Skepticism under the big sky

Mike Schwinden

If you offer it, they will come! Since 1996, four intrepid prairie skeptics have annually pitted approximately a quarter century of graduate study in science, medicine, and education against the claims, cunning, and innocent convictions of local truth seekers.

Motivated by a desire to promote an entertaining, yet more critical examination of popular scientific and medical claims (especially by senior citizens), we offered a ten-week course titled “Investigating the Fringes of Science and Medicine.” The course was held through the public school district’s Adult Education Program four times in the past five years. Here are some highlights.

Day One/Year One

Wearing an assortment of surgical garb, crystals, and tie-dyed lab coats, the four of us strolled into the classroom to the inviting voice of Mary Chapin Carpenter singing, “I Feel Lucky.” During our introductions, one of John’s scientific colleagues (who looks more like a truck driver than a scientist) rushed in, shouted at John, and stabbed him with a cardboard knife–spurring fake blood all over John’s shirt. The assailant vanished as quickly as he came. After a long fifteen seconds, John stood up (to the palpable relief of many!). Next, we asked the students to write down what they had seen and heard. We collected and shared the wildly disparate accounts, making an important point: that reliable people do not necessarily make reliable witnesses.

As an icebreaker, we asked for volunteers to share any strange or mysterious phenomena they had personally experienced. The students numbered about forty-five; ages ranged from two female friends in their early twenties to several married couples in their late sixties; backgrounds included nursing, farming, government workers, homemakers, pharmacy, and several retirees; a few came as skeptics, though most came predisposed to believe claims of the paranormal. A brave and bubbly woman of fifty rose to the challenge. “I’ll tell you one,” she chirped. “Oh, you’ve all had it happen–the phone rings and before you pick it up, you know who it is.” So who needs Caller ID?

We thanked her for volunteering. The floodgates were open. Most of our adults, it seemed, had experienced something unusual or bizarre. A woman in her early forties recalled, “One time, oh, this is so strange, I was meditating in my living room. Suddenly, I looked down and realized I was floating two feet in the air. Then the carpet turned into sand as I stared down in disbelief.” We resisted the urge to suggest that perhaps she had merely dozed off Nevertheless, we thanked her for contributing; relationships based on mutual trust and respect were being established. There would be plenty of time for alternative explanations.

Over the next nine weeks, we discussed a multitude of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and fringe medicine topics- many of which were derived from twenty-five years of back issues of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER or How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich.

Because we knew that active participation was crucial for maintaining the students’ interest, we tried to budget time for frequent hands-on psychic experiments. For example, one of us would run through a deck of Zener cards, pressing the small cards against his forehead and squinting mightily for effect while the students wrote down their predictions on their own scorecard. Afterward, we would console the inevitable post-exercise “I-hoped-I-was-psychic” depression with an optimistic “this doesn’t prove you aren’t psychic- maybe next time!”

Do You See What I See?

One night we discussed the paranormal phenomena of ESP and mental telepathy and invited the class to participate in a casual experiment. We paired off couples to act as senders and receivers and reserved five students to serve as judges. The senders blindly selected one picture from a box of pictures clipped from magazines. They were directed to various isolated nooks and closets of the building where they were to sit down, concentrate, and send an image of their picture to their receiving counterpart–who drew what he or she had received telepathically. (Critics may point out that with all those psychic signals crossing as they passed through the building, it is no surprise that the extrasensory effect disappeared!)

Pictures and drawings were shuffled, labeled, and set out for the judges to match up. The hit rate was a whopping zero. There were some interesting sidebars to this activity, however. One receiver finished her drawing (of a crude bird) and said, “I had the strongest image of trees and mountains.” Of course they weren’t strong enough for her to draw them, but she was inadvertently giving her team extra chances for a hit. Unfortunately for her, her husband had telepathically sent her an image of a man on a camel in a treeless desert.

