we already know, said Alan Watts, we might as well stay shut. And that is as far as an honest person can go. Sorry, folks.

The real significance of the paranormal boom may be that people are willing to take it so uncritically. It is as if the question Is this so? has become irrelevant; and has been replaced with the attitude, If it feels good it must be right for me. This is a very fundamental shift. The concept that an objective reality exists outside of our internal feelings and viewpoints, and that studying this objective reality is a worthwhile thing to do, is relatively new in the history of the world. It dates only from the Renaissance, and though it rapidly led to the sciences that have transformed the world, perhaps it is harder to accept than most people suspect.

Some spokesmen for the scientific community feel especially threatened by this trend and predict the coming of another Dark Age if the New Nonsense is not halted. They compare swallowing such beliefs uncritically to swallowing drugs; theyre fulfilling and loads of fun at first, but get into them too heavily and you become a junkie, a miserable slave to superstition. These scientific spokesmen tend to sound pompous and defensive. But just maybe they have a point.

In the last two years, I have witnessed people being drawn into, believing in, and trying to extricate themselves from one of the more famous of the authoritarian religious cults. All the charges of mind control and behavior modification against this particular cult are true, but there is another aspect that rarely gets mentioned in the talk shows and newspaper stories. The people who are most vulnerable are those who somehow never quite learned that in questions of fact, the head should precede the heart. Once the group gets a hold on a persons heart it can twist and turn him or her into swallowing the most outlandish doctrines, to his or her own total confusion. The most vulnerable are those who have traded in the habit-of-mind Is this so? for the Seventies version, If it feels good it must be right. Its a poor trade, Ive seen people come out of this particular group so shattered, guilty, and confused that it takes a year to readjust to normal life. This is an extreme example, but the principle is fundamental.

Even if a paranormal belief is harmless, as most are, if its not true it can eat up years of someones life for nothing. Everyone knows someone who renounced political activity to devote themselves to something that will really change the world, like raw carrot juice or a particular massage therapy--and then reappeared a few years later tacitly admitting it was a dead end. This has a lot to do with the failure of the great [political] movements of the Sixties to flower in the Seventies. People interested in social change have been strangely prone to getting stuck in dead ends this decade. Its because the dead ends have signs on their entrances that say, Its not nice to look carefully. If it feels good it must be right.

Interestingly enough, the paranormal movements used to draw adherents more from the right wing than the left. No nation has a bigger crackpot literate than Germany, many, and never did paranormal beliefs of every kind get such a hearing as in that country between the two World wars. The Nazis racial theories were only a small part of the pseudoscience that overran Germany. (Many of these movements are analyzed in Dusty Sklars excellent recent book, Gods and Beasts, the Nazis and the Occult.)

One of the most widespread beliefs was the World Ice Doctrine, or WEL, which held that the Milky Way was not made up of stars but blocks of ice spiraling toward the earth. This was connected to Aryan racial superiority. The WEL acted almost as a political party, issuing leaflets, posters, and magazines. So successful was it that Hitlers propaganda ministry was obliged to announce, One can be a good National Socialist without believing in the WEL. Then there was the rival doctrine that the earth is the interior of a hollow sphere--so that if you pointed a line straight upward you would hit Australia. The sun and sky were just optical illusions in the middle. This idea was so widely accepted that a military party of ten was dispatched to the Isle of Rugen to photograph the British fleet by pointing an infrared telescope forty-five degrees up in the sky. It was as if a whole people had lost the habit of questioning, Is this so?

The sight of intelligent, educated people walking around with pyramids on their heads, a sight you can witness at any New Age festival, is comical. Perhaps the next such movement will not be so funny.

On those notes, I will close. This is not a hospitable time for the old rationalist concepts that knowledge is light, superstition is darkness, and only the truth will set you free. Ironically, if there really are psychic powers in the universe, or if Jesus really was an astronaut, it will be the careful, rationalist researchers who finally get a handle on it--if, that is, they are not having to spend all their time sorting through nonsense. Just dont hold your breath.

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