This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 27, 2006.
Hello, I’m DJ Grothe. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank affiliated with the State University of New York at Buffalo with branches in Manhattan, Tampa and Hollywood. Each week on point of inquiry, we tried to draw on the Center for Inquiry’s relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers, and to bring you interviews and commentary focusing on the three research areas here at CFI. First, there’s the paranormal and pseudo science. Second, we treat the growing alternative medicine movement, homoeopathy and complementary medicine. And third, on point of inquiry, we concentrate on the intersection of religion and science in our society, religions, secularism and nonbelief. On today’s episode of Point of Inquiry, we’re going to be joined by Chris Mooney, author of the acclaimed book The Republican War on Science. Later in the show, I’ll talk with Joe Nichols, Cyclopes senior research fellow and world famous paranormal investigator in the first of a two part series recounting specific cases of haunted houses and ghost sightings. He’s investigated. And you’re going to learn how you can get a free copy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. During our regular feature, we call from the pages of Also Benjamin Radford will share his regular commentary, Media Mythmakers. But first, Tom Flynn with a segment we call. Did you know?
Did you know that Christian conservatives have responded to criticism of aggressive Christian proselytizing in the military by seeking to make it official? Media accounts say conservative congresspersons have persuaded President Bush to pressure the Pentagon to make more room for evangelical Christianity in the armed forces. Look for uniformed chaplains to get the green light to offer prayers to Jesus Christ that exclude Jews, Muslims, the non-religious, everyone who isn’t Christian. Did you know that Democratic legislators in Georgia and Alabama are trying to out faith their Republican opponents by sponsoring bills that would encourage Bible classes in public schools? Did you know that belief in ghosts and haunted houses has been on the rise over the past 15 years? According to Gallup, polls taken in 1990 and again in 2001, belief in both ghosts and haunted houses among Americans rose 13 percent to a total of 38 percent and 42 percent of all Americans respectively. While paranormal beliefs increased across the board, the survey found beliefs in ghosts and haunted houses saw the largest increases. Did you know that the only paranormal belief not to see increase in the 2001 Gallup survey was belief in possession by the devil, which actually dropped eight percent to a total of only 41 percent of Americans.
It’s a real pleasure for me to have this week’s guest Chris Mooney on point of inquiry. I first became friends with Chris in the late 90s when we both were first getting involved with CFI and at student outreach program, what we now call Center for Inquiry on campus. Since then, Chris has become a Washington correspondent for Seed magazine, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. His writing focuses on issues at the intersection of science and politics. Chris has contributed to a number of other publications over the last few years as well, including Wired. New Scientist. Slate. Mother Jones. The Washington Post. The L.A. Times and The Boston Globe. In addition to appearing widely in the media on programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, NPR’s Science Friday and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. His blog, called The Intersection, was a recipient of Scientific American’s 2005 Science and Technology Web Award, which noted that in quotes, science is lucky to have such a staunch ally, an acclaimed journalist Chris Mooney. He’s on point of inquiry today to talk about his first book, the critically acclaimed Republican War on Science, which I’d like to let our listeners know can be purchased at a discount at point of inquiry dot org. The Republican War on Science was hailed as a landmark in contemporary political reporting by Salon dot com and as a well researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing’s assault on science and scientists by Scientific American magazine. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Chris.
Thanks for having me.
He’s it’s really great for.
Chris, you’ve treated subjects in your book that have developed into big news stories over the last few years. Global warming, stem cell research, abortion, evolution versus intelligent design or creationism. But haven’t there always been these wars? Haven’t there always been these political wars over these kinds of issues?
To some extent, yes. Certainly the evolution is one that goes back many decades. However, I contend and I think there’s a lot of evidence to support that, that we have a deeply troubling situation now because the political attacks on science have escalated.
Become more strategic and early invested. The Bush administration.
Your book is called The Republican War on Science. But are Republicans really that much worse at it than Democrats are? I mean, the political uses, the political abuses of science. Is it just a Republican thing?
Not just a Republican thing, but it’s clear that the current Republican Party is much worse when it comes to political misuse of science. And that’s because the Republican Party today appealing to interest groups, both of which are attacking science in the areas that religious conservatives, on the one hand, corporate America and the other. And so what happens is you start to see tax unsign across a wide, different range of topics and they’re really infesting the federal government right now. So that is a unique situation that you would not see, I think that a Democratic administration.
Can you give me some examples of why the Bush administration specifically is so bad here?
Well, the Bush administration, there’s so many case studies and this is the sign of the Bush decision. Now, it’s really hard to count the ball, but things like force editing of scientific documents relating to climate change by people in the White House, ranging from that kind of tampering with scientific actual scientific studies by the government to outrageous statements by the president supporting it was designed or misleading the public about the available another embryonic stem cell lines.
If at all levels of the administration is really quite disturbing.
Would you say it’s directed by the leadership or it’s just endemic to the whole party? Where’s it coming from?
