The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York

Volume 1, Issue 8
Welcome back for the second full year of Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. We have a variety of speakers scheduled for the fall, and are working hard on next year. Our next meeting will be Wednesday September 6th, at the Guilderland Public Library when our own Bob Mulford will present Did the Big Bang Really Happen? Details about this, and future talks can be found on the last page of the newsletter, and on our web page at

At the August ISUNY board meeting we decided to buy 3 video tapes from the Skeptic Society. One or two of the tapes will be shown for the January and February meetings (when weather might cancel a live speaker). All three will be made available on loan from our library for a $3.00 donation. The video tapes will be selected by the membership. At the September meeting we will pass around a form describing the video tapes, and asking for votes. The board also voted to put out a larger (12 to 16 pages) issue of the newsletter in October, and use it as a mailing to regional {Skeptical Inquirer readers. This will consist of a combination of new and old material. Finally, as you may have noticed, the newsletter has a new name. It was selected among the hundreds of entries (three, actually) sent by the members. Articles, letters, comments can be sent to the editor at, or at the address on the back page of this issue.

Offended by Science.

I often entertain myself by reading various Internet news groups dedicated to the paranormal. This is a good way to find out about TV programs, and what is being talked about by believers, skeptics and observers regarding paranormal phenomena and fringe science. Recently, Lawrence Foard of the Seattle Astronomical Society posted a message about one of the charter members of ISUNY. John Dobson is well know among amateur astronomers as a telescope maker, and as a speaker on cosmology. He gave the first ISUNY presentation on June 1st, 1994 entitled What we are willing to take for granted.

According to Mr Foard, John reported a recent negative development in his sidewalk astronomy lectures. These are lectures that John gives to groups of people while showing them the universe through a telescope. Quoting Mr Foard:

John Dobson stated that park authorities are beginning to respond negatively to Dobson's public star parties. In one incident a visitor apparently became offended because the material presented at one of Dobson's talks (I believe he said it was at the Grand Canyon National Park) happened to disagree with that individuals religious beliefs. The person filed a complaint with park authorities because Dobson stated that the universe is billions of years old, quite contrary to that particular persons pesonal belief that the Earth and Cosmos was created about 6000 years ago. Park authorities responded by asking John Dobson and his sidewalk astronomers to not stage any more star parties there in the future.

As one followup post pointed out, this is somewhat ironic since the Grand Canyon national park (if it was the Grand Canyon) is filled with exhibits discussing the age of the canyon. If true, then the park authorities involved are depriving patrons of an interesting, entertaining, informative, and free show. This skeptic is interested in finding out more.

-Michael Sofka

The UFO Skeptic.

One of the main reasons I do not believe that UFOs are alien spacecraft is the lack of hard evidence. Although many UFO proponents claim an alien craft crashed in 1947 near Roswell, New Mexico, the evidence is anecdotal, and most of it was gathered decades after the supposed event. Our memories, alas, are not very accurate recollections, and grow less and less reliable as events grow more and more distant in time.

The Roswell crashed saucer, recovered alien bodies, and subsequent government cover-up are firmly believed to be fact by some people. Yet even almost fifty years after the alleged crash, no substantial evidence has surfaced. The government is famous for creating mounds of paper, yet there are no records. It would hard to imagine that a crashed saucer and alien bodies would not have been on of the most photographed events in Air Force history, yet no photographic evidence has been found! Not one piece of the recovered alien spacecraft has surfaced, nor have any alien artifacts. The aliens and records of them have also left no trace.

Now a film has surfaced that is claimed to show an autopsy of one of the aliens recovered from the crash site. The U.S. rights to the film were purchased by Fox, and it aired on Monday, August 28 at 8:00 PM as Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction on most Fox stations. Unfortunately, this was after I wrote this column, but before the newsletter arrived in your hand. I hope that some of you did catch the show. If you did, I would appreciate your comments. I plan to devote October's The UFO Skeptic to the special and the film.

The claim that the government is conspiring to hide recovered crashed saucers and alien bodies seems rather naive. It greatly underestimates the magnitude of such an event, and overestimates the government's ability to keep secrets.

Proof that we are not alone in the universe would be the single most significant event in modern history. I can not think of anything that has happened in modern times that would be of comparable significance. The discovery of alien technology and aliens themselves would seem impossible to keep secret.

