As Chairman of the Center for Inquiry in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst, Paul Kurtz has a big job. His organization hunts down and attempts to annihilate fraudulent ideas. Last week, Kurtz shared his skeptical ideas about religious beliefs and other aspects of our culture. Our discussion continues with a look at some of the more absurd claims that have nevertheless gained a firm foothold in the public consciousness.
Over the past 30 years, movies like The Exorcist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Carrie, The Sixth Sense, and Signs have made a lasting impression on western culture. Although most people recognize them as works of fiction, Kurtz says a portion of the population is taken in. And he sees larger repercussions for a society that does not make decisions based on logic and reason. The primary mission of Kurtz's various organizations is to confront pseudo-scientific claims with rational scientific explanations.
The Skeptical Inquirer, a bi-monthly magazine published by The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), is perhaps Kurtz's liveliest outlet for refuting superstitious beliefs. The current issue includes an article titled "Circular Reasoning: The 'Mystery' of Crop Circles and Their 'Orbs' of Light," and another dealing with the popularity of The X-Files. Other issues have dealt with historical instances of pseudo-science in articles like "Mark Twain Debunks Phrenology."
City: I'd like to get your comments on common beliefs in the supernatural, starting with astrology.
Kurtz: Astrology has no basis in fact and it's false. And I say this having spent years investigating its claims. It's based upon ancient astronomical theory in which the Earth is the center of the universe, not the sun. The point of astrology is that the moment of birth defines who you are, not the moment of conception. A lot of people today have Caesarians. How do you deal with that?
Kurtz: A lot of people have had those sightings and I've had them. The real question is, are they extraterrestrial? There's no hard evidence that any of these sightings come from outer space. The one I saw turned out to be a planet. A lot of people mistake planets on the horizon for UFOs. Rockets, meteor showers, weather balloons, geese. They can be given a more pedestrian explanation.
City:What about alien abductions?
Kurtz: Thirty years ago, two men in New Hampshire said they were abducted. What surprised us was, suddenly people started believing in abductions about 15 years ago. Even Dr. Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist, published a book on this. A number of people claim this; otherwise reasonable people. There's missing time, flashing lights in the sky, you fall asleep and seem to have an out-of-body experience. Our explanation is this is a kind of psychological and sociological phenomenon, and it's part of the geist. In the old days, they saw angels. Now they see UFOs. You can have eyewitness testimony about anything. I have met people who really believe in vampires and exorcisms. After Close Encounters of the Third Kind there was a big wave of sightings. After Signs we'll see what happens.
City:Carl Sagan was a member of your group. Didn't he help popularize the notion of aliens?
Kurtz: No. He was a skeptic. He was a fellow of CSICOP and a member of our Academy of Humanists. He was an atheist, an agnostic. He said we want to look for life in outer space and I agree with that. I think the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is very important. But do this scientifically.
City:There have been many variations of the Lochness Monster myth.
Kurtz: I have not investigated the Lochness Monster, but we did investigate the Lake George Monster. There was a picture in Time many years ago of the head coming out of the water. In our view, that was a loon, not a monster.
Kurtz: I investigated Bigfoot in Lewiston. There was a report about 18 years ago that Bigfoot was sighted there. We had a hearing in the town hall. We had a professor of anthropology and theology, and the head of the science museum. Somebody had found what looked like a carcass of some animal that had been eaten by dogs. We had a five-hour inquiry. The result was someone had shot a bear in Canada and had come across the border with a bearskin and dumped it. The head of the museum specialized in bears and he identified it. The day after we complete the inquest, there's a pro-Sasquatch disciple, Eric Beckjord, who appears on Good Morning America and is interviewed by the New York Post, and he says, "Bigfoot found in Lewiston, New York." That's the way they sensationalize this stuff.
City:Some religions involve so-called miracles. Can all of the supposed miracles over the centuries be explained?
Kurtz: I think so --- those that we've investigated. A miracle is a confession of ignorance. You believe it's a miracle because you don't know the cause. Look for the natural cause and you can find it. Bleeding statues don't bleed. Often it's a hoax where someone puts blood on it, or olive oil if it's a tearful statue. But there's a natural explanation. One thing we investigated at Free Inquiry was faith healers. We found no clear case of a miraculous faith healing. We had about 100 people going around.