That’s coming from the interest group. It’s coming, I think, from the groups that Republicans in power and these groups, for various political reasons, want to attack scientific information that we all know. The religious conservatives don’t like evolution, don’t like stem cell research and industry doesn’t like the science suggesting this is global warming and a lot of cases or other topics like that. Those interest groups are attacking the science and then the politicians who are beholden to the interest groups go along. Or in the case of the Bush administration, the administration puts in place political appointees who are beholden to the interest groups who go along with the attack on science. And that’s why it is assessing the program.
Is it just the skill of political operatives and consultants, just obligations of the Republican Party to their interest groups, or is there more going on? I guess what I’m getting at is would you blame some of this at least on the lack of scientific literacy or on the views of religious ideologues who were mobilizing their base to elect these Republicans here?
Well, I think that clearly a lack of scientific literacy doesn’t help matters, but I don’t think it would solve the problem.
I think that, you know, certainly the extremism of some of the people on the religious right is fueling a lot of what we’re seeing. But I think that if there’s one thing that’s really facilitated the attack on science, it’s the fact that the race today has found a way to generate its own scientific opinion within politicians. And you can advance particular political objectives. And in the process, ignore what mainstream science says. And the way this has been done is through the creation of thinking advocacy groups and other outlets that provide a very dubious take on science that is politically convenient to the political right. So a great example of that would be the Discovery Institute, which is leading the attack on evolution and is essentially doing an end run around every biology department at a university in the country.
You claim that this bad science or junk science is being funded by political purposes. You’ve mentioned in your book and just now think tanks, right wing think tanks. But is this only being done on the right? Is there such thing as a liberal science versus a conservative science?
There is left wing misuses of science. I talk about them in my book. It’s not that they don’t exist. It’s just that they are not really central to Democratic political strategy, I think because they’re coming from the more the fringes of democratically oriented interest groups. So, for example, the animal rights people write, Democrats still stay up late at night wondering whether the animal rights people are going to support them or not. But because as this is sort of a more extreme group, clearly they are attacking researchers. They’re misusing science cases. Some of the more extreme environmentalists, again, same charge hold. I think that this stuff does happen on the left. I don’t mean to suggest that it doesn’t.
All I’m saying is that we really see a systematic problem from the political right and the people are actually running the country right now. And we really ought to be much more concerned about that.
I want to talk more about that in a moment, but just want to ask about the culture war issues. They said in the last. Election that moral values questions mobilized many voters. And these cultural issues, these moral values questions seem to be focal points of this war on science, stem cell research, cloning, abortion, even things like euthanasia and gay rights. Science has one view on these matters. And religion, at least fundamentalist religion has a different view. Is this really just a religious war on science?
Well, that leaving out all the corporate abuses we can talk about.
But clearly part of this part of the attack on evolution and the attack on stem cell research are driven by the Christian right campaign to impose their morality upon America itself. That’s what this is really all about. And science really has anything to do with it. They can care less about science. Their goals are moral in nature. But the problem is that they run roughshod over science in the process and end up abusing, distorting, undermining and attacking science, whether it’s evolution or whether it’s their attack on the science of embryonic stem cell research. They don’t just make moral arguments. And if they did just make moral arguments, I would just have to disagree with them on a moral level. But they make phony, dubious scientific sounding arguments to back up their positions in the process in this League of the People about science.
They use bad social science to usher forth a public policy agenda that doesn’t hold water. Consider some of their arguments regarding gay rights or gay marriage. Would that be an example of this kind of war on science?
I don’t actually know that much about the social science on that particular topic, but that may be true. I wouldn’t be surprised what I’m talking about. The war I cover in the book, for example, is something like the stem cell issue where they’ve concocted this really ridiculous argument, the idea that they need embryonic stem cell research because adult stem cell research will tell scientists everything that they need to know. This is something that they’ve just who knows where they’ve got it from because this stem cell researcher takes it seriously. But that’s one of their arguments for not doing the research. And it’s a scientific right that there’s a scientific argument that no scientist working this area would really set.
You just mentioned the corporate interests, the big business interests as being one of the origins of the Republican war on science. Can you give me some examples of of those interests?
Well, I think that the best example at the present moment, though, there are many others. That example at the present moment is clearly the fossil fuel industry is not a monolithic industry. They know not every company is the same.
But a lot of these companies in this industry has been in transition on global warming and they have been supportive of attacks on the science, demonstrating that human beings are causing global average temperatures to rise through emissions of battlefield gasoline. So that’s one of the key case studies where in this case, not religious conservatives, but industry has been attacked.
Is there support for that big business agenda within the religious right?
Well, that’s the interesting question of what happens here. It seems to me is that these are two different interest groups and their views are not always completely compatible. But at the present moment, with a Republican leadership, both groups, they’re getting what they want. And I don’t think either one wants to rock the boat. And so neither one, I think, sniped at the other, even though, in fact, their views are sort of compatible in a lot of ways. One great example of how they’re compatible is if you think about fossil fuel companies, they are making money. Their business model is reliant upon that old earth because fossil fuels are produced by think of diseases and geological process.