The recovery of an alien spacecraft, obviously capable of interstellar flight, would be of immense interest to the Air Force. The craft would certainly be the subject of intense study, and many engineers and scientists would be involved. Various individuals and companies with specialized knowledge and equipment would be needed. A big question would be the origin of the craft, which would probably require help from astronomers and astrophysicists.

Alien bodies would bring in physicians, biologists, and numerous other scientists. Again, a great deal of specialized equipment and knowledge would be required.

Such discoveries would almost certainly involve a large number of people, many of them scientists, and would produce an immense number of reports and documentation. The documentation would require even more people. It would seem very likely that many people would have some knowledge of the crashed saucer or alien bodies, and would seem almost impossible to keep everything a secret. Many scientists would certainly consider it highly improper to keep the scientific community in the dark---and I doubt a group of scientists could be persuaded to keep quiet.

Some people who believe in the conspiracy hiding these events, argue that the government is able to intimidate people who consider breaking the secret. At the time of the event, I might consider this a very slight possibility, but I think the idea greatly underestimates the impact such knowledge would have on people. I do not think such a secret could have been kept all this time---indeed I doubt that there would be anyone still campaigning to keep it!

Your comments, thoughts, or questions are most welcome. Please address e-mail to or phone me at 374-8460.

-Alan French

Ask The Skeptic.

Question: ``Seen any outrageous examples of non-critical thinking lately?''

Answer: Why, it just so happens that I have. The other day, a friend of mine invited me over to his place for a presentation having to do with a multi-layered marketing opportunity. A multi- layered marketing opportunity is the latest euphemism for a pyramid scheme. A pyramid scheme is a business arrangement in which one makes money by recruiting a number of people into the pyramid. As the numbers increase, you receive more and more profits. If you recruit nobody then you don't make anything. In fact, you usually lose money if you don't recruit anyone as you are required to pay money to enter. This money, naturally, goes to the people up above you in the scheme.

Now, its a simple fact of economics that in order to increase the amount of money in a given business you must either sell something or produce something. In a ``multi-layered marketing'' system this money can come from two possible sources. the first is selling a product. This is how Tupperware works. My sister is a Tupperware lady. If you ever meet her the second or third words out of her mouth are often about whether you would like to buy some plastic containers with snap-tite lids. This may be bad manners, but its good business. If let her, she will also try to recruit you to sell Tupperware as well. If you accept then she will receive bonuses and a share of your profits. She would love this, but its a secondary source of income for Tupperware ladies.

In this particular program that I witnessed, the scam was pretty obvious for anyone whose ever worked in the real world of business. The program was put on by a used car salesman, of all things. I honestly believe that he had cotton balls stuck in his mouth above his cheeks in order to freeze his mouth into a near perpetual smile. He looked a bit like Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the Batman flick.

His talk had little to do with the product or products he was selling. The first point was about the poor financial condition of the elderly in this country. Next he spoke about how nice it would be to be rich. He mentioned how uncertain the economy was, with job lay offs and fluctuations occuring around us. He punctuated this with pictures of cars and mansions. He threw in asides aimed at how unfair it was that the rich had lots of money while ``we'' did not. He spoke about the importance of thinking big, having dreams, and establishing goals. All of his examples were material objects, such as cars and more. He told us that he had a way that we could all make $3000 dollars a month, after just a few years work. Then we could sit back and do nothing, but wait for the cash to come in. We could pass on this great business to our kids. The talk was clearly aimed at working class people who had little experience in business. It obviously played on their fears and resentment about life, while being hinged on their lack of experience in business.

Although the opportunity was hinged on the concept of ``interactive marketing'' and claimed to involve ``purchasing things direct from the manufacturer'' this was clearly a secondarily goal for the evening. What the salesman was obviously selling was ``distributorships'' in this ``corporation.'' He refused to name the corporation until the end of the talk. He allowed no questions during his talk. He did however ask all of us a lot of questions about what things we would like to buy, what sort of car, what sort of house we owned, and what sort of car or house we would like to own. I asked questions anyway. The salesman responded by complimenting me on my excellent questions and then not answering them. He promised to get to them later, but he did not get to the bulk of the key ones. This is, by the way, the exact same tactic that Moonie recruiters use in such cases.

