Where Sense Meets Nonsense



Copyright © 2001 Michael Shermer. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-19-514326-4

Chapter One


Reality Must Take Precedence in
the Search for Truth

Martha: Truth and illusion George; you don't know the difference.

George: No; but we must carry on as though we did.

Martha: Amen.

— Edward Albee, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

WITHIN HOURS OF THE TRAGIC DEATH of Princess Diana, theoriesabout what really happened to her began to proliferate via the Internet. Oneposting admonished readers: "Anyone who doesn't know that the order to murderDiana came from the Hanover/Windsor power structure is lacking an understandingof world affairs." Another explained: "A car wreck can very easilybe engineered." The conspirators, it seems, were "acting on papal orders andfinanced by Du Pont." Within days the BBC reported that Libyan leader MuammarQaddafi told his followers in a televised speech that the "accident" was acombined French and British conspiracy "because they were annoyed that anArab man might marry a British princess."

    By the time of the funeral, dozens of theories were ripe for the picking,including: Diana was murdered, but Dodi was an innocent victim; the driverwas a "Manchurian Candidate" programmed to self-destruct at the right moment;Trevor Rees-Jones was in on the murder as a secret service agent; eitherM.I.5, the British Domestic Intelligence Agency, or M.I.6, the British SecretService, orchestrated the murder; Diana's murder came about because of herstand against land mines—the arms industry was not going to put up with thisattack on one of their major profit centers; Diana was three months pregnantand the monarchy was not going to allow any half-Arab child to become apart of the British Empire. The most bizarre conspiracy theory of all revealedthat Diana was supposed to move to America and marry Bill Clinton, withHillary either murdered or stepping out of the picture. Son William (the heir)would remain in England to become king, while second son Harry (the spare)moves to America, becoming a U.S. senator. By controlling both American andBritish banking and politics, the Rockefellers (who orchestrated the conspiracy),would rule the world and finally better their archrivals, the Rothschilds. Theproblem, we are informed, is that Princess Di wouldn't marry Clinton, so sheneeded to be eliminated. Perhaps he was too preoccupied with Monica to noticeDiana.

    The mythologist Joseph Campbell once observed: "Why should it be thatwhenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives,they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths ofan immemorial imagination." That's not quite right. Thinking is a combinationof imagination and facts (and pseudo "factoids"). For example, what evidencedo these cyber-conspiratorialists offer for their theories? They begin with the"fact" that everyone knows that the Rothschilds and Rockefellers have beencompeting to take over the world. Then they note that in July, 1996, AmschelRothschild was "murdered" in Paris, on the anniversary of the "murder" of JohnD. Rockefeller III. In February 1997, Pamela Harriman, U.S. ambassador toFrance and a major financial supporter of Al Gore (controlled by the Rothschilds),was "murdered" in Paris. Di was "murdered" on a sacred section ofthe Paris highway called Pont de l'Alma, from which is derived the word "Pontiff,"or "Pope," and is also an ancient site dating back to the time of the Merovingiankings in the sixth and seventh centuries. Before this, Pont de l'Almahad been a pagan sacrificial site. One translation has it meaning "bridge of thesoul," another as "passage of nourishment." Since all true European royalty isdescended from the Merovingians, themselves descendants from Christ (see, forexample, the book The Hanover Plot by Hugh Schonfield), the tunnel in whichPrincess Di was murdered is spectacularly well connected to history. Oh, anddon't forget, TWA Flight 800 was Paris-bound before it was "shot down," andamong its victims were 60 French nationals and eight members of the FrenchSecret Police.


Okay, so most of us don't buy into such wild speculations about cabalistic plotsto take over the world, but why not? Because we have a knowledge filter that,unlike George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wool?, helps us discriminate betweentruth and illusion. Most of the time the knowledge filter works quite well. Wecan tell the difference between truth and illusion, and when we can't there isusually a good reason for it—a magician is trying to fool us, or we choose tobe fooled. Think of the knowledge filter as a mental module that screens incomingideas for their veracity. It works by comparing new facts and ideas withwhat we already know from previous experiences.