So the creationist course says the earth is 6000 years old. Well, that’s true. I don’t know how we could have fulfilled field. You would think that these two that come into conflict and there is an inherent conflict there, but they just don’t get into big dust up about it.
They don’t attack because both are doing well at the present moment under this administration right away. You know, Weigand is a sort of Internet site.
So you’re saying there are big business interests and religious right interests? They’re not the same interests, but they’re both waging this war on science and this Republican war on science. Is there any reason to think that these two groups will eventually part ways? Or will religious conservative interests always be tied to corporate interests?
No. It could easily be the case that they get a wedge driven between them. We don’t really see that happening at the present moment. It would probably be a good strategy to try to drive that wedge.
What amazes me is the audacity of people like Ralph Reed few years ago. I think it came out on The Washington Post that he had this proposal to an Iran where he would mobilize a base of his supporters. You know, this is when he founded Century Consulting, the Christian political consulting firm. He’d mobilize a base of supporters around what issue? Not promoting the gospel, not saving souls, but energy deregulation. He went to Enron. He said, pay me 380000 bucks and I will mobilize these Christian footsoldiers around energy deregulation. And I don’t know if that that strong connection between the religious right and the corporate interests will ever be able to get a wedge knocked between.
Yeah, well, it’s certainly, you know, the Republicans are rising, they’re succeeding. And this is either their success of bringing these two powerful groups together to key constituencies of today’s Republican Party. So, you know, it’s worth working at the moment. But in the long term, you know, it could it could very well be that we have some sort of political realignment.
Chris, what’s the biggest threat to science, religious forces or threat from big business? Suppose, for instance, that we suppose we eliminate all the right wing religious bias against science. Wouldn’t there be just as big a threat from the privatization, the owning of knowledge from commercial interests and market forces engaged in scientific research?
I guess I’m a little bit less worried about what’s coming from industry because I don’t see it as a fundamental dismissal of science itself.
In other words, when you take, for example, fossil fuel companies, you know, they might be attacking the signs of global warming. But at the same time, they’re relying upon science to find out where, you know, the oil is located and things like that. You know, it’s their attacks are opportunistic at that. Then they really attack them before setting the bar of life with a religious conservative. I think that they don’t even come here. I think that they’re willing to throw out math. They don’t have scientific knowledge like everything we know about evolution. They’re just going to dismiss it outright. They’re even willing to try to redefine science that includes the supernatural, changing the very nature of science itself. So I think that what they’re trying to do to undermine science is more fundamental and more scary in their attempt to undermine science.
They were recently dealt what some would hope to be a fatal blow, although those of us who were involved and kind of tracking this kind of stuff realize it won’t be too fatal. I’m talking about the Dover, Pennsylvania, ruling by Judge John Jones. Would you think of that?
But it was a brilliant ruling. It’s exactly what people like myself and a lot of scientists have been saying about intelligent design for. Long time it isn’t science, it is religion. And when you look in detail and you apply critical thinking to the intelligent design movement, what they’re seeing, what they’re doing, really hard to reach any other conclusion. So I’m glad the judge reached that conclusion and did so eloquently in that opinion. That is over 30 pages long and is likely to be read for many years to come.
Do you think it will slow down the intelligent design movement at all?
It’s certainly going to slow them down.
I don’t think that it’s going to end their advocacy, because what we know from looking at the history of creationism in America is that this is sort of a piece that has changed its form every time it’s defeated, has been defeated many times in the past, and now it’s been defeated again. And I think it will be defeated more and more in the future. But, you know, they don’t give up.
I’d like to let our listeners know that Chris Mooney’s book, the important and critically acclaimed Republican War on Science, is available at a discount at point of inquiry dot org. Chris, can you give me some other examples of the Republican war on science?
Before we talk about the left, we talk about evolution. We talk about climate change. Let’s take another one. Religious conservatives care about anything having to do with sacramentally. So they again, this is them trying to impose their moral view on society.
They are against sex outside of marriage and they are for abstinence only education, which only teaches kids about abstinence and doesn’t tell them about contraception.
This is a moral position that they are supporting in the process. They call with science and innumerable, very disturbing ways, ranging from exaggerating the failure rates of condoms or to scare people away.
Jim Underdown new document this in your book?
Yeah, yeah. This is this is one of the many case studies in the book, packing Plan B, emergency contraception and again, using science to undermine drug that if it was more widely available, it would not only prevent unwanted pregnancies, but it could actually prevent reduce the number of abortions. And yet somehow they don’t care. They just want to undermine a drug that they claim without evidence is going to increase promiscuity.
And they just make that assertion of the fact that science suggests otherwise.
So there’s a big attack on contraception. Big attack on same sex. That is, again, reliant upon misusing and abusing science. Peter.
Chris, you make a really persuasive case in your book that there is a Republican war on science. But can you give me some examples of liberal or leftist abuses or uses of science for political causes?
