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And if our naive self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character- building experience? Old hat,' writes one of the referees of this book. But many 'scientific creationists' not only believe it, but are making increasingly aggressive and successful efforts to have it taught in the schools, museums, zoos, and textbooks. Because adding up the 'begats', the ages of patriarchs and others in the Bible gives such a figure, and the Bible is 'inerrant'.


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Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favour. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting all the 'Buckleys' among us, providing easy answers, dodging sceptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

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Yes, the world would be a more interesting place if there were UFOs lurking in the deep waters off Bermuda and eating ships and planes, or if dead people could take control of our hands and write us messages. It would be fascinating if adolescents were able to make telephone handsets rocket off their cradles just by thinking at them, or if our dreams could, more often than can be explained by chance and our knowledge of the world, accurately foretell the future. These are all instances of pseudoscience.

They purport to use the methods and findings of science, while in fact they are faithless to its nature - often because they are based on insufficient evidence or because they ignore clues that point the other way. They ripple with gullibility. With the uninformed cooperation and often the cynical connivance of newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio, television, movie producers and the like, such ideas are easily and widely available.

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Far more difficult to come upon, as I was reminded by my encounter with Mr 'Buckley', are the alternative, more challenging and even more dazzling findings of science. Pseudoscience is easier to contrive than science, because dis- tracting confrontations with reality - where we cannot control the outcome of the comparison - are more readily avoided. The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed. In part for these same reasons, it is much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science.

But this isn't enough to explain its popularity.

And if we're desperate enough, we become all too willing to abandon what may be perceived as the heavy burden of scepticism. Pseudoscience speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled. It caters to fantasies about personal powers we lack and long for like those attributed to comic book superheroes today, and earlier, to the gods. In some of its manifestations, it offers satisfaction of spiritual hungers, cures for disease, promises that death is not the end.

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It reassures us of our cosmic centrality and importance. It vouchsafes that we are hooked up with, tied to, the Universe. At the heart of some pseudoscience and some religion also, New Age and Old is the idea that wishing makes it so. How satisfying it would be, as in folklore and children's stories, to fulfil our heart's desire just by wishing. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes. The enchanted fish or the genie from the lamp will grant us three wishes - anything we want except more wishes.

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Who has not pondered - just to be on the safe side, just in case we ever come upon and accidentally rub an old, squat brass oil lamp - what to ask for? I remember, from childhood comic strips and books, a top- hatted, moustachioed magician who brandished an ebony walking stick. His name was Zatara. He could make anything happen, anything at all.

How did he do it? He uttered his commands backwards. So if he wanted a million dollars, he would say 'srallod noillim a em evig'. That's all there was to it. It was something like prayer, but much surer of results. I spent a lot of time at age eight experimenting in this vein.


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  • We are, as I like to say, starstuff. Pseudoscience is embraced, it might be argued, in exact propor- tion as real science is misunderstood - except that the language breaks down here. If you've never heard of science to say nothing of how it works , you can hardly be aware you're embracing pseudoscience.

    You're simply thinking in one of the ways that humans always have. Religions are often the state-protected nurseries of pseudoscience, although there's no reason why reli- gions have to play that role. In a way, it's an artefact from times long gone. In some countries nearly everyone believes in astrology and precognition, including government leaders.

    But this is not simply drummed into them by religion; it is drawn out of the enveloping culture in which everyone is comfortable with these practices, and affirming testimonials are everywhere. Most of the case histories I will relate in this book are American - because these are the cases 1 know best, not because pseudoscience and mysticism are more prominent in the United States than elsewhere.

    But the psychic spoonbender and extraterrestrial channeller Uri Geller hails from Israel. As tensions rise between Algerian secularists and Muslim funda- mentalists, more and more people are discreetly consulting the country's 10, soothsayers and clairvoyants about half of whom operate with a licence from the government.

