WE ARE TAUGHT that science is completely opposite from religion: Religion obtains knowledge by observation and confirms it by replication. obtains knowledge by observation and confirms it by replication.
In this idealized view, a scientist can observe anything at all, write it and submit it to a scientific journal. The journal sends the article to several scientists for review and, if they agree the findings are interesting and the observations competent and accurate, the article is published. Other scientists read the article and try to replicate the experiment. If a number of them suceed, the new finding is accepted.
Most scientists believe science actually works this way. But sociologists, historians of science and just plain people are beginning to notice how differently it works in practice.
A classic example is the treatment given Immanuel Velikovsky when he first tried to explain ancient floods and other catastrophes in terms of near-collisions between earth and its neighboring planets. Crude extortion pressure was used (successfully) by scientists to force publishers to reject his works. And there is the case of Wilhelm Reich, with his books on orgone and human energy fields, who was hounded into jail as a purveyor of dangerous ideas. Reich died in jail; his books were burned, his instruments confiscated.
Most scientists now recall such incidents with shame. But how will they feel some day about items such as the following?
John A. Wheeler, noted physicist, asks the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to excommunicate parapsychologists from their workshop of science."
A group of philosophers, magicians, science writers and scientists set up a group, which they call the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Despite statements to the contrary, the committee demonstrates that its purpose is not scientific investigation but persecution of heretics. It harasses magazines, TV stations, universitiies and research labs, trying to stop investigations or disucssion of ideas its members consider heretical.
The Kronos Press, at Glassboro State College, runs one-inch ads in Science News for a book entitled "Velikovsky and Establishment Science." They are then informed that "ads on that subject will no longer be accepted by Science News." (Letter dated Feb. 28, 1978.)
I am not trying to persuade anyone as to the validity of particular theories. I am willing to leave that verdict to science. We all have a right to expect science to examine and evaluate surprising findings of competently done research. If science can't, or won't, deal with subjects in which there is intense popular interest, then science will lose public support, and deservedly so. The issue is not the integrity of borderline research. The issue is the integrity of science.
This sampling of events in the science world shows scientists behaving more like religious inquisitors than cool-headed rationalists. Of course, they do not portray their activities in religious terms like "inquisition," "anathema," "heresy" and "excommunication." But the parallels are inescapable.
Look at just one target of scientific witchhunting: the subject of "psi research," sometimes called psychical research or parapsychology. "Psi phenomena" are those events like ESP (extrasensory perception) or PK (psychokinesis), which seem to indicate direct interaction between one mind and another, or between mind and matter. Like cancer research, chemistry and astronomy, psi research has historical roots in magic, divination and fraud, but now the techniques and instrumentation of modern laboratory research are being applied to these phenomena.
Is psi research legitimate? The Parapsycholgoical Assoication (PA) was admitted as an affiliate to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1969, by an overwhelming vote. Its members have published over 10,000 pages of formal research reports in nationally refereed psi research journals. Polls show that two out of every three educated Americans and nearly nine out of 10 working scientists believe the subject should be taken seriously. Some two dozen research centers and universities have psi research programs; over a hundred have courses in the subject.
How is the scientific community treating this research? Dr. Wheeler, in his call for excommunication, used a most prestigious platform to make his plea, in words extraordinarily violent for such a forum, and distributed several hundred copies of his statement to the press. He referred to the Bermuda Triangle, occult chemistry, flying saucers, alarming cults, Atlantis, eccentric sexual theories and other such subjects, but never once discussed actual psi research.
When asked to relate his remarks to modern psi research, and specifically to the work just reported by his co-panelists, he responded with an apocryphal story about a suspected indiscretion of a "post-doctoral associate" 50 years ago, on unrelated research. In a studiously casual afterthought, he then identified the associate in such a way as to imply that such behavior was to become a model for psi research.
