FORBES MAGAZINE – The Forbes Lunch – March, 6 2000

Paul Kurtz offers a message for which there is scant demand these days -- the deflating truth about UFOs, reincarnation and alternative medicine.

Bah, Humbug!
By Dyan Machan


It┤s frightening that what was once considered fringe thinking has now entered mainstream thought," says Paul Kurtz, 74, shaking his head as we walk to his office in partially frozen Amherst, N.Y. Amherst is the headquarters for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Its acronym is not quite pronounceable but suggests "science cops," a good enough name for a confederation of professors, scientists and other academic types who spend their spare time fighting pseudoscience.

It's a challenging mission in an era when angels are on the covers of news magazines, psychics are on TV, bestsellers preach talking to the dead and placebos seem to work all too well. Says Kurtz: "Psychic phenomena are accepted by a large part of the population at all education and income levels."

Kurtz was inspired to create his committee of skeptics in 1976, when he became appalled with the rise of cults, from Hare Krishna to Scientology to the metal-bending antics of Uri Geller. In 1991 he established the Center for Inquiry, an organization with a staff of 38 that runs the day-to-day business of the science cops and publishes Skeptical Inquirer, a bimonthly newsletter ($35 a year) with a circulation of 50,000 that debunks science quacks. The building also houses a little museum of sorts, a glass case displaying a rubber "alien," snake oil and a galvanic battery (a supposed "cure-all" for diseases), among other amusements.

The center is just across the street from the sprawling Buffalo campus of the State University of New York, where Kurtz taught philosophy for 25 years. Oddly enough, this temple of disbelief looks like a Baptist church. But you have to accept the fact that for Kurtz the debunking of the paranormal is a passion that borders on religion. Indeed, science is for Kurtz a substitute for religion. Yet another organization he founded is the Council for Secular Humanism, which promotes science and reason as the way to an ethical life.

As we settle into lunch at a nearby restaurant, a relaxed Kurtz talks about his committee's founding almost 25 years ago. His first meeting drew 300 attendees, including respected people like psychologist Ray Hyman, philosopher Ernest Nagel and scientist Jonas Salk. But the novelty wore off, and the news and entertainment media that give so much play to unscience do not give equal time to science.

There's a reason. Faith sells, cynicism does not. Tales of UFOs, astrology, organ-snatching, fairies and medical miracles sell. In other words, people are more interested in the UFO that supposedly landed than the one that didn't. "Yeah, we're dog bites man," Kurtz says glumly.

He doesn't take a salary from the Center for Inquiry's $3.8 million budget, which comes from individual donations and newsletter subscriptions. But on the side, Kurtz is president of Prometheus Books, a publishing house that turns a small profit on titles like Science: Good, Bad and Bogus by Martin Gardner, and others by authors such as the late Isaac Asimov.

A lonely job? "Well, I have pretty good company," sniffs Kurtz. By that he means his scientifically weighty membership of some 300, including Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist. According to Kurtz, his science cops log some 1,000 public appearances a year, including speaking engagements, appearances on television and newspaper interviews.

Is anybody listening? The September/October 1998 Skeptical Inquirer reported that between 1976 and 1997 there was a 35% increase in the fraction of the population reporting a belief in faith healing, 20% for astrology, 6% for UFOs, 16% for reincarnation and 10% for fortune telling. Skeptical Inquirer was, shall we say, skeptical of these numbers, calling the research behind them inconclusive. But Kurtz is a believer. "Paranormal beliefs have seeped into today's culture," he argues.

He lists his top ten hoaxes, adding, "I could easily name 50,000."

  1. Alien abductions. "Millions of people believe they were abducted, raped and had genetic experiments performed on them."
     
  2. Astrology. Kurtz asked 1,200 newspapers to disclaim their astrology columns as entertainment. Only 80 complied.
     
  3. Alternative medicine. "Homeopathy, magnetic therapy, therapeutic touch and acupuncture, growing every year, are complete nonsense and have only proven to have had a placebo effect," he says, "yet some of these subjects are being taught in medical schools."

  4. Ghosts and communicating with the dead. "It's startling that people believe there are ghosts, even though science has examined ghosts for 110 years and come up with nothing but thin air."
  5. Past lives. "TV personalities like Sally Jessy Raphael do shows on reincarnation. That's all it takes for many people."

  6. Creationism.

  7. The resurrection of repressed memory. This forensic foray into pseudopsychology sent innocent people to jail.
     
  8. Dowsing. It started with acquifers and it has spread to archaeology: the notion that someone on the surface can divine what's deep underground. The long success of this nonsense in the marketplace, Kurtz says, owes to the suggestive power of anecdotal evidence.

  9. Monsters. Some respectable institutions have wasted money hunting for the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot.

  10. EMF. Author Paul Brodeur got two books out of the theory that electromagnetic fields are poisoning people. Bunk, says Kurtz.

Blame the media, which seem driven to give people what they want rather than what scientists think they ought to hear. Last year HBO produced a special on life after death. It featured more than a dozen so-called parapsychologists supporting the premise of an afterlife, balanced by two skeptics: Kurtz and a colleague. "Having two skeptics is two more than usual," Kurtz sighs.

The NBC show Unsolved Mysteries, now off the air, used Kurtz's band of skeptics as consultants. "We could have solved all the mysteries. They didn't want to hear it," says Kurtz. Well, Solved Mysteries isn't very catchy, is it?

"Thirty years ago Walter Cronkite presented science fairly," he goes on. "Today there are no major science shows." That's a little unfair; there are the PBS show Nova and Discovery's Science Channel. But they don't do a whole lot of debunking.

Kurtz can sometimes sound like one of the doomsdayers his newsletter debunks. His view is that this country will lose its scientific edge, that children are not being taught to be critical thinkers, and that we may pollute the political process and elect officials who are not rational. But are we really so hopeless? Last we checked, the U.S. had a strong lead in microprocessor technology, space exploration and medical advances.

Is it possible that Kurtz is too quick to believe in the prevalence of nonsense? He dodges the question. "I've always been skeptical," Kurtz says. He grew up in a family of "nonbelievers" in Newark, N.J. "Atheism is such a negative term. People will conclude I am a nihilist or a pessimist. I am not. Life is rich and meaningful. I simply have no illusion of an afterlife. Every moment counts."


This article was first published by Forbes Magazine, The Forbes Lunch - March 6, 2000
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