There were was just one thin catalog available for the products that he claimed to be selling distributorships for. This was for the products that used the name of the corporation which he was selling distributorships for. There were no catalogs for the name brand products available. At no time were we given instructions on how to purchase them, or how one presented these products to the customer. The promotional materials on the advantages of purchasing a distributorship were all available, and were quite professionally produced although sparse on details.

The salesman wanted to meet with me at my house as soon as possible to further encourage me to buy a distributorship. He balked when I requested a week to show the materials to a friend.

What do I think? I spoke to my friend who invited me. He seemed much more positive about the ``opportunity.'' He's just waiting to see how one acquires the products advertised. Me too. The difference is is that. I don't think the products sold are the least bit important to the salesman. The franchises are the only product that counts in a pyramid scheme like this.

As skeptics, we must encourage critical thinking. If something is presented as too good to be true then it probably is. And this doesn't just apply to the paranormal. There are a lot more down to Earth rip offs. Many, like this one, are perfectly legal. We must all be on our guard, and work to educate the public.

-Peter Huston

Ask The Psychic.

Question: Mr. Psychic, I vacationed for a short time in St. Augustine and St. Petersburg Florida. Not even a week after leaving, hurricane Erin went right through Florida, close to St. Augustine, and north of Tampa Bay (where I had been staying). A week later hurricane Felix headed for Okracoke island, where I spent a night on during the same vacation, and hovered off shore---as though waiting for me. Now, there are six tropical storms and hurricanes in the Atlantic ocean, and I cannot help but feel that they are waiting for me to go anywhere near a beach. Can they really be after me? Or, am I just a wackado? ---Hunted in Hatteras.

Answer: Dear Hunted, No you are not a wackado. I know many wackados, wackados are my friends, and you sir are no wackado.

But, there is no doubt in my psychic senses that, yes, these hurricanes are out to get you. I can sense this clearly when reading your letter. The very paper it was written on is dripping with negative-PMFs (Psychic Magnetic Fields). Oh, wait, that's water. Was it raining where you are?

Back in the middle ages you would be considered cursed, haunted by an evil daemon. Now, because of advances in science, I can assure you that this is due to the highly negative-PMF generated by your skepticism. Skepticism has been shown in laboratory experiments to suppress and even completely block psychic energy. This is often referred to as the ``shyness effect'' and manifests itself whenever a skeptic doubts that a paranormal phenomena is real. A classic example of this is when Johnny Carson's skepticism completely blocked the psychic powers of Uri Geller---one of the greatest psychics of this or any century.

The hurricanes result from the effect of your negative-PMF on the Orgone energy, or \'elan vital of the Universe (described in the works of the great psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich). You are literally pulling water vapor in your trail! Fortunately, we can use the rain.

-David Quinne

Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor.

Model Agnosticism vs. A New Idolatry:

A Critique of Robert Anton Wilson's ``The New Inquisition.''

``It seems to me that existence---at this point I have doubts about `the universe'---is a lot like a Rorschach ink-blot. Everybody looks at it and sees their own favorite reality- tunnel'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 218). Robert Anton Wilson's book, The New Inquisition, addresses the issue of these belief systems. He feels that modern science, at least ``the establishment'' of modern science, is blinded by it's own reality tunnel. But is he right?

The New Inquisition deals to a certain degree with the philosophy of science. Robert Anton Wilson heavily criticizes the state of the scientific establishment today. He finds his main point of contention in their dogmatic reliance upon already established ideas when judging new work. One of his targets is the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, CSICOP. He claims that they don't give a fair hearing to anyone they don't already agree with. He also feels that the reliance on the military-industrial complex for funding maintains the status quo. Wilson asserts that instead of this dogmatic attitude scientists should employ skepticism, or a sort of agnostic principle, when confronted with new ideas.

According to Wilson science these days worships the Idol of Materialism. He calls their underlying belief ``Fundamental Materialism'' and likens it to religious fundamentalism. Wilson would prefer a principle which ``refuses total belief or total denial and regards models as tools to be used only and always where appropriate and replaced (by other models) only and always where not appropriate'' (Wilson, 1991, p. i). Throughout the text Wilson introduces new terms or abbreviations (such as TUUR---``The Ubiquitous Unscrupulous Reporter or MS---`Mad Scientist'\thinspace''). One of the more useful is ``sombunall'' which is short for ``some-but-not-all'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 25). In an extreme case: ``Imagine a debate about UFOs in which both sides could generalize as much as they wished about sombunall sightings but there was no linguistic form to generalize about all such sightings'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 26). People can't assert anything as emphatically if they can't generalize.

