Wednesday’s Book Review: “Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and other Pseudoscience”

debunked_knjiga_1_originalDebunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and other Pseudoscience. By Georges Charpak and Henri Broch. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Georges Charpak received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1992. His friend and colleague, Henri Broch, is not a Nobel Laureate but has received the Distinguished Skeptic Award from The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Their book, Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and other Pseudoscience, is an enjoyable and effective eviscerating of many of the most common paranormal occurrences in modern society. Charpak and Broch would certainly agree with the bumper sticker I saw a few weeks ago while in a traffic jam in Washington, D.C.: “The goddess is alive and magic is afoot.”

For these authors there is no such thing as magic; there are, however, a seemingly infinite number of charlatans and gullible marks. ESP does not exist; those who say otherwise are either intentionally misleading you or have themselves been misled. They same it true for telekinesis, ancient aliens, astrology, phrenology, and a range of other activities that Charpak and Broch refer to collectively as pseudoscience.

Much of the book is given over to discussions of how practitioners of this pseudoscience convince others that they are legitimate. They focus on ambiguity, illusion, and psychology in convincing others of their authenticity. The so-called “well effect,” essentially preparing astrological fortunes so general and obtuse that they apply to virtually anyone at any time, offers a powerful force for believers. Sometimes it is nothing more than a trick played on those coming to hear of the paranormal and the authors offer several detailed examples of how one can succeed at these. I can hardly wait to carry out the ESP scam explained in the early pages of the book.

Most of this is relatively harmless; but some is deeply troubling. Following the dictates of a charlatan who convinces some true believers to do as he wishes has long been the stuff of pseudo-religion. Some choosing to believe pseudoscientific ideas—think Lysenkism, global warming denial, or a host of other current problems in the scientific world—could spell catastrophe. Charpak and Broch see democracy imperiled in such instances. They write: “we are witnessing a mystification of knowledge, which results in a concept of the world in which many things are forever outside the understanding—and the control—of most people. This odd idea implies a stratification of society into two groups: an upper level consisting of the powerful, who know and do everything, and, far beneath them, those who wonder, admire, and follow without understanding. Ultimately, this leads to a complacent fatalism and the loss of individual responsibility” (pp. 121-22).

This dumbing down of society is a major problem for us all; critical thinking and skeptical inquiry are the only sure measures for a positive future. Nothing points this up more than this particular exchange in the pseudoscience realm. In 2009 a radio talk show host, Rob McConnell, declared that listeners to his show, “The X Zone,” responded to two questions: “Do you believe in ghosts, and did American astronauts really walk on the Moon.” The results are astounding because 77 percent of respondents said yes to belief in ghosts and 93 percent said that they did not believe that the Moon landings had actually occurred. As Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute stated about this: “The respondents believe in ghosts, but do not think NASA put people on the moon. On the one hand, you have uncorroborated testimony about noises in the attic. On the other, you have a decade of effort by tens of thousands of engineers and scientists, endless rocket hardware, thousands of photos, and 378 kilograms (840 pounds) of moon rock.” I am befuddled by these types of responses to modern issues in science.

So are Charpak and Broch. This is an enjoyable and enlightening book. Enjoy!

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