I would say that it’s that there are occasional democratic skirmishes with science. So we talk about the environmentalists.
I think that they’ve clearly exaggerated science of something like human health or genetically modified food.
We talk about animal rights people. They actually go attack researchers in the labs and stuff. Clearly, this is an attack on science.
Another great example is I think that to some extent on the stem cell issue, some of the pro research advocates who are allied with Democrats have perhaps been a little bit and unconscious and exaggerated the potential of embryonic stem cell research. Deliver quick cures. What about global warming?
Well, there may have been some overstatement of people on the left. But what we’re seeing on the right is really a much, much more egregious actual attack on the very notion that global warming is happening and incredible rampant.
It is a desire on the left. You know, there might be some exaggeration. They often really compared to the campaign of misinformation. Dale.
Chris, you explore the political uses of science in a democracy. Who should determine the uses of science? Who should determine how public monies are spent to do scientific research and to support what kinds of scientific research? I mean, given the profound, really important social impact of scientific knowledge and its applications for society, should the public play a role in influencing the direction of research? Or are you saying that it shouldn’t play a role at all? If it does play a role, that seems to be a political use of science.
Oh, yeah. Well, see, the funding of science raises different in some ways more complexity when it comes to the funding of science. Clearly, politicians have got to make the final decisions. They’re the ones that appropriate decide how the public money is spent. Clearly, scientific research that’s funded. Important to advance basic knowledge, but it’s also important to fund science that is going to serve some public purpose, such as curing diseases or producing more efficient, fuel efficient technologies. So, you know, there’s a lot of politics that are inherently involved in what science is funded. On the other hand, politicians need to listen to a scientific peer review process or to determine which grant proposals are most meritorious should receive funding. There’s got to be some interaction there. But I agree that there’s a lot of politics that goes into this.
I want to ask you what the alternative to political science might be. It seems like either either the scientific and commercial elites get to advance their own interests.
You know, this scientist goes for that research project because of the grant tied to it. And he has his own interests. He gets politically motivated to advance them or it’s going to be the public calling all the shots, which seems anti scientific in itself, cause people don’t we don’t imagine that people just get together and vote over what kind of science gets done or or who gets to do it. But if it’s the public, you might have to deal with Dom, elected officials who believe in creationism and stuff like that. So who should decide who should decide what kind of science is done?
Well, it’s not an either or here. I mean, clearly, politicians of that I talk to scientists to determine what kind of research deserve funding. And more generally, I’m not talking that much about funding as I am about actually help politicians present in the short article. Finally, information is something of a different issue. They’re politicians, they’re not scientists, but they need scientific knowledge in order to make the decision that they’ve got to delegates in. Some said they have the delegates who scientists in order to get reliable information from them.
They can then be used in political decision making process.
So there has to be a productive and strong relationship between scientific experts and political leaders. And that has to be structured in such a way that the politicians are getting reliable science and not a tentative bias from their advisers. That’s the kind of situation we need to set up.
And unfortunately, I only have you show in your book that it’s systematically been what demolished by the current administration. Scientific advisory bodies have been dismantled or thrown out to pasture. Can you give me some examples of that?
Sure. Well, it goes back further than this administration.
The Gingrich Republicans took over Congress and they got rid of the technology assessment because they’re well-respected scientific advisory body to the U.S. Congress, which still hasn’t been replaced, is very much needed when it comes to the Bush administration. You find that the scientific advisory process has been dismantled, that government agency after government agency. And so the role of science is being undermined, that the Food and Drug Administration, when it comes to whether Plan B, emergency contraception to be made available over the counter. You know, the scientific reports are being forcefully edited at the Environmental Protection Agency on climate change and and other agencies relate to climate change. The White House is changing documents at different agencies. There’s been allegations of distorting scientific information about sexual health on government Web sites, scientific advisory committees, health in political directions of what the whole scientific advisory apparatus has really been weakened and thrown into question.
And you shed spotlight on that. Has your work had any positive effect?
I mean, in terms of politics, in terms of people there in Washington, I think that my work has helped shine a lot of light on a lot of these abuses and abuses. And the positive impact that I’ve seen from it is not any policy changes that I can see, but rather the mobilization of scientists to really do something about the problem, which I think may actually hopefully develop into some sort of conservative political action, whether it’s to promote better public understanding of science or to actually, you know, electorally try to hold accountable some of the politicians who are the worst abusers.
Do you find that scientists are more willing now than they were in the last few years to be more, if not just politically active, to be more activist, to get more involved in mobilizing other people or in speaking up?
I think that they are. And I think that it’s a result of all the problems that we’ve discussed. Scientists are getting it. They’re worried about what’s happening at the national level with all the resources that they have coming from the administration. And they’re worried about what’s happening at the local level with the attack on evolution. And on top of that, Congress is also regularly misusing the is both as well. The scientists feel under siege. And it’s not surprising that in this situation, they would awaken and say, you know what? We’ve been ignoring politics for too long. We are not an insignificant interest group. Let’s actually try to make something happen.