    Society too has knowledge filters. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and televisionnetworks have journalistic standards and ethics that ask the same sorts ofquestions our personal knowledge filters ask. You rarely see an unopposed gueston Nightline, for example. There is always another perspective to a story, apoint-counterpoint to most assertions. Medicine and science have a built-inknowledge filter called the peer-review system. In order to get a paper publishedin a medical or scientific journal it must be read by several of your colleagues.Rarely is a paper immediately accepted for publication. Most are rejected onfirst submission, and those that are published usually go through numerousresubmissions, or are published in journals of lower reputation. Errors areweeded out, faulty reasoning is exposed, inappropriate conclusions are rebuffed.And since the reviewers remain anonymous, the critiques can sometimes bequite harsh. This is no place for the thin-skinned.

    But after centuries of constructing knowledge filters in the various fields ofinformation dispersal, something has gone terribly wrong. Ideas are doing end-runsaround the normal channels of communication, via what promises to bethe most powerful source of knowledge diffusion in history—the Internet.Good ideas, bad ideas, interesting ideas, and wacky ideas stream through cyberspaceinto our computers at breathtaking speed. On one level that's good.Recall what the printing press did for the accelerating rate of knowledge growth.In religion it made everyone his or her own priest; in science it made everyonehis or her own scholar. The Protestant Reformation and Scientific Revolutionwere the result. The telegraph, telephone, radio, and television had similar impacts.The problem is that it takes time for the knowledge filters to be implemented.There are no standards on the Internet, no peer review, and no editorsfact-checking a story before publication. Matt Drudge's Internet gossip columnis a case in point. This "Walter Winchell" of the Web is considered by many tobe the king of cybergossip — post first and ask questions later. Sometimes hescoops the big boys with breaking stories that turn out true, other times hereceives letters from attorneys threatening libel suits. Drudge summed it up witha statement to USA Today: "I don't give a damn what the bureau chief's goingto think. I don't have one." And that's the point.

    The result of this new everyone-their-own publisher is a mind-blurring potpourriof factoids and theory-mongering for the choosing. But how do wechoose? I don't have time to check out all the sources and evidence for theseideas, do you? How do you know the government isn't hiding the bodies ofaliens from another planet, or that the CIA did not smuggle drugs into thestreets of Los Angeles, or that a secret branch of the government didn't inventAIDS to decimate the gay and black populations? After all, the government haslied to us so often in the past (and who knows how much more they haven'tadmitted) that it sometimes seems like anything is possible. Maybe Kurt Cobainwas murdered. Maybe the Du Pont family maneuvered Congress to make marijuanaillegal for fear that cannabis would supplant many of their own manufacturedchemicals. Maybe the KKK really does run Snapple (see the "slave" shipon its label). I'm skeptical of all of these claims, but short of conducting myown investigations into each and every case, how can I know for sure?


Let's begin with a simple example of how one's knowledge filter works wheretruth and illusion overlap—dreams. When we are asleep the knowledge filter isoff and dreams seem as real as our waking experiences. When we first wake upand our minds are in a fog, the line between truth and illusion is blurry. Butwith time it clears and we can reflect with amusement about what once seemedso real. We can discriminate between truth and illusion with dreams becauseour knowledge filter compares them with reality. For some people, however,their knowledge filters never engage and their dreams become reality, as in asignificant percentage of alien abduction claims.

    While we are awake our knowledge filters are hard at work comparing newimages in the world with old images in memory. When you do a doubletakeof someone's face, your knowledge filter is making lightning-fast comparisonsof specific features of that face with all the faces in your memory. The knowledgefilter then declares "match" or "no match." Ideas are treated much the sameway. Recall the last time you encountered a get-rich scheme that seemed togood to be true. It probably was, but until you get burned the knowledge filterhas no database from which to compare. Thus, most of us fall for such schemesat least once. Someone recently sent me a plan on how I can make beaucoupbucks in the Asian stock market through a company called "Financial Astrology."It seems that the forecasts of a professional "Financial Astrologer" were71 percent and 74 percent accurate for the past two quarters respectively. For"only" $395 I can get her next picks. So why don't I mail my check or creditcard number in their postage-paid return envelope? Because my knowledge filterhas heard of schemes like this before—predict the rise or fall of eight stocks thatwill generate a possible 256 different outcomes (28). Mail these 256 outcomes toa large database, keeping track of who gets what combination. Assuming a stockhas an equal chance of going up or down, for every group of 256 recipients,one person on average will get a letter with all predictions correct, 7 people willhave 7 of the 8 correct and 28 will have 6 out of 8 correct. Mail letters to thosewho have received only your correct picks and ask them to send in their money.Clever, huh?