City: What was your method?
Kurtz: I went to Rochester, to the Convention Center, and W.T. Grant was there. W.T. Grant claimed that he could cure people. He would ask people in wheelchairs to get out of the wheelchair, and then he'd push the wheelchair away and he'd scream, "They're healed!" What we found was he carried about 100 wheelchairs with him and, if somebody would come in who was hobbling a bit, they'd put him in a wheelchair and put them up front. They could walk and he would proclaim a miracle. We did the same thing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. We followed people out afterward. One man said, "I had a bum leg and they made me sit down. I was glad to." We said, "How do you feel now?" He said, "It ain't no better."
City:And yet, thousands of people go to Lourdes each year.
Kurtz: There is a placebo effect with some people, if it's not physiological. I investigated Lourdes. I think there were 64 so-called cures. There have been millions of people who have gone to Lourdes. My wife is from France and she went to French Catholic School. Her class went to Lourdes. She said she thought more people got infections from being put in that cold water than got cured. Even with those 64 cases --- we investigated 23 of them --- you can find perfectly normal explanations.
City:Voodoo can look pretty convincing.
Kurtz: You hear about people who are scared to death by that. I have not investigated those cases, but it's clear that if people believe something, they will behave accordingly. If they're so frightened that this demonic event will occur, they may bring it to bear. It's a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. There's no evidence of voodoo.
City:What about the devil? The Catholic Church still performs exorcisms.
Kurtz: The theory is this involves psychological or emotional disorders. They didn't know how to explain diseases, so they said people were possessed. It's an ancient explanation of bizarre behavior. But I think there's no evidence that a person is possessed, nor that an exorcist will be able to get rid of the possession. There is a tragic case of a girl in Florida that I did look into. I debated this on Larry King Live. The girl would curse involuntarily. I think she may have suffered from Tourette's Syndrome.
City:I remember when "The Exorcist"came out. I had friends who were totally convinced.
Kurtz: Looking into that, we did an investigation on the novel by [William Peter] Blatty. That was purely fabricated, as was The Amityville Horror. The Sixth Sense was a dangerous movie. It was very, very well done. But to have people think you can talk to dead people and see dead people...
City:But even Shakespeare used ghosts. You're not against people using their imaginations to create fantasies, are you?
Kurtz: I'm not against fantasy, but I worry about people who really believe it. Some of these fantasies are taken as true by a lot of people. That's the problem in America today. What's the difference between fantasy and reality? When you have religion unexamined --- you're not allowed to examine religion today publicly --- paranormal myths accepted, witchcraft and everything else, then how do you know what's true or false?
How do you know if Iraq is dangerous, or if the terrorists are really going to destroy us all, or any other claim unless you're using hard evidence and not hysteria? You need to be in some cognitive touch with the world. I believe in the arts, the power of music and poetry, the visual arts. They provide enjoyment and aesthetic delight. Fantasy can provide insight. But the problem is when people think fantasy is a substitute for truth and believe it.
City:Maybe the problem is the technology. Special effects are so convincing now in movies. The illusions can seem so real.
Kurtz: Movies are the sacred temple, particularly for the young. People may not go to church, but they go to movies and they are overwhelmed by the music, the sound. It's powerful, but you have to know when it's true and when it's false. What would life be without imagination? But deception is another matter.
City:And the ultimate deception in your view is political.
Kurtz: Yes. The media now are owned by a few conglomerates. They dominate book publishing, the movies, television, newspaper chains. Increasingly, it's one voice. And the media has become the propaganda ministry for the corporate state. We need second points of view. What I fear in this country, more than at any time in my life, is that dissent is being blotted out, alternative points of view are being suppressed, and critical, rational understanding is being bypassed. That's very dangerous. I fear for the future of our democracy, particularly with the Bush administration and Mr. Ashcroft and the Patriot Act and the frenzied propaganda.
I've been to Europe 150 times. I travel back and forth, and I now see how our friends have turned against us. At one time America was admired throughout the world --- our generosity, the American outlook. Now they consider us dangerous, the macho superpower. Why is that happening? Media is spilling out propaganda. They're all saying the same thing and you don't get dissent. You have to read the Manchester Guardian or Le Monde. Public television doesn't give it to us. Where would we be without NPR? But we don't have sufficient alternatives.