Put your prognosticators hat on and tell me what you think is next with the I.D. versus evolution wars in the post over era.
Well, we’re going to see the intelligent design movement rejigger its strategy and come up with new techniques for undermining evolution at the state level, whether through laws passed by state legislatures or actions by school board, their actions by state board of education. And I think what we’re going to see is them moving away from actually discussing intelligent design. And depending more upon this misleading attack on evolution.
Chris, if our listeners are alarmed by the things you report on in your book, alarmed by the things you’re talking about in this conversation, what can they do to make a difference?
Well, there’s a lot of organizations is a really good work to defend the integrity of science. And I cannot mention everyone that is their religion. But if people are concerned about what’s happening here, probably support groups that are working on it. And one of them would be the National Center for Science Education, which has been defending the teaching of evolution.
Another concern, scientist is one of the groups that really brought to light a lot of the problems with this is the science and the Bush administration.
Chris, thanks for being on the show. It was a pleasure.
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Dot org. Every week on point of inquiry, we bring you a segment called From the pages of this time, it’s from the pages of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I’d like to let you know that you can get a free copy of Skeptical Inquirer magazine by calling one 800 six three, four, 16, 10 during business hours and mentioning point of inquiry. Skeptical Inquirer magazine is the magazine for science and reason this issue. January February 2006 has a cover story by Martin Gardner, considered the grandfather of the modern skeptical movement, public intellectual, recreational mathematician and writer. He’s contributed a piece called The Memory Wars. It was a tragic mental health scandal, accusations resulting from supposedly long repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse brought to light by self deluded therapists and questionable and suggestive techniques such as hypnotism. The false memory wars, which raged throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, are slowly subsiding, but they are far from over. This first part of a series by Martin Gardner entitled Memory Wars is the cover story of this issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. And again, to get a free copy of this issue, call one 800 six three, four, 16, 10.
And now point of inquiry contributor and Skeptical Inquirer managing editor Benjamin Radford brings us the segment entitled Media Mythmakers, offering criticism and insight into how the Media Sometimes Deceives the public.
This past holiday season, once again, Barbie Dolls were a best seller. Mattel is a world famous fashion doll, has become a cash cow, selling nearly two billion dollars worth of merchandise each year. Barbie is also, of course, part of many girls childhood. Just before Christmas, however, a team of British researchers announced that many young girls mutilate and torture their Barbie dolls. According to University of Bath researcher Agnes Narin. Quote, The girls we spoke to see Barbie torture as legitimate activity and types of mutilation are varied and creative and ranged from removing the hair to decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving. The reason, Narain said, was that the girls see the Barbie doll as childish. Instead of a treasured toy. What’s this aggression against the beloved Barbie? Could it be this society is wrong about how young girls view Barbie? For decades, journalists and social critics have assumed the young girls idolize Barbie dolls. But little actual research has been done on the topic. Barbie has been blamed for a variety of social problems. In a 2000 Time magazine column, Amy Dickinson wrote that, quote, Women my age know whom to blame for our self-loathing eating disorders and distorted body image. Barbie and her feminist bestseller, The Beauty Myth. Naomi Wolf bashes Barbie, claiming she is an impossible ideal. This claim is echoed in hundreds of books, Web sites, magazine articles and television programs. Critics denounced the images and dolls, stating, well, they, of course, are enlightened and reject the beauty myth. Most girls aren’t smart enough to do the same. Yet recent evidence, including the University of Bath study, suggested that the Barbie ideal may be a myth. Just because a girl plays with the Barbie doll does not mean she idolizes it or views it as a physical role model. Critics say that if Barbie were real, she couldn’t walk upright or be too thin to menstruate. What Barbie isn’t real, it’s a toy. It was never intended to represent a healthy body or physical ideal. It seems obvious, but many writers miss this point. Who said doll should be realistic? Barbie’s critics fall into this logical trap of criticizing the doll for not being something it was never claimed to be. Of course, Barbie doesn’t represent healthy bodies proportions. Neither do Rackety and Mr. Potato Head or the Cabbage Patch kids. Girls are smarter than Barbie critics give them credit for. They know the Barbie is just a doll. The claim the Barbie can cause eating disorders also rests on shaky assumptions. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are serious diseases. They can’t be caught from playing with dolls. Research has shown that the disorders are strongly influenced by genetic factors, not thin dolls or media images. I’ve often seen children torturing and intentionally damaging toys of all kinds, not just ones, the researchers seem to give socio cultural significance when a child pushes his red firetruck hard into a wall or throws it around. Don’t interpret that as a symptom of fear, hatred of firetrucks or authority. It’s just playing. But when it’s a fashion doll, critics interpret everything the child does with a doll as a sign. It seems that not a single survey, poll or study has shown that girls actually want to look like Barbie dolls in the rush to criticize Barbie and thin images. The assumptions got ahead of the scientific evidence. The whole Barbie as model idea is useful in academic arguments, but there’s no evidence of its real world validity. Eating disorders and self-esteem are important issues, but they have little to do with Barbie dolls. So parents can relax. The kids are all right, even if they torture a Barbie known then. Think about it.