Dr. Wheeler made his plea in the name of "the rule of reason." But where better to apply the rule of reason than in the workshop of science? It is absured to claim that rationality demands scientists stop their careful research on these phenomena. If there is nothing to this subject, why are some people making a career of trying to suppress discussion of it? Even more basic is the question of the definition of science (and, by implication, of pseudoscience). Science is not a collection of subjects "approved" for research. It's a process, a way of investigating, reporting and verifying observations. It is meaningless to say psi research is pseudoscience. Is cancer research pseudoscience? There is certainly a continuing history of fraud and quackery there, yet it would be ridiculous to argue that one cannot do "real science" in that field, or any other.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Dr. Wheeler's attack is that it broke the conspiracy of silence on psi research within the scientific community. Funding and publication are like breathing and eating to a scientist. Funding keeps the body alive from minute to minute, but without publication, the funding soon stops. Where there are no papers, it is assumed nothing is happening. And, except for the specialty journals, psi research is almost never published.
The respected British journal Nature has not entirely gone along with the boycott. An editorial on "investigating the Paranormal" (Oct. 18, 1974) noted: "Publishing in a scientific journal is not a process of receiving a seal of approval from the establishment; rather it is the serving of notice on the community that there is something worthy of their attention and scrutiny." This is not too different from the statement which appears each week in Science: "Science serves its reader as a forum for the presentation and discussion of important issues related to the advancement of science, including the presentation of minority or conflicting points of view, rather than by publishing only material on which a consensus has been reached." The difference is that Nature has actually published a few reports on psi research. Science has not published any.
What happens when a scientist submits a psi research report to one of these journals? One author received a rejection letter saying: "Most of our readers do not believe in ESP. If we publish a paper on it, it must be without flaw. We must be convinced by expert opinion that your manuscript provides irrefutable proof of your conclusions."
What is being suppressed? Most of it is not very good. This is no truer of psi research than any other research. But some of the research is interesting and appears to be competently done. It is absurd to argue that no one in this field has ever reached the minimum standard for general scientific publication.
So, if the gates to publication were to open wide, what would they report? Perhaps the work of physicist J.B. Hasted of the University of London with children who reportedly bend metal without touching it, through conscious will power alone.
Or one might summarize the papers given at the International Conference on Quantum Physics and Parapsychology in Geneva and subsequent work, where a number of senior physicists are beginning to find room in the strange world of quantum physics to start building a theoretical understanding of some of the psi phenomena. Or the "out-of-body" and deathbed studies of Osis, Moody, Kubler-Ross and others.
Are these things "for real?" I don't know, but I was taught that science was developed to answer such questions. And I can't figure out why scientists are so afraid to try. Charles Tart, past president of the Parapsychological Association, has said that every scientist who has gone seriously into psi research has suffered slander and pressure as a result. Tart, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has a well-established reputation outside psi research for his books and scientific papers on his pioneering work on consciousness.
He notes that several prominent universities and research institutions have found themselves under intense fire, not only from outside "heresy hunters," but also from individual scientists within, because a staff member, or even a graduate student, has undertaken a small psi project. Stanford Research Institute is an example of an organization which is standing up to such pressure, but there are others who will talk only off the record, for fear of inviting further reprisals.
One rejected item that would seem to be of interest is a brief letter to the editor of Science by Prof. Henry Margenau of Yale, one of the towering figures of theoretical physics, and Dr. Lawrence Leshan, the famous psychologist and author. Their note explored "exactly what scientific laws would be violated by the occurrence of ESP."
They could find none. Since this very question seems to concern the editors, it is surprising they would not have welcomed this input. Lack of space is not a valid excuse, for Science has found room to run editorials and several major articles damning in sweeping generalities the research they will not let their readers judge for themselves.
"It's the shadowboxing that is so frustrating," says Howard Zimmerman, executive secretary of the Parapsychological Association. He describes repeated efforts of the PA to discuss the problem with the editors of Science or with the AAAS officials to whom they report.
"They won't answer official correspondence; they won't even return phone calls," he says. "After the AAAS president assured us Science would be open to psi reports, we heard a major article on the subject was in preparation. But no one in the field knew anything about it. Then on July 14, 1978, the article appeared, modestly titled 'Statistical Problems in ESP Research.' It was a sweeping condemnation of psi research."