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Debunked!Review - Debunked!
ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience
by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004
Review by H. Scott Hestevold, Ph.D.
Jan 23rd 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 4)

Debunked! is a translation (by Bart K. Holland) of the French book, Devenez Sorciers, Devenez Savants (2002), written by Nobel‑laureate physicist Georges Charpak and physics professor Henri Broch. Though astrology, fire‑walking, and dowsing are among the mysteries debunked, one mystery that remains is why Johns Hopkins University Press would bother publishing this book. Though Debunked! has its serious shortcomings, consider first several bright spots.

After explaining how astrologers use vagueness to produce convincing forecasts, the authors note that politicians also exploit vagueness to produce seemingly profound speeches that are vacuous. Included is a construct-a‑political‑speech chart, allowing the reader to produce such speeches by stringing together phrases randomly selected from each of the chart's four columns. A second bright spot involves the authors' skepticism regarding the astrologers' claim that planetary positions can determine personality traits ‑‑ that, for example, those born at the end of July exhibit the characteristic traits of Leos. The authors note wryly that, although those born two thousand years ago at that time of year would have been born when the Sun was in Leo, those born today at that same time of year, given the precession of the equinoxes, are actually born when the Sun is in Cancer! The demystification of walking on hot coals is entertaining, as is the authors' amusing graph illustrating that the weight of objects allegedly moved by psychokinesis has, over time, decreased as our ability to falsify such phenomena has increased. Readers will also enjoy the explicit directions for creating a convincing but fraudulent demonstration of telephone telepathy. (Entertainer/author Max Maven recognizes the authors' modus operandi: it was devised by John N. Hilliard and used in the first "telephone telepathy" trick ever published; see Hilliard's "Twentieth Century Telepathy," in the magicians' journal, The Sphinx (February, 1905).)

The book's delights do not redeem its flaws.      First, the book is badly organized. Chapter 1 includes detailed discussion of astrologers' use of "the well effect" ‑‑ the use of vagueness to generate statements that, like a well, sound deep but are thoroughly empty. The authors then meander, presenting material on visual persistence, the reliability of memory, ESP, walking on coals, fake body piercing (à la arrow‑through‑the‑head), and levitation. This mish‑mash that does not serve well as a careful, cohesive introduction to debunking. The authors indicate that Chapter 2 ("Amazing Coincidences") is about chance, but they soon interrupt themselves by chiding movie‑makers who include spaceship sounds in outer‑space scenes (when there is no medium in outer space to transmit sound waves) and by explaining why the American flag planted on the Moon appeared to wave when there are no lunar breezes. Chapter 3 includes exposés of dowsing and the mysterious appearance of water in a sarcophagus at Arles‑sur‑Tech, plus sustained discussion of alarmist concerns about radiation. Oddly, however, Chapter 3 ends with two short paragraphs excoriating the advisors and examiners who approved a Sorbonne sociology student’s doctoral dissertation "extolling the virtues of astrology". If this condemnation belongs at all in Debunked!, then it surely belongs with the discussion of astrology that appears in Chapter 1, not as the finale of a chapter on dowsing, an aqueous sarcophagus, and radiation.

A second problem is that, in several places, the authors fail to make clear why what they offer is relevant to debunking. With a clever example involving one's recalled image of eating breakfast, the authors discuss the reliability of memory. Given the important role that memory plays in legitimate scientific confirmation, the physicists presumably don't want to foster radical skepticism with respect to all memory claims; so what is the point of addressing here the reliability of memory? (The authors miss an opportunity to discuss the importance of corroborating evidence.) The authors also discuss visual persistence, but don't make clear why, or if, this phenomenon is relevant to debunking. As noted earlier, the authors provide detailed directions for performing trick telephone telepathy. There is good reason to expose the mentalist's modus operandi, but the authors fail to make clear the scientific significance of providing a natural explanation for an apparent instance of ESP.

Finally, whatever the intended purpose of the book, the authors don't serve it well. The authors may have intended Debunked! to be simply a survey of debunked mysteries, but there are better surveys: James Randi's Flim‑Flam! (Prometheus, 1982) and Martin Gardner's Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (Prometheus, 1990) are better organized, more readable, and broader in scope. If instead the authors intended to produce for the novice an introduction to what good science involves and why it does not warrant belief in various pseudoscientific claims, then their book falls far short of the mark. For example, few non‑academic readers will understand the authors' passing mention of Galileo's plight, of Marxists inspired by a "religion of science", of postmodernist lunacy, and the absurdity of scientologist L. Ron Hubbard's ramblings about radiation. More seriously, there is little effort to articulate general principles of scientific confirmation and to explain how, exactly, the purveyors of pseudoscientific claims are guilty of violating these principles. Ronald N. Giere does this clearly and succinctly in his short chapter on "Marginal Science" in Understanding Scientific Reasoning (Wadsworth, 1996).

Those interested in debunking would be far better served by Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (Owl Books, 2002). After addressing skepticism and the difference between science and pseudoscience, Shermer carefully articulates twenty‑five fallacies that give rise to unfounded beliefs and then evaluates a host of bizarre claims, ranging from ESP and alien abductions to creationism and denials of the Holocaust. He closes with explanations for why even intelligent people fall prey to belief in the outlandish. Whereas Shermer's book is a broad, structured, engaging introduction to scientific confirmation and skepticism regarding the weird, Debunked! reads like a hurriedly pieced patchwork of examples culled from the authors' debunking files.

 

Ó 2006 H. Scott Hestevold

 

H. Scott Hestevold, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Alabama.


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