Wilson spends a great deal of time trying to precisely delineate many of the assumptions made when discussing, or researching, science. He sprinkles the text with instances of ``paranormal'' incidents and other ideas which fall outside of the bounds of normal science. For example ``21 March 1922 Boston Transcript---a snow reported in the Alps---nothing odd about that---but this snow was accompanied by a fall, or an appearance of a fall, of caterpillars and huge ants along with the snow'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 89). He doesn't try to assert any explanation for these occurrences and doesn't ask the reader to ``believe'' them. He states that he wants readers to observe their own reactions. These reactions can say a lot about the bases of thought, both conscious and subconscious, of the reader. Which scientific, as well as social, beliefs one holds fundamental can affect how one reacts to the world. These beliefs are in the language of Thomas Kuhn the paradigm one operates with. These paradigms are by necessity generalizations, and one of Wilson's pet peeves seems to be generalization. He comments that ``Some generalizations are probably much more accurate than others... But these generalizations remain in the area of probability'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 5). Many people tend to make generalizations and then forget that that is really what they are doing. They get so caught up in their models that they start to think that the models are reality, not simply a rough description of reality.

Reviews of The New Inquisition bring up several points that are not obvious to the casual reader. While reviewers comment that parts of his reasoning and warnings about dogmatism are useful, they also warn of some of his downfalls. Mr. Siano and Jim Lippard point out numerous faults in Wilson's scholarship, faulty information and etc. ``It's a habit of Wilson's; when he writes about people he doesn't like, he paraphrases them rather than quoting them directly. Not very ethical, that'' (Siano). He filters their words through his reality tunnel before giving them to the reader and expecting the reader to be impartial. ``In fact, the attitude that Wilson finds laudable... is exhibited more often by CSICOP than by Wilson himself... Sheaffer puts it this way: `Wilson writes a book attacking an organization whose publication he has not read, accusing it of the `crime' of criticizing what it does not understand, while himself having no comprehension of what that organization is really like.'\thinspace'' (Siano) Lippard looked up some of Wilson's sources, especially many of those for the ``paranormal'' instances that Wilson dispersed through the text, and found a large number of them to be only partially accurate. Many of them were quoted second-hand and some were just plain wrong. ``One should be wary, however, of taking seriously any of Wilson's explanations for the phenomena he describes---and this is consistent with the `principle of agnosticism' Wilson puts forth'' (Lippard, 1988). These faults bring into doubt the validity of Wilson's claims. The reviewers don't find fault with the whole premise though. ``Truth is sometimes a slippery target, as we all know, and much of Wilson's work is devoted to showing how slippery it is---or doubting whether it exists or not. In this regard, Wilson's book is worthwhile in its cautions against dogmatism and claiming certainty about one's knowledge'' (Siano). The more important, however, parts of the book are those discussing the philosophy, not the individual examples.

Wilson frequently targets Martin Gardner, well-known scientist and member of CSICOP.

Mr. Gardner has an infallible method of recognizing real science and of recognizing pseudo-science. Real science is what agrees with his Idol and pseudo-science is what challenges that Idol. Colin Wilson has written, ``I wish I could be as sure of anything as Martin Gardner is of everything.'' Not all the Popes of the 20th Century collectively have dared to issue as many absolute dogmas as Mr. Gardner... (Wilson, 1991, p. 39).

Gardner has written extensively on the subject of the paranormal. He, in contrast to what Wilson seems to think, declares it impossible to exactly define ``pseudo-science.'' One viewpoint, that of John Casti, states that the Hallmarks of pseudo-science are: anachronistic thinking, seeking mysteries, appeals to myth, a non-rigorous approach to evident, irrefutable claims, spurious similarities, explanation by scenario, research by literary interpretation, and a refusal to revise. (Casti, 1989, p. 57--79) Gardner realizes that what may seem to be the work of a crackpot may turn out in the long run to be correct, however ``we must not forget that for every outcast theory raised to respectability by a scientific revolution there were thousands of crazy theories that permanently bit the dust.'' (Gardner, 1981, p. xiii) In order for his writing to have focus, he must pick a position and argue from that point of view, whether or not it will, in the long run, turn out to be correct. The reader, as always, has the freedom to decide for himself whether to accept Gardner's analysis or not. However, although he may make pronouncements regarding the validity of various theories, Mr. Gardner does realize the impermanence of his ideas. ``It goes without saying that some of my harsh judgments could be proved wrong by future science.'' (Gardner, 1981, p. xvi) Gardner seems rather sure of himself but at least he realizes the possibility his infallibility (unlike the pope who he was compared with earlier.)