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We’re now joined in the studio by Dr. Joe Niccolò, the world’s leading paranormal investigator, a former professional stage magician who was resident magician at the Whodini Magical Hall of Fame for three years and also a former private investigator for a world famous detective agency. Dr. Niccolò taught at the University of Kentucky before joining PSI Cop as senior research fellow here at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Using his extensive background in a number of fields, Nickel has become widely known as an investigator of myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries and hoaxes. He’s been called the modern day Sherlock Holmes, the original Ghostbuster and the Real-Life Scully after the character An X Files. He’s investigated scores of haunted houses, including the Amityville Horror Case and the McKensie House in Toronto, Canada. Author of more than 20 books, he’s a veteran of hundreds of TV and radio appearances. In fact, he just finished nine episodes for National Geographic’s new series entitled Is It Real? Joe, thanks for joining us on Point of Inquiry again. Good to be back today. Let’s talk about haunted houses. Your extensive experience in investigating ghosts and poltergeists. Let’s start with the Mackenzie house that I just mentioned. The haunted house in Toronto.
Well, I have been in more haunted houses than Casper and the very first one. And thank you for laughing at that. Yeah, it’s not my job to laugh. I found it funny. Yeah. The the very first case that I investigated of that sort.
And one of my earliest paranormal investigations, 1972 Mackenzie House in Toronto, Canada, 82 Bond Street. I remember it still vividly for about 10 years. It had become Canada’s most famous haunted house.
And I was living in Toronto and I was at a tourist attraction or just well known.
It was just just people would write about it. It was a national historic site in Canada. And at one point, caretakers had lived in the house and they reported all sorts of ghostly shenanigans. Well, on different occasions, they heard footsteps on the stairs. One night, Caretaker’s wife woke up and saw a man in a frock coat, presumably McKenzie standing by her bed. Witches and warlocks had been there and had taken photographs and and gotten spooky effects. So it was really there had been an exorcism. It really was quite a local radio station, it sounds like, of the facts and claims. And 14 years this had gone on and gotten press attention, particularly, of course, around Halloween. And I decided to go there and see what I could find out. It was really a lesson to me. Would you learn? I found that the caretaker and his wife really had been. Experiencing phenomena and really were hearing footsteps on the stay, so it wasn’t just all in in their head.
It wasn’t something you could just reject. And though wasn’t a claim you could just throw out as being nonsense from crazy people.
Right. Or even, I think, deliberate hoaxing. I mean, they really were hearing. I mean, I know this. There were footsteps on the stairs late at night when no one was in the house. The house was locked. How could this be? Well, there’s proof of ghost, right? So they thought I found out. I remember taking a tour of the house. It had changed in its status. By the time I got there, they no longer were families living as caretakers in the house. But it was open for tours and there were tour guides and a young lady.
When I pressed her, as she said, I’ve heard footsteps on the stairs during the day, she told me. Well, ordinarily wouldn’t hear it as well during the day, with a bustle of traffic outside, horns blaring and that sort of thing, more at night, which is very quiet. And she said she got there one time. She got to the staircase just in time to get her ear against the wall. And she said, You know, sir. I think there’s a staircase next door. Well, this was like a revelation. I decided I’ll just go next door and see neighbors next door. Next door was the Macmillan Publishing Company.
McMillan Publishing Company was next door to McKenzie.
That’s right. And so when we hear that one of the phenomena was a printing press being heard late at night, you think, ah ha ha. And I love to tell skeptics this story because they go for that quickly, as I did. Sounds like, oh, well, I you know, I know where that’s going. And again, another great lesson.
Don’t rush to judgment because it when I went next door, it turns out there is no printing press. Next door was only an office building and warehouse, no earnings press.
It was just McMillan offices. It wasn’t.
