By Alexandra Witze / The Dallas Morning News
MINNEAPOLIS - Life would be more exciting if science lightened up a bit.
Elvis Presley could croon at the White House. Aliens could stalk the
aisles at 7-Eleven. Martians could carve a giant stone face on their
planet to keep an eye on those pesky Earthlings.
It's almost too bad these events don't happen, because pseudoscience can
be a lot more fun than real science.
"Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often
leaves unfulfilled," astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his 1996 book The
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
The late Dr. Sagan, a vocal skeptic, would probably be the last person
to return as a ghost. And yet his presence seemed to hover recently at a
scientific meeting in Minneapolis.
At its national gathering, the American Physical Society sponsored two
sessions dedicated to pseudoscience, in which Dr. Sagan was mentioned
frequently. While the rest of the conference dealt with topics such as
nanotechology, quantum computing and magnetoresistance, these sessions
were filled with alien abduction, communication with the dead, "creation
science" and even lie detection.
Physicists crowded the lecture hall, even though the conclusions were
not extraordinarily new or surprising. Common refrains: Pseudoscience
can be dangerous as well as silly; people are exposed to vast amounts of
nonsense through television, books and other mass media; and believing
in something doesn't necessarily make it true.
Yet pseudoscience continues to flourish. Pick any week, and physicist
Bob Park can point out examples of what he calls "voodoo science."
"You never want to underestimate the human capacity for self-deception,"
said Dr. Park, who organized one of the Minneapolis sessions. He is a
physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park and author of a
weekly newsletter (available at www.aps.org/WN) that frequently skewers
At the meeting, Dr. Park reported how inventors continue to market
machines that, if they worked, would violate the basic laws of physics.
Other speakers noted that tales of alien visits and abductions are more
popular than ever. And a Minnesota psychologist, whose research has
shown that lie detector tests are often biased against innocent people,
described how the tests are still used in cases like the alleged
espionage of physicist Wen Ho Lee.
"Voodoo science is a target-rich field," said Dr. Park.
His favorite targets include BlackLight Power Inc., a New Jersey-based
company that says it can harvest energy in a new and unusual way.
BlackLight's president presented the research recently at a meeting of
the American Chemical Society.
BlackLight (www.blacklightpower.com) says it can manufacture "hydrinos,"
hydrogen atoms whose energy is lower than the ground state - which is,
by definition, the lowest energy level an atom can attain. The
difference in energy between a hydrino and hydrogen's ground state could
be exploited as an energy source, BlackLight says.
But having a hydrogen atom below its ground state "is like being south
of the South Pole," said Dr. Park.
Lawyers for BlackLight have demanded that Dr. Park, and several other
scientists, stop saying that they think hydrinos are essentially bunk.
BlackLight is considering going public with its stock this year.
The company has also patented its hydrino process, but patents don't
guarantee the science will work, Dr. Park said. Other than a
perpetual-motion machine - for which inventors must prove a working
model before patenting it - an invention doesn't need to be proven to
work before it can be patented.
Similarly, alien abduction claims don't need to be proven before they
are made in public. At the Minneapolis meeting, Washington Post writer
Joel Achenbach described how abduction tales may be a mass psychological
phenomenon run amok.
Mr. Achenbach interviewed many abductees for his book Captured by
Aliens. He even underwent hypnosis to see if he himself was an abductee
with repressed memories. (He couldn't be hypnotized.)
Despite the popularity of aliens in modern culture, science has been
unable to determine whether they exist or have visited Earth. No
photograph, movie, shred of metal or other evidence has definitively
proved an alien presence, Mr. Achenbach noted.
Still, millions of people (estimates vary from one-third to one-half or
more of the U.S. population) say they believe aliens have visited Earth.
"I view this as a kind of heresy of modern astronomy," said Mr.
Achenbach. It takes to the extreme the belief of Dr. Sagan and other
scientists - that with billions of stars in the galaxy, intelligent life
must have evolved on planets around at least a few of those stars.
Intelligent aliens might even have the technology and desire to fly
across the galaxy and visit other civilizations.
But in the world of abductees, aliens are fascinated with humans. They
travel light-years across space only to poke at the human anatomy, all
because people are inherently too interesting to ignore. The idea is
enchanting, Mr. Achenbach said, but there is no evidence it is true.
Most people who say they have been abducted by aliens are sane, he
noted. In fact, they probably have seen aliens - during a dream,
powerful hallucination or other psychological experience, most
The mass media provide a context for this belief to grow, through
best-selling books about abduction experiences and television specials
about alien autopsies. Moreover, the X-Files television series is
probably the biggest force behind aliens' popularity in recent years,
many scientists think. (Gillian Anderson, the actress who plays
skeptical FBI agent Dana Scully on the show, told Mr. Achenbach that she
believes that aliens have visited Earth.)
"People don't develop these ideas in a vacuum," said Mr. Achenbach.
Less controversial than aliens, but perhaps more debated by scientists,
is the issue of whether lie detectors lie.
At the Minneapolis meeting, psychologist William Iacono described his
research suggesting that polygraphs have little, if any, scientific
merit, the way they are currently used. Professional polygraph examiners
disagree, saying plenty of studies confirm their reliability.
Dr. Iacono runs a University of Minnesota lab that measures
physiological responses such as those used in lie-detector tests.
Polygraphs measure tiny changes in blood pressure, breathing, sweat or
other factors. Examiners frame their questions in such a way as to
elicit "guilty" responses - a faster heartbeat, shallower breathing -
from guilty people.
Law enforcement agencies, the legal community and private companies use
polygraph tests; around 25,000 are administered every year.
On its World Wide Web site, www.polygraph.org, the American Polygraph
Association states that it "believes that scientific evidence supports
the high validity of polygraph examinations" when properly given.
But the problem, Dr. Iacono argued, is that "there is no evidence they
work, and substantial evidence that innocent people might fail."
Typically, an examiner intersperses nonrelevant questions - such as,
"Have you ever used an office phone for a personal call?" - with
relevant questions such as "Did you take the money from your boss's
desk?" The response to the nonrelevant question is used to calibrate the
expected stronger, guilty response to the relevant question, since most
people probably have made a personal call at the office.
The problem, Dr. Iacono said, is that relevant questions are important
to both innocent and guilty people. An innocent person might easily
become nervous and respond in confusion, he said. At the same time, a
guilty person familiar with polygraphs can cheat the system, perhaps by
biting his tongue during the irrelevant question to trigger a strong
Some forms of polygraph questioning do work, Dr. Iacono noted. The key
is to ask multiple-choice questions that could be important only to a
guilty person. For instance, an examiner could ask "How much money was
stolen?" followed by the choice of several amounts. Theoretically, only
a guilty person would physically respond to the correct choice - so even
if he lies, the polygraph would detect his involuntary response.
But polygraph examiners usually don't use the multiple-choice technique,
Dr. Iacono said. Instead, they ask vague, open-ended questions that
often elicit more, perhaps unrelated confessions from the person being
The debates over polygraphs, alien abductions and puzzling patents
aren't likely to be resolved any time soon. But physicists said they
would continue to try to distinguish pseudoscientific claims from true
Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow with the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, noted that science
is all about answering difficult questions.
"We think mysteries are not to be dismissed or fostered," he said, "but
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Wed Mar 28 2001 - 16:07:52 PST