Gardner and Wilson discuss many of the same people on the fringes of normal science and often come to different conclusions. One such example comes with the description of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky. He made many predictions about the solar system and its evolution. For example, he predicted that Jupiter emits radio waves, which have been found (Wilson, 1991, p. 69). He formulated a catastrophe model of the solar system's development. But, as Wilson points out, it was not Velikovsky's conclusions but his methods which ``pushed the panic button of the Fundamentalists'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 70). Part of his methodology was to examine the myths of the ancient civilizations and suggest that they may contain truth. According the Casti, this should be considered pseudo-science. This method does not exactly follow the scientific method, but may actually provide some clues as to what happened in the past. Gardner recognizes some of these claims to be valid, but points out that Velikovsky was using this theory to attempt to validate the bible. ``According to Velikovsky, it was the stopping (or slowing) of the earth's spin which caused the Red Sea to divide precisely at the time Moses stretched out his hand... There was a momentary two-month retreat of the comet, then it returned just in time to provide the thunder, lightning, smoke, earthquakes, and trumpet blasts that accompanied the giving of the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai'' (Gardner, 1957, p. 29). That seems to be pushing it even for the fundamentalist Christians! Gardner's critique of Velikovsky's method exclaims that ``Legends are difficult to date, and almost any imaginable type of nature miracle is likely to turn up somewhere in the varied folklore of a culture. All one has to do is comb the literature of mythology carefully, copy down the appropriate tales, and ignore the others'' (Gardner, 1957, p. 31). This is one of those cases in which Wilson brings up an instance, the attempted suppression of Velikovsky's work, to try to prove that the establishment is intolerant, yet he presents the evidence in a matter that is unfairly self-supporting, and not exactly a scientific endeavor as he makes it appear.

The case of Wilhelm Reich can be illuminating to observe from both sides also. Reich ``discovered'' a new type of energy called orgone. Gardner writes that ``According to Reich it is a non-electro-magnetic force which permeates all of nature. It is the elan vital or life force... It is blue in color.'' He continues saying the Reich believes that this blue color causes the sky and oceans to be blue (Gardner, 1957, p. 253). Gardner responds to Reich with:

Disciples of Reich frequently defend him by saying, ``Granted that his biological work is highly suspect, you'll have to admit he's made great contributions to the field of mental therapy.'' This may be true. But if has somewhat the same plausibility as a statement like the following: ``Granted that Professor Ludwig von Hoofenmeister errs in his theory that stars are holes in an opaque sphere surrounding the earth, you'll have to admit he has made magnificent discoveries in his study of cosmic rays'' (Gardner, 1981, p. 10).

Wilson, on the other hand, presents Reich in a favorable light, bringing up only instances of his work that seem more ``reasonable.'' He recounts the burning of Reich's books in the 50's by the US government, portraying him as unjustly criticized. While burning books is definitely negatively extreme, Wilson's description of Reich leaves out many serious difficulties with his position. Wilson later writes, ``I am not particularly interested, here, in how much of Reich was right or wrong. I present the Reich case as one illustration of how the current Idol, the orthodoxy of biological materialism, maintains itself'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 43). While Wilson's support of the underdogs in many of these situations should be commended, he seems to ignore that in order for science to progress a critical look needs to be taken at new theories, in order to determine if they can better fit the facts than existing theories.

Wilson's analysis of Bell's Theorem appears, to my limited knowledge of the subject, to be a little more straight-forward. He describes Bell's Theorem and describes some of the evidence:

Out of seven experiments, five have vindicated Bell, while the experiments themselves, under criticism, have successively been more and more exquisitely subtle. A defect in the apparatus should destroy evidence of correlation; it is very hard to imagine---try to imagine it---what a series of incredible defects it would take to somehow cumulatively produce a false correlation where there was none in actuality (Wilson, 1991, p. 112).