They were I think not a printing plant. Right. So that was a lesson to me. But nevertheless, sounds of the printing press, sounds of footsteps on the stairs. Many of those were coming from the next door building, which, by the way, had a parallel Iren staircase and was only about 40 inches away. They, in other words, against adjacent walls that there was a small walkway between the two buildings. Otherwise, they were very close. And I asked the caretaker about the printing press. He said, well, he showed me what he thought it was, was late at night. The cleanup crew had metal garbage cans on these big heavy wheeled carts that they dragged around the basement. And you got a rumbling, clattering sound that sounded like an old printing press telegraphed to the building, the basement in the building next door because of its proximity. It’s right there. Exactly. And so I think people really were hearing these sounds. I asked the caretaker as well, why didn’t you come forward? And he saw what I even think was his job to rain on anyone’s parade, but that he resolved that if anyone came and asked him, he would tell them what he thought. And I said, so I’m the first one is. That’s right. You’re the first one, whoever you were the first one to actually investigate, actually investigate. To the extent that I sort of just saying, oh, I’ve confirmed that there were funny goings on and called that an investigation. No, I wanted to solve the mystery. So I went naturally, went next door as directed by this very sharp turkiye, this young lady and other phenomena then quickly fell into place. Caretaker’s wife woke up and saw a ghost. That’s a very well-known phenomenon called a waking dream. You’re in a state you can sometimes wake into a state that’s between being fully awake and fully asleep. And in that state, people tend to see ghosts and aliens and angels and the like. So when someone says, I was lying in bed and I woke up and I saw whatever good bet that they’re having, one of these experiences is very striking. Hypnagogic hitting a pompous state. Yes. Yes. They’re called hypnagogic. If you’re going to sleep, you can’t call him Nipon pick if you’re waking from sleep. I see there’s a slight difference between the two because you’re more likely if you’ve been already deeply asleep, not just going to sleep, but have been deeply asleep and wake out of it to have what’s called sleep paralysis in which you’re unable to move. And so sometimes people waking to the state, they’re unable to move. They see strange entities and they think the ghost is holding them down all right or something. Or in the Middle Ages, a demon setting demons sitting on their chest, or today, a more likely alien abduction. Aliens have them strapped down and are doing something terrible to them. But these are these kinds of dreams seem very, very real. And they seem unlike an ordinary dream.
What kind of reaction did those at Mackenzie House who believed in the ghosts, what kind of reaction did they have to your.
Well, they were gone, actually, by the time I got there, the original caretakers family had had long gone, but other people were the various who lived in, well, the Mackenzie house people themselves. The staff there was very professional. And they were not they were not promoting it. It was more or less was more. These were stories that had been told in the past and people who would come in ghost hunters, and it was Rex Suzanne on Amadei and. Right. And people would come in and stay overnight and and report on things. But in fact, a McKinsey the McKinsey house people were always, I think, quite responsible.
Did your investigation make waves to get a reaction from the credulous?
As often happens with my work, I’m just usually ignored the skeptics view, as is often dismissed.
You remember, it’s the last five or ten minutes on in the documentary on TV, on Ghosts or Alien.
And people who have decided to believe in in things are often very stubborn and will tell you. Well, I, I just choose not to believe that.
And it’s not my job to wrestle them to the ground, but to use the the cases to to talk to people who are open minded. And McKinsey also in that sense is a very good case because it shows why it’s important to go onsite to investigate as opposed to just sitting.
That’s right. You while you were living in Toronto at the time, as opposed to just sitting at home saying I’m a Kinzie house. No such thing as ghosts. Yeah.
The problem making that right or something. No, there was actually some sort of interesting acoustical things going on. Some interesting psychological things going on.
So you rolled up your sleeves. You investigated it. That gave you credibility as an investigator. You weren’t just rejecting out of it out of hand. It also sounds like you had fun doing it.
I had a great time doing it.
And I thought I rather naively, as I look back on this, I thought, oh, this is what we do, then we just have to actually go to a site, really, you know, look for the evidence, figure it out, puzzle it out. We can do this. And and then people will believe and what we’ve found and they won’t give us a Nobel Prize or something. And no, in fact, people will ignore you. They will call you names. It will do any of a number of things, but you will have some effect. I have had many people have found my explanations at McKinsey s quite credible and compelling. Persuasive. Sounds like that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in any haunted houses as a result. But they don’t believe in McKenzie house very much if they’ve seen my results. Right.
The most famous haunting in America, the most famous haunted house is the Amityville Horror. There were the movies done about it. I remember as a kid that spooked the heck out of me. The Amityville Horror got the benefit of your investigative scrutiny. Why don’t you tell us about that? Would you find when you investigated that paranormal scene?
I wasn’t able to actually get in the house because of lawsuits. But I but I and I arrived a little a little late. What happened in Amityville happened very, very briefly over a very short period of time with George and Kathy Lutz claiming all sorts of things like doors and windows twisted off their hinges by demonic forces. All right. Devils tracks in the snow and the like. And really, before any investigators could get there and get in there, that at all stop.
There was there was nothing to see or witness. It was a matter of people alleged this had had happened in the past. We had already by this time had people, someone who lived in the house and knew nothing had happened to. And now when I got there, the Cromartie family was living there and they were really annoyed, to say the least, that there were claims. The place being haunted or demonically possessed or whatever, when they really were saying they knew better. I mean, nothing was living there. Everything was fine. Yeah. Everything was fine. And they had, of course, read the book and they could tell you that some of that stuff didn’t seem to make sense in their estimation. But I talked to Barbara comedy on different occasions. I was a consultant for a couple of TV shows and was responsible for some skepticism on those shows. And and as a result, can say a few things about what happened at Amityville. Number one, there was no snow on the ground at the time of these Devil’s Foot tracks. So that was made up.
And the door can have foot tracks in the snow if there’s no snow.
That’s right. And there the hardware was still on those doors and windows. The old hardware were the old varnish on it. They had not been replaced. No locksmith had been called to the house. In fact, the police in Maine called allows these claims.
