Scientific American Does Pseudoscience

by John Blanton

from The Skeptic, December, 1997 (publication of North Texas Skeptics)
Reprinted in the May, 1998 BASIS

In November Scientific American Frontiers on PBS TV covered the issueof pseudoscience. Touching on crashed aliens, palm reading, dowsing, free energy, therapeutic touch and graphology, they made a respectable presentation of what constitutes pseudoscience and how it differs from the real thing.

Alan Alda, having survived more years of the Korean War than the real war, spends a lot of his time these days explaining science in Scientific American's broadcast edition. First of all, working with Ray Hyman he demonstrates how the naive can easily come to believe in palm reading, even when the reader (Hyman, as usual) does not.

The show did a thorough trashing of dowsing, as well. A dowser was allowed to locate a water drilling site in the Vermont mountains, and a drilling company proceeded to drill dry for over 600 feet before giving up. The local ski resort, which sorely needed the water and was paying for the whole thing, got an education instead of a well. The drill operator was no fan of dowsers (sounds like someone who has drilled a lot of dry holes), but others made excuses for the miss.

Another fellow claimed to be able to find metal objects in an open field, even when they were covered by gray plastic trash cans. Trash cans were numbered and inverted in a vacant lot, and the object of interest was secreted under one of them. Again it was time for excuse after excuse as the dowser scored a flat zero. First a piece of iron pipe turned out to be incredibly elusive. Then the dowser realized he needed a piece of lead. Failing to find even that, he suggested a longer rod. Or a shorter one.

James Randi had some comments on this and other aspects of the show. In an e-mail on the day following the program Randi complained about being totally excluded from the broadcast after participating in the production. "We confidently expected to be an integral part of that show. Then I heard nothing from them again until the program aired. They used me and then simply discarded me," Randi said in his note. About the dowsing segment he said "the dowsing test they did was a failure because they never established a baseline with the dowsers (having a short series of demos in which the device reacts to the target when its location is known) so that the failing dowsers couldn't complain that the target was insufficient, or the stick wasn't working, etc."

Randi also complained the dowsing test was not truly double blind, since the producers used the same cameraman to shoot the dowsing trial as well as to record the placing of the objects. This deserves another look, in my opinion. Alda, narrating, says the scenes of the placing of the objects were made AFTER the trials, implying the cameraman was not there when objects were originally placed.

The free energy segment was another high point of this episode. Featuring none other than Harold Puthoff, late of Uri Geller fame. Recall that Puthoff was part of the team with Russell Targ, whom Randi has characterized as the Laurel and Hardy of PSI (1). When Targ and Puthoff allowed themselves to be completely taken in by phony psychics, including Geller, at Stanford Research Institute in California back in the seventies, Randi followed up with a scathing review of their work. Now Puthoff is in business at the Austin, Texas, Institute of Advanced Studies, where he is conducting research in zero-point energy.

Puthoff and others think there is an abundant supply of free energy cached within the empty space of the universe, just waiting for those who would ferret it out. Others, like Steven Weinberg of UT Austin plus Steve K. Lamoreaux and Peter W. Milonni, both at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, think the believers are chasing their tails (2). In the Frontiers episode Weinberg acknowledges the likely existence of zero-point energy but contends there is not enough there to be worth writing about, much less trying to extract.

In the mean time, private investors (and maybe some government grants) are paying Puthoff and company to look for free energy. Here the ex-psi researcher seems to be doing good science. That is he is looking, but not finding. They are running the proper tests to keep from fooling themselves when positive results do show up. For example, Puthoff's assistant shows a test of an apparatus when a dummy cell is inserted rather than the hopefully active one. When the instruments still show a positive result the researchers know it can't be coming from the cell. I wonder if Puthoff ever thought of doing that when he and Targ were testing Geller.

The segment on the therapeutic touch was very revealing. TT is being taught and practiced at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Practitioners of TT say they can feel the unevenness in a patient's energy field with their hands. Even the experts are having difficulty figuring out whether this is real or not. But someone has an idea, however. Grade schooler Emily Rosa of Powder Valley, CO, has a plan for a science project. The way to tell whether the TT'ers can really detect a person's energy field is to have them do it when they can't see. So Emily has them stick their hands through holes in a partition while she holds her hand over one of theirs. You guessed it. The TT'ers couldn't tell. They scored worse than chance. Emily is preparing to publish her results in a scientific journal. If a kid can do this then somebody needs healing at Columbian Presbyterian, and it's not the patients.

Generally, pseudoscience got a sound drubbing this time out. I can't say the same of the 48 Hours episode later that week on near death experiences.


1. Randi, James. Flim-Flam, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1987.

2. Yan, Phillip. "Extracting Zero-Point Energy," Scientific American, pp.82-85, December, 1997.


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