Not unexpectedly, Wilson continues to apply this apparent result to the paranormal. ``Any kind of non-local monism or interconnectedness does somewhat strengthen the case for the `paranormal' insofar as it makes thinkable or possible those trans-time and trans-space linkages which Fundamentalism has declared unthinkable and impossible'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 118). He makes the predictable guess about what the superposition of the Big Bang theory and Bell's theorem would do to our ideas of causation. This example actually uses an idea within the bounds of normal science to try to justify a fringe outlook. This seems to be more the approach that should be undertaken if Wilson's ``Agnosticism'' is to be applied to science. Fringe ideas, instead of being ignored, should be approached with the idea that there may be a way to make them compatible with the rest of science.

Gardner and Wilson also disagree on the value of orthodoxy. Whereas Wilson seems to find it undesirable in almost all instances, Gardner thinks that ``a certain degree of dogma---of pig-headed orthodoxy---is both necessary and desirable for the health of science. It forces the scientist with a novel view to mass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained. If this situation did not exist, science would be reduced to shambles by having to examine every new-fangled notion that came along'' (Gardner, 1957, p. 11). This view seems fairly compatible with that of Kuhn (see below). Although it makes it harder for new ideas to gain acceptance, when they do they're more likely to stay in favor than simply disappear again. This creates a more stable basis of thought so that scientists have some common understanding to work from. Wilson's approach of examining every datum individually may be ideal in theory, however such a large amount of scientific data is collected these days that no one person could ever even make a dent in trying to examine it all. Science as we know it would not exist if one could not make generalizations. No workable theories would exist. Gardner finds opposition to new ideas understandable, not contemptible as Wilson does. ``Here and there, of course---especially among older scientists who, like everyone else, have a natural tendency to become set in their opinions---one may occasionally meet with irrational prejudice against a new point of view. You cannot blame a scientist for unconsciously resisting a theory which may, in some cases, render his entire life's work obsolete'' (Gardner, 1957, p. 10). Wilson seems to think that most of the scientific community's resistance to new ideas is n attempt to persecute those who don't agree (recall Casti's listing of paranoia...). Most scientists are probably just trying to support their own theories.

Thomas Kuhn's work on scientific revolutions is relevant when looking at Wilson's ideas. Kuhn postulates that ``science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions'' (Kuhn, 1970, p. 2). Rather, the cumulative set of standard beliefs at a certain time comprise the ``paradigm'' of the era and these paradigms instead of gradually changing are violently overthrown. These revolutions are always characterized similarly:

[They] necessitated the community's rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it. Each produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the professions determined what should count as an admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done (Siano).

These paradigms are the standard background from which science can operate. Without them science would not proceed as it does. ``[N]ormal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies'' (Kuhn, 1970, p. 6). However this research does eventually uncover things that don't fit with the paradigm. By this method new ideas develop. ``Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science'' (Kuhn, 1970, p. 24). One of Kuhn's major points is that paradigms are never rejected until a likely candidate for replacement exists. Wilson's view does not reconcile entirely with that of Kuhn. That changes that Wilson advocates scientists should make in their thinking would make them, under Kuhn's definition, no longer scientists. Wilson supports using theories only under limited circumstances with the knowledge that they only have restricted validity. Wilson's idea of science is very non-traditional:

... Scientific Method (SM) [is] the alleged source of the certitude of those I call the New Idolators. SM is a mixture of SD (sense data: usually aided by instruments to refine the senses) with the old Greek PR [pure reason]. Unfortunately, while SM is powerfully effective, and seems to most of us the best method yet devised by mankind, it is made up of two elements which we have already seen are fallible... Again: two fallibilities do not add up to one infallibility. Scientific generalizations which have lasted a long time have high probability, perhaps the highest probability of any generalizations, but it is only Idolatry which claims none of them will ever again have to be revised or rejected. Too many have been revised or rejected in this century alone (Kuhn, 1970, p. 52--53).

Wilson seems to be generalizing himself. It seems that scientists, while adhering to a particular theory, in many cases do so only because it allows them to continue working. Even though none of the theories identically match reality, some are close enough that accurate predictions can be made from them. However Wilson is correct in saying that people should be open to new ideas. If everyone adhered to old ideas entirely, nothing would ever change, but entirely rejecting old ideas is not the solution either.