Things get more complicated with medical and scientific ideas. Answers to ourknowledge filter's questions are not always obvious. The facts do not just speakfor themselves. Experts disagree. How are nonexperts to know what to think?Is coffee bad for you or not? Do breast implants cause degenerative tissue diseaseor don't they? Should we use air bags or shouldn't we? Is the hole in the ozonecaused by pollution or isn't it? Is there a greenhouse effect warming the earth,or is this warming trend just part of the ongoing variation in global temperatures?Just what is the carrying capacity of the earth—are we already past it andon our way to doomsday, or are we nowhere near it and able to handle anotherten billion souls?

    If traditional medicine controversies befog our knowledge filters, then alternativemedicine claims cause them to cloud over altogether. If you want toexperience the alternative medical movement at its epicenter attend a WholeLife Expo. Cures for everything from AIDS and cancer to baldness and impotencyare offered, along with massages, chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture,acupressure, iridology, yoga, dowsing, channeling, aura readings, homeopathy,hypnosis, herbalism, aromatherapy, oxygen therapy, past-life regression therapy,and even future life progression therapy. Seminars at a recent Los Angeles conventionincluded "How to Improve Your Eyesight Without Glasses, ContactLenses, or Surgery," "Healing with Sound," "Your Aura Colors—What TheySay About You," "How Your Past Lives Are Influencing You Now," "ChanneledInsights From the Dolphins," and "Cosmic Orgasm for Enlightenment,"where you will "learn how to have orgasms so intense, so cosmic that with eachclimax you come back a new, better, happier person." Beam me up Scotty!

    Do people really go for this stuff?. They do, to the tame of billions of dollarsa year. Why? Because traditional medicine, as marvelous as it is, is still incapableof curing AIDS, cancer, and many other life-threatening diseases. Traditionalmedicine doesn't offer "whole" human experiences involving one's psychologicalbeing or "spiritual" needs. Even when successful, many traditional medical practicesare harsh, expensive, and delivered like automotive repair. Alternative servicesproliferate when the mainstream products fail to meet the needs of customers.No one knows this better than Deepak Chopra, a traditional medicaldoctor turned alternative medical guru (and author, novelist, poet, screenplaywriter, lecturer, CD-ROM producer, and regular talk show guest). His successmay be attributed to any number of factors—his medical credentials, his seemingpolymathic mastery of such abstruse sciences as quantum mechanics, hisIndian accent, his marketing acumen—the most important being that he meetsan apparently unfulfilled need in millions of people that is not being met bytraditional medicine. Take a trip to his Center for Well Being, nestled in a cozycorner of old town La Jolla that hugs the jagged cliffs overlooking the PacificOcean, and you'll see what I mean. Wholesomely attractive women in Californiacasual wear greet you at the welcome desk. An organic juice and salad bar invitesyou to first pass through the bookstore that is nothing short of a Chopra Shrineoffering all manner of nostrums not to be found on the shelves of your localpharmacy. Incense and massage oil call forth primal memories of smells andfeelings that shut out real-world stresses and anxieties. Books on love and lifeand lust bring a sense that here is to be found Something Special. I don't recallgetting these same feelings at my local Kaiser. When was the last time yourHMO told you "Bring your mind into balance and your body will follow." CanWestern medicine claim "the 5,000 year old healing traditions of Ayurvedawhich address the full range of human experience"? Have you ever seen a medicalbrochure with anything resembling the following offer?: "This mind bodyconnection holds the potential for not only freedom from disease, but a higherstate of health. By enlivening our inner healer, balance, wholeness, and well beingcan be restored." This is feel-good medicine. Large, multistoried hospitals withcomputers, instruments, and faceless physicians who grudgingly give you eightminutes of their time (the average doctor visit) amounts to feel-bad medicine.

    Something is amiss here. A recent survey of the nation's 126 medical schoolsfound that 34 of them offer course electives in alternative medicine. In 1991, theNational Institutes of Health established an Office of Alternative Medicine totest such claims. Why don't we have an Office of Alternative Airlines, wherethey test planes with one wing? Because regular airlines' success rate is so remarkablyhigh compared to other forms of transportation that there is no publicdemand for it. Modern medicine cannot claim such success rates. Frankly, thereis no way I would ever go to Doc Chopra before I would go to Doc Kaiser,and all of the alternative medical claims I have taken the time to investigateturned out to be total bunk. But I can understand why those who have beenlet down by the medical establishment, or who face certain death from a diseaseon which their doctors simply put a doomsday clock are tempted by such alluringoffers. Our personal knowledge filters are simply not equipped to dealwith such complex medical claims. That's why we need more and better science.