Another intriguing reaction came from a woman (receiver) who had drawn nothing more than a simple triangle. Her sender had sent her an image of a man holding a large fish. The judges had failed to make a connection, but as she studied her drawing and the picture, she suddenly observed that the fisherman’s arms formed sort of a triangle with the fish as the base. She tried to appeal the judges’ decision!

Finally, there was the woman who noticed that the back side of the picture her boyfriend was looking at actually resembled her drawing. She wondered if maybe she accidentally received the flip side image! One year, we had concluded the telepathic viewing activity and were at least thirty minutes into the next topic. All at once we realized sweet, gray-haired Edna was missing. A quick search through the building revealed Edna sitting patiently in a closet, serenely continuing to send her giant tortoise image to her roommate who was too shy to let us know that her sender had not returned.

You Can Lead an Old Dowser to Gold

Two years ago, we were delighted by the attendance of a very opinionated, very outspoken, elderly gentleman dowser (we’ll call him Clyde). Clyde was learned in every pseudoscientific subject we would bring up, but his passion was for dowsing. He insisted that his dowsing rods had diagnosed his wife’s medical condition when her doctors couldn’t. He said they could be used to find lost objects when held over a map although he had nor yet been able to locate his own missing bicycle. This he attributed to his inexperience with the rods–he had no doubt that a professional dowser would have been successful by now.

It took very little coaxing to get Clyde to bring his dowsing rods to the next class. That night he proudly held the L-shaped dowsing rods up to some volunteers’ faces and showed how the rods moved away in response to the strength of their auras. He let the instructors try. We were able to reproduce the aura effect; however, we said we were causing it to happen by slight movements of our wrists. Clyde was unimpressed. He interpreted this as further evidence for a dowsing effect–we skeptics were merely denying our gifts! Eventually Clyde asked to be put to the test. He said the rods could determine which hand held Mike’s gold wedding band. He had a 50/50 chance and we almost hoped this kindly man would be successful–he wasn’t. That darn shyness effect appeared once again (or maybe Mike needs a new jeweler!).

Each year we explained the “basics” of numerology–with a twist. We gave the students the personality profiles associated with each number (with all reference to the number removed). Students were told to review the profiles and initial the one that most accurately described them. Only then were they told which profile is associated with which number. The results were predictable–except for the night when a numerology expert, familiar with the profiles, nailed it. She was quick to add that street addresses also give accurate personality profiles of houses–to the enlightened!

We used the same “decide before you know” strategy with horoscopes, personality-based blood-typing, and I Ching. The results were again predictable. Some simple probability math helped most of the students appreciate that chance could account for the occasional successes.

We always rook advantage of the fact that our students had seen the movie Jurassic Park. The movie story about preserved and re-animated dinosaur DNA provided John an opportunity to demonstrate how difficult it is for the average person to determine when real science stops and fringe science begins. John explained that expecting a biologist to reconstruct a dinosaur from a few fragments of DNA is like asking an engineer to build a space shuttle given a few strands of wire and a piece of the tail fin.

To Guess or Not To Guess

One evening a middle-aged woman, Eileen, dared us to explain away the accurate predictions from her recent visit to a local psychic. Eileen credited the psychic with knowing she had relatives in Minnesota, predicting a trip to Missoula, and knowing her son had nosebleeds. Our exchange with Eileen went something like this:

Instructors: Tell us what she said about relatives in Minnesota.

Eileen: “I see you have relatives in either Minnesota or maybe it’s Pennsylvania.”

Instructors: (to the class) How many of you have relatives in either Minnesota or Pennsylvania? (Over half of the hands went up–not much of a surprise given the large Scandinavian population.) What did she say about Missoula?

Eileen: “I see you raking a trip to Missoula,” and, in fact, a friend offered me a ride to Missoula two weeks later.

Instructors: Since the psychic didn’t specify when the trip would take place, her prediction would have seemed accurate if you had gone months before her prediction or months afterwards. Furthermore, she probably knew you were a teacher (Eileen was a regular client), and since teachers are constantly going to the University of Montana (in Missoula) for additional coursework that seems like a pretty safe guess. Also consider that Missoula is the second largest city in the state, the closest “big city” shopping and medical care center, not to mention a popular recreation area. Given the scarcity of cities in Montana, your psychic could have predicted a trip to either one of the two most populous cities and probably scored a hit.

