A Pseudoscience Course


(This 730th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 27, 2005.)


We're in good hands.


In my annual April Fool visit to the realm of pseudoscience, I visited Center for Inquiry Research Fellow Chris Whittle's University at Buffalo honors class studying the so-called supernatural.


His 21 students are investigating reports of everything from coffee shop ghosts in Clarence (Alyssa Brown) to the monster South Bay Bessie in Lake Erie (Ryan McNerney); from the physics of quack medical devices (Chris Wirz) to voices heard over white noise (Heather Camp); from the reported odd behavior of the Buffalo Museum of Science's mummies (Hajan Thomas, Luke Mohr, Jon Morabito, Peter Ruocco and Laura Karnath) to the contemporary local occurrence of panthers (Sarah Finch); from abominable snowmen in Washington state (William King and Chris LaFleur) to giant frogs in Buffalo's old Central Terminal basement (Ian Phillips).


"It's all nonsense," may be your first reaction -- as was my own -- but these bright and energetic young men and women have been asked to take their responsibilities seriously and to examine their assigned aspect of what some -- but unfortunately not most -- of us think of as weirdness with objectivity.


I think that these students are doing a quite remarkable job.


The most serious problem in carrying out their research that they identified to me is bringing objectivity to their task. When you're a member of a university community, the identified home of science and rationality, that's not so easy to do. When you're taught by a Center for Inquiry representative, you know which way the class is slanted. And when a pre-test identifies you as a skeptic yourself, you know you will find it difficult to suspend your beliefs. But when they took turns on a recent Saturday morning to describe their individual investigations, these students demonstrated to me that they handle these limitations well. They clearly give those who believe in these strange ideas and behaviors every opportunity to present their point of view.


Students with Technical Equipment at the Museum

A number of the students are also apprenticing with senior Center for Inquiry staff members, people like Joe Nickell, Tom Flynn, Andrew Skolnick and Ben Radford. That gives them access to the extensive Center library and collections where they find vampire hunting kits and seance spirit trumpets and from which they can borrow such equipment as electro-magnetic force meters, Geiger counters and infrared film cameras for their investigations.


Two investigations I find especially interesting.


One is Nathan Brandwein's study of so-called "real vampires" -- yes, vampires. These are not people restricted to Transylvania: a quick web check locates at least 45 here in Buffalo. There are several roles: sanguinarians who drink human blood and psi-vampires who instead get their boost through psychic energy. At least they're not modern-day Draculas: they have volunteer donors. One vampire website even welcomes the following: "Vampires, Wiccans, WereCreatures, Goths, Pagans, Dragons, the Fae (all types, Fairies, Sidhe, Elves, etc.), Donors and Supporters."


While I am put off by the idea of drinking blood of any kind, some of us eat animal-based blood sausage and blood soup. At least these vampires warn each other to check their blood source to avoid such virulent agents as HIV and hepatitis C.


Unfortunately, there is a frightening response to this. Some people have taken up the call of the TV program "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and have nominated themselves vampire hunters. Surely this illustrates how far fiction can take us in a world inhabited by more than a few psychotics.


The other investigation I found interesting is Matt Sommer's study of religion. I honor this young man for taking on a subject as difficult and controversial as this. It appears to me, moreover, that he is addressing his study with both care and honesty and his interim conclusions I find most interesting. He is looking at some of the objective facts about the Bible -- for example, authorship -- but he is more concerned with how people react to religion and the problems associated with those reactions. At the opposite extremes, fundamentalist believers and atheists, he feels, have support groups within which they can reinforce each other; the questioning agnostics, on the other hand, are more often on their own and therefore face tougher psychological and social problems.


I remain uncomfortable with those who accept astrology, ghosts, haunted houses, vampires, faith healing and other aspects of pseudoscience, but we know that these things are abroad in the land and I am happy to have bright youngsters bringing their intellects to bear and shedding light on them.-- Gerry Rising