All of those were claims made in the book and made in the book, Jay Enson and were not true. It turns out that an attorney named William Webber, who was an attorney for the murderer, Ronald DeFeo, who murdered his entire family in that house and helped give rise to this spooky, spooky atmosphere. William Weber testified that that story was made up in his law office over several bottles of wine with George and Kathy Lohr. No kidding. And that was reported in People magazine at the time. What? What happened? Apparently, Weber was wanting to claim that there were demonic forces in order to claim that his client was driven to to to homicide. And that that would play in his favor. I think is really a kind of a weird defense theory here than the Twinkie did. Yeah, it’s pretty, pretty silly stuff. But that’s what he was after in the Lutzes, I assume, or were interested in fame and fortune. But that’s what he alleged. And then that that seems corroborated by much of the actual evidence that some of the stuff didn’t happen, that it was made up, and by people who lived in the house subsequently who found that was quite an ordinary an ordinary place.
So I think the Amityville Horror should be called properly the Amityville Hoax.
You’ve investigated probably more haunted houses than anybody. Certainly more haunted houses than anyone I know.
If you’ve if you follow my what I call investigation, because people like Hans Holter and others may have been in more. I mean, Hans Helzer is.
Yeah, Pretty Romancer is a walk around, but they’re not investigating you. Do you really investigate?
I think they’re collecting collecting spine tingling tail. Right. Collectively, a string doing so and going in monitoring that mystery.
So you’ve actually investigated more haunted houses than anyone. I have a couple of questions for you. One. What makes people believe in these hauntings? What makes people want to believe in these ghosts? Or do they are they shocked and appalled that they believe in them? And then what kinds of things do people offer as evidence that their house is haunted?
Well, those are very good questions. And and I struggle with them all the time because I think they’re they’re interesting questions. Why? Why do we believe I know that I remember when my grandmother died and how much I did not want that to be the case as a boy. And I could almost imagine her presence and those feelings very strong. And I understand the very human feelings. We don’t want our loved ones to be dead and we want them to live on. And so there’s a very strong human tendency to to want to talk to the dead, to communicate, to believe that they’re still around in some kind of way.
But so many of these hauntings don’t seem to be fulfilling a yearning in the human heart for belief in the afterlife. They seem to be scaring the hell out of some poor housewife.
Well, they do. It obviously depends on the person and the circumstance. Some some people have what they call visitations in. Their dead father appears at their bedside, gives a message or they have signs things happen around the house and that they’re sure their father is still in the house and trying to communicate with them, that sort of thing. On one level. On the other level, just because we have a cultural belief in ghosts, there is there is just a strong tradition, as people have seen so much promoting ghosts that it seems a minority view to suggest that there’s not much there. One of Shakespeare’s characters says why I can call up spirits from the Vasey Deep. And the other one says, well, so can I. And so can any man. But will they come when you do call them? And that’s that’s the question whether they really, really exist or not. What kind of things do people offer as evidence of ghosts?
When you’re investigating a ghost scene, what kinds of things do people tell you happened if they’re trying to convince you that a ghost is inhabiting their abode?
They tend to be physical things.
And right away, not just sensations. It’s not just I walked through through that cold part of the house.
Well, the cold is that’s they’re suggesting that maybe that’s an objective, actual cold and not just to some subjective feeling, but but you’re you’re hitting right on where some of the questions are. They’re saying they hear noises. Maybe they really hear noises. Not imagining that they hear noises again. What’s the truth there? They’re seeing things occasionally waking up at night. As we’ve discussed and seeing a ghost or even not being in bed, not being asleep, seeing a ghost during normal waking activity. So that calls for some explanation. We have to to look into that. And I have been studying that. But the irony is that the ghosts, which from one point of view are not physical at all and can walk right through a wall, nevertheless seem to be sort of physical there, leave heavy, noisy thudding footsteps on stairs. And they they they appear partially visible in back into us and they show up on photographs. And so they’re sort of causing physical.
And of course, the best evidence is that ghostly phenomena is easily explained when we take a hard look at it, that the.
Photographs are photographs of malfunctioning flash, all right, or something bouncing the flash, bouncing off of something. The sightings are often when people are highly imaginative people, maybe they’re tired or in a day dreaming state and they get momentarily get a sort of Felisha from the subconscious or their squirrels on the roof or banging shutters or some other thing.
And when we investigate, we often can find those those thing have those kinds of answers, those explanations that you give when you investigate one of these paranormal scenes. Are those compelling or persuasive for those who believe in the ghost? Did. Do they make sense at all?
Really? It really does depend on the person because some people are quite willing to accept that. I want to want somebody to find an explanation. And and some some do not. But I know one family that said, you know, Mr. Nichols helped our family. I was pleased with that.
Well, Joe, there’s a lot more to talk about on this subject. Alas, we’ve run out of time. Thank you for joining us on the show and look forward to having joy luck in the future.
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