Eileen: Well, how do you account for the fact that she knew my son had nosebleeds?

Instructors: We aren’t here to dispute her claim; however, remember that most kids have nosebleeds. Also, your son has allergies and if that information had come out in an earlier visit, the psychic would certainly have made a note of it. In this dry climate, kids with allergies are particularly susceptible to nosebleeds.

Medicine and Drugs

Fringe medicine always generated the most interest and excitement. Dave often began by reading the disclaimer found on herbal medicine pill bottles. After reading it verbatim, he paraphrased the manufacturer’s words, “We make no promises regarding contents, quality, dosage, or concentration; there are no known benefits; you could have had a porterhouse steak with the money you wasted on these weeds.” The pharmacist in the audience laughed the loudest.

It is probably safe to say that most people never have an opportunity to engage two physicians in an informal discussion about the universally fascinating topic of dying, so it was no surprise the subject came up on the night both Dave and Mark were in class. This provided our physicians an opportunity to graph the progression of a chronic illness and demonstrate how unscrupulous people can rake advantage of these cycles to promote and peddle quack cures. It also gave them a chance to examine near-death experiences and brain chemistry.

Another popular medical theme was manipulation in its various forms: chiropractic, massage therapy, reflexology, and therapeutic touch. Mark brought in a model spinal column and explained its parts and functions. He demonstrated how, with some of his chronic back pain sufferers, he administered injections of analgesic medicine near the site of the pain, thereby allowing the medication to saturate the enervated region. One woman was particularly incensed by this strategy. She said that chiropractors and massage therapists “go right to the spot” of the pain. She suggested that maybe doctors, instead of working near the spot should consider going right to the spot. She continued with her “spot” analysis for several minutes.

Whether Dave was explaining the real reasons (immunization, antibiotics, sterilization, etc.) people live longer or Mark was showing slides of early twentieth-century medical contraptions, these class sessions inevitably ended too quickly as far as the students were concerned. In addition to Dave and Mark’s medical expertise, we made regular use of Stephen Barrett’s wonderful Quackwatch Web site.

Getting Publicity

Enrollment in an adult education class is always an issue. We competed with sewing classes, painting workshops, investment seminars, and so on. Through our initiative, the local newspaper took our picture and ran an interest-generating story before our first class. No doubt this contributed to our record-setting first-year attendance. The second and third years, we didn’t have a story (because, as my reporter friend explained, we were no longer new news) and our enrollment declined. The fourth year we decided on a new angle–we offered the class but with a $250 reward for evidence of psychic ability–we got our story, our picture, and our enrollment.

Mike had called Joe Nickell at the CSICOP office for advice before we went public with this monetary challenge. Joe cautioned us that he could easily fly in a magician who would rake our money. Mike told Joe that if we got in a bind, we would call him, describe the situation, and have him ball us out! Joe laughed and agreed to help us if he could.

In the end, it’s not at all clear how much healthy skepticism was imparted to our students. We answered some questions but raised more. We shed light on licensing, credentials, and expertise. We brought in experts from the pseudoscientific side and attempted to teach the students how to devise alternative explanations. We hope we gave the students the confidence to ask questions, examine evidence, and apply their reasoning skills. We do have anecdotal evidence that everyone had fun!

Mike Schwinden (formerly of Great Falls, Montana) is an elementary school principal in Needham, Massachusetts. He is also an adjunct faculty member for Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. He can he reached by e-mail at: schwinden@mediaone. net. Dave Engbrecht is a family practice physician; Mark Peterson is an anesthesiologist; John Mercer is a molecular geneticist at the McLaughlin Research Institute and adjunct faculty member of University of Montana and Montana State University. All three live in Great Falls, Montana.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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