Kuhn and Wilson do seem to agree to some extent about theories. Kuhn states that paradigms are never overturned until there's something to replace them. He doesn't state exactly why. Wilson explains this as a comfort factor. ``You see? Even a new and unfamiliar model sometimes feels better than no model at all'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 6). Kuhn doesn't delve into the social or emotional resistance against new ideas. He leaves it simply as a matter of normal science needing a paradigm to operate. Wilson seems to agree that this is the normal approach of science. He just doesn't find this to be positive.

On a first reading, The New Inquisition either seems really reasonable or ridiculous. If the reader goes into it with Wilson's skeptical attitude, not expecting to believe it all but not rejecting it all outright, a lot can be learned about his everyday assumptions. Perhaps if people could use this technique when first encountering any new or unusual ideas, more diverse theories could easily be incorporated into existing one with less of a tendency for fundamentalism. His sense of wonder about topics not often considered by many is one of the most instructive parts of his work, ``That is my heresy; that is why I cannot buy into fundamentalism. I wonder a bit'' (Wilson, 1991, p. 156). The many unusual instances seem somewhat shocking but if the reader stops to consider that even one of them might be true some progress has been made toward breaking down their preconceived notions of what the world is like. Outside of science, application of this method could eliminate much of the hatred of the world. But would it work within science?

Wilson's book needs to be reread, critically. While his notions of a liberal-minded scientific community seem idyllic at first glance, there are many inherent problems with his plan. He seems to have too little understanding about how science operates to make some of the claims he does. Finding out that some of his information was faulty is a bit unsettling. Trying occasionally to forget some of their normal assumptions and build from other ideas could be useful for scientists to develop new theories, but a lot of science is not about finding new theories but rather about developing the already existing ones. By working to take more accurate measurements, scientists can realize whether or not their current theories actually mesh with experimental evidence. Without this step it would be pointless to try to come up with new theories because no one would ever be forced to chose between theories and so many theories would pile up that they would be useless.

Perhaps a new approach to science needs to be fashioned. One that would incorporate Wilson's open-mindedness along with a more- or-less stable paradigm and a bit of Gardner's stubbornness. Maybe that way real progress would be make toward understanding the world in which in we live.

-Kristin Buxton,

Cited sources:

Casti, John L. Paradigms Lost. New York: Avon Books, 1989.

Gardner, Martin. Fades & Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover, 1957.

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lippard, James. ``The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science''. The Phoenix Skeptics News March/April 1988, p. 2--6.

Siano, Brian, ``An Appraisal of Robert Anton Wilson's The New Inquisition'' as received via personal correspondence

Wilson, Robert Anton. The New Inquisition. Scottsdale, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 1991.


Our next meeting is September 6th, when our speaker will be Dr. Robert Mulford on the topic Did the Big Bang Really Happen? Dr. Mulford is an active Amateur Astronomer who has built, and is building, several telescopes. He will talk about what we know, what we believe we know, and what we conjecture about cosmology and the origin of the Universe. Here is Bob's description of the talk:

Did the Big Bang Really Happen?

Among mankinds oldest myths are stories of creation. Today, the foremost scientific creation story is the ``Big Bang'' theory. How sure are we about this once controversial idea? Did the universe even have a beginning? How big is it? What is it made from and how is it put together? Are alternative theories being ignored? Some surprising answers to these questions have emerged from recent research.

Other scheduled speakers include: Richard Lange, M.D. Pseudoscience and Medicine Today, Dr. David Hess Skeptics and their Paranormal Others: Some Cultural Dimensions of Debunking, and Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory: Incest accusations and shattered lives. A complete list of speakers can be found on the ISUNY Web page.

Thank You.

Thank you to Alan French, Peter Huston and David ``the Mighty'' Quinne for their help in preparing this newsletter. Thank you to Bob and Dee Mulford for publicizing the meetings.

Thank you also to all of our members for their kind support of ISUNY. We would especially like to thank our Supporting members: Sylvia Chessin Arthur R. Petrick Duncan Tuininga, and our Patron members: Jordon Coleman, Charles Davies, Daniel Forrest, Alan & Susan French, Christopher Masto, Bob & Dee Mulford, Matthew Schnee, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells.

About the Newsletter.

The WHY-Files are the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at, or to 8 providence street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will only be returned if accompanied by a self addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written, and placed in the public domain, by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Copies of and the macros used for this newsletter are available from the editor. The Journal of Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York is available on the World Wide Web at:

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.