Re: Science and religion - who needs either?

David DeGusta (degusta@UCLINK.BERKELEY.EDU)
Fri, 21 Oct 1994 01:39:27 -0800

>Hmmm, there are reports of things (including people) falling up - in
>religious literature this is often called "levitation" or "ascension,"
>although there have been cases in modern times.
>Of course, scientists say this can't happen. It's not that there are no
>reports of things falling up. It's that scientists don't accept the reports
>of things falling up, because things falling up can't happen.
>Why can't falling up happen? Because scientists say nobody has ever seen
>anything falling up. Reductio ad absurdum.

Wrong. There's a whole group of scientists dedicated to
investigating reports of such bizarre occurences without a priori assuming
that they did or did not happen. They're called Committe for the Scientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and they publish the
journal Skeptical Inquirer (1-800-634-1610, or your local library).
Scientists heavily involved with this work include Martin Gardner, James
Randi, & Eugenie Scott, to name just a few. They have investigated many,
many such claims over the years.
To give just one example of the sort of work they do, a woman
claimed to be able to see auras that extended 2 feet above a persons head.
She said she could do this under any circumstances (e.g. they were always
there). So they had her select ten people whose auras she said were very
clear and were visible at least two feet above their heads. In the next
room, they had set up twenty opaque screens of various heights. While she
was in another room, the ten volunteers stood behind ten of the screens,
which matched their height almost exactly (e.g. w/in six inches, plenty of
room for her to see the auras). She was then brought to the room, and asked
to identify the screens that actually had people standing behind them
(because, if she could see the auras extending above their heads, she
should be able to see them above the screens). She got four right, a little
less than what you'd expect from randomly guessing (five). She declined an
offer to repeat the experiment again.
I stress that this is but one example of many such experiments and
investigations. They TEST these things. So far nobody has been able to come
up with any phenomena that require supernatural explanations. But that
doesn't mean it can't happen, so they'll keep investigating them.
As for levitation, heck, any magician worth their salt can fall up.
That doesn't mean that they have any supernatural powers, though. James
Randi has a standing challenge for anyone supposedly possessing
supernatural powers to do something he can't duplicate using trickery. (Not
that such duplication proves they're bogus, but it is certainly suggestive
in many cases---just ask Uri Geller---and it does prove that you don't
*have* to invoke the supernatural as an explanation in those cases.)
I felt obligated to respond to the list because the sort of
nonsense quoted at the start of this e-mail is hazardous, IMHO. It has
little direct relevance to anthropology, though, so I'd suggest future
discussion be moved off-line, or to one of the many skeptic's mailing lists
or newsgroups.

David DeGusta
"Feeling more and more like the Anthro-L curmudgeon"