The best knowledge filter ever invented is science. Flawed as it is at times, themethods developed over the past four centuries were specifically designed tohelp us avoid errors in our thinking. As an example of how the science knowledgefilter works in a very simple and straight-forward manner (as a demonstration,not as a controlled experiment), on Monday, November 9, 1998, JamesRandi and I tested a Chinese psychic healer named Dr. Kam Yuen from ShaolinWest International (in Canoga Park, California), an "Institute of Martial Artsand Natural Medicine." According to his card, Yuen is a doctor of "ChineseEnergetic Medicine, Chiropractic, Homeopathic Medicine," as well as a "NutritionalConsultant."

    Dr. Yuen's organization contacted Randi in order to be tested for the million-dollarchallenge the James Ranch Educational Foundation offers. The test wasarranged through the NBC television show Extra!. Randi was the principalinvestigator in the experiment. Dr. Fleishman was the attending physician whowould monitor the patients for pain, while my role was to monitor Dr. Fleishmanand the other people involved to ensure that proper experimental controlswere employed.

    The claim was that Dr. Yuen can heal people, in a matter of seconds, ofintense pain and illness of virtually any kind. He stands or sits in front of theperson, stares at them intensely, waves his hands and fingers around in a ersatz-KungFu style for a few seconds, and, chango presto, the healing is completed.Patients, we are told, suddenly feel better. How do you test such a claim?

    With the help of a glitzy health club on Los Angeles' trendy west side, Extra!arranged to find, with the assistance of Dr. Fleishman, five people who hadnoticeable and constant pain of a kind that could be easily recognized if therewere any changes. Two alternates were requested. One was supplied and utilized.Each of the six subjects (five for the test and one alternate) were screenedbefore the test by Dr. Fleishman and myself, with Randi and cameras present.Each subject selected a number that they then attached to their clothing.

#1. Mary had lower back pain caused by scoliosis. She had pain to the touch that went down her right leg. On a scale of 1-10, she rated her pain as a 4 or 5.

#2. Gary had neuropathy-caused pain in his feet, especially the left foot, causing numbness in his toes and pain and a burning sensation in the ankle. He rated his pain as a 4.

#3. Nadine had carpel tunnel syndrome that causes a tingling sensation and numbness in the fingers after about five seconds of pressure applied to the wrist.

#4. Paula had an inflamed tendon and adjacent nerve that, when pressed, caused pain rated as a 7 to the touch.

#5. Don had severe pain in his right knee, which he rated as a 10 when Dr. Fleishman pressed on a particularly tender spot.

#6. (Alternate #1). Miranda had lower back and hip pain, tender to the touch, which she rated as a 5.

    For the test, Dr. Yuen was brought in and introduced to the five subjectsseated in front of him. He sat in a chair about five feet away. Each of theminformed Dr. Yuen of their problem and pain. The subjects were seated veryclose to each other—only about an inch apart, but he claimed it would notmatter and that he could heal each person individually. The subjects were numbered1-5 from left to right. All five were blindfolded using a Randi-approvedblindfold called the "Mindfold Relaxation Mask," that prevented the subjectsfrom knowing which one Dr. Yuen would be healing.

    Dr. Yuen then selected a number from an envelope to determine which subjecthe would heal for that trial. By chance alone he then would have a 20percent probability of a match between his healing attempt and a blindfoldedsubject's reporting that they felt better. Of course, this protocol was not astight as we would have liked it to be, since it was entirely possible that moreor less than one each time would report a change, and that the change couldbe better or worse. But Dr. Yuen made it quite clear that he could isolate asingle patient, cause a reduction in pain, and that he could do this five out offive times. So that was the test we were running as a preliminary to try for themillion dollars.

    Trial One. Mary, #1, reported a reduction in her lower back pain, from a4/5 to a 2, and Nadine, #3, reported a dramatic improvement in the numbnessin her fingers, from five seconds to the onset of symptoms in the pre-exam, to30 seconds in this trial, and the numbness was significantly less. Dr. Yuen hadselected Paula, #4, to work on. She reported no change at all and her painremained the same at 7. This ended the formal test since Dr. Yuen claimed hecould get five out of five, and he failed the first trial.


Excerpted from THE BORDERLANDS OF SCIENCE by MICHAEL SHERMER. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.