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    High French officials, including a former President of France, arranged for millions of dollars to be invested in a scam the Elf-Aquitaine scandal to find new petroleum reserves from the air. In Germany, there is concern about carcinogenic 'Earth rays' undetectable by science; they can be sensed only by experienced dowsers brandishing forked sticks. Ghosts are something of a national obsession in Britain. Since World War Two, Japan has spawned enormous numbers of new religions featuring the supernatural.

    An estimated , fortune-tellers flourish in Japan; the clientele are mainly young women. Followers, at a high price, drank the 'miracle pond' water - from the bath of Asahara, their leader. In Thailand, diseases are treated with pills manufactured from pulverized sacred Scripture. Australian peace-keeping forces in Haiti rescue a woman tied to a tree; she is accused of flying from rooftop to rooftop, and sucking the blood of children.

    Astrology is rife in India, geomancy widespread in China. Perhaps the most successful recent global pseudoscience - by many criteria, already a religion - is the Hindu doctrine of transcendental meditation TM. The soporific homilies of its founder and spiritual leader, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, can be seen on television in America.

    Seated in the yogi position, his white hair here and there flecked with black, surrounded by garlands and floral offerings, he has a look. One day while channel surfing we came upon this visage. For a fee they promise through meditation to be able to walk you through walls, to make you invisible, to enable you to fly.

    By thinking in unison they have, they say, diminished the crime rate in Washing- ton DC and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, among other secular miracles. Not one smattering of real evidence has been offered for any such claims. TM sells folk medicine, runs trading companies, medical clinics and 'research' universities, and has unsuccessfully entered politics.

    In its oddly charismatic leader, its promise of community, and the offer of magical powers in exchange for money and fervent belief, it is typical of many pseudosciences marketed for sacerdotal export. At each relinquishing of civil controls and scientific education, another little spurt in pseudoscience occurs. Leon Trotsky described it for Germany on the eve of the Hitler takeover but in a description that might equally have applied to the Soviet Union of : Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the twentieth century the thirteenth.

    A hun- dred million people use electricity and still believe in the 20 The Most Precious Thing magic powers of signs and exorcisms. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man's genius wear amulets on their sweaters.

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    What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery! Russia is an instructive case. Under the Tsars, religious supersti- tion was encouraged, but scientific and sceptical thinking - except by a few tame scientists - was ruthlessly expunged. Under Communism, both religion and pseudoscience were systematically suppressed - except for the superstition of the state ideological religion. It was advertised as scientific, but fell as far short of this ideal as the most unself-critical mystery cult.

    Critical thinking - except by scientists in hermetically sealed compartments of know- ledge - was recognized as dangerous, was not taught in the schools, and was punished where expressed. As a result, post- Communism, many Russians view science with suspicion. When the lid was lifted, as was also true of virulent ethnic hatreds, what had all along been bubbling subsurface was exposed to view. The region is now awash in UFOs, poltergeists, faith healers, quack medicines, magic waters and old-time superstition.

    A stunning decline in life expectancy, increasing infant mortality, rampant epidemic disease, subminimal medical standards and ignorance of preventive medicine all work to raise the threshold at which scepticism is triggered in an increasingly desperate population. As I write, the electorally most popular member of the Duma, a leading supporter of the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is one Anatoly Kashpirovsky - a faith healer who remotely cures diseases ranging from hernias to AIDS by glaring at you out of your television set.

    His face starts stopped clocks. A somewhat analogous situation exists in China. After the death of Mao Zedong and the gradual emergence of a market economy, UFOs, channelling and other examples of Western pseudoscience emerged, along with such ancient Chinese practices as ancestor worship, astrology and fortune telling - especially that version that involves throwing yarrow sticks and working through the hoary tetragrams of the I Ching.

    It was and remains a rural, not primarily an urban, affliction. Individuals with 'special powers' gained enormous follow- ings. They could, they said, project Qi, the 'energy field of the Universe', out of their bodies to change the molecular structure of a chemical 2, kilometres away, to communicate with aliens, to cure diseases.