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1 March 2005

Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis and Other Pseudoscience by Georges Charpak and Henri Broch, translated by Bart K Holland, Johns Hopkins University Press. Hardback ISBN 0801878675, $25.

Georges Charpak will, as they say, need no introduction to most readers of the CERN Courier. Henri Broch, author of Au Coeur de l’Extraordinaire and a contributor to the American magazine Skeptical Inquirer, is perhaps less familiar to English-speaking readers. Now, their short book Devenez Sorciers, Devenez Savants has been translated into English by Bart Holland, with the title Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis and Other Pseudoscience.

Pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo has been engulfing the US long enough for an extensive sceptical literature to have grown up around it. Stories about firewalking, dowsing and spoon-benders have already been dealt with by James Randi in Flim-Flam!, Martin Gardner in Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, and, less originally in my opinion, by Victor Stenger in Physics and Psychics. Charpak and Broch treat all these matters with new insight and humour, but include many new examples to show that even France, home of the Cartesian philosophy of doubt and scepticism, is now apparently ready to believe almost anything, provided it is vouched for by fashionable figures in show business or the media.

Thus, in 1982, Broch found that among undergraduate science students at Nice, 52% believed relativistic time dilatation to be pure theoretical speculation, while 68% thought that paranormal spoon-bending was scientifically proven. More recently, Elizabeth Teissier, astrological adviser to millions (including, she would have us believe, François Mitterrand), was awarded a PhD by the Sorbonne for a thinly disguised PR job vaunting her craft.

I cannot resist mentioning two of my own favourites here: Paco Rabanne, the famous fashion designer, ran away from Paris before the 1999 eclipse because he was afraid the sky might fall on his head; and the failed rock musician and racing-car writer Claude Vorilhon, a.k.a. Rael, recently got word about particle physics from the Elohim – the “extraterrestrial guardians”, he says, “of peace, non-violence and harmony at all levels of infinity”. Vorilhon

e-mailed many physicists to pass on the message not to mess with the universe by constructing super-colliders; science is good and should be unlimited as long as it fuses elements, it would seem, but it should never be used when breaking or cracking infinitely small particles. As Charpak and Broch point out, the more vague, hollow and absurd the claim, the deeper the truth drawn from it – a phenomenon they term the “Well Effect”.

In his introduction, Bart Holland explains that he has tried to be true to the French original. The result will sometimes be quite confusing to English-speaking readers unfamiliar with what he calls the “glorious Gallic rhetorical style”. In addition, he has not always followed his own rule of keeping sections dealing with popular French culture and public figures intact, but has supplemented them with explanatory footnotes. In several cases, I had to turn to the original version to put arguments into context.

In their final chapter, Charpak and Broch strongly criticize the media, which they see as the natural ally of science and reason, for often (unwittingly or not) promoting the bogus claim that all ideas are of equal value, under the guise of journalistic even-handedness. The authors also differ from their English-language counterparts in that they see wider dangers in pseudoscience, such as its threat to democracy and the emergence of a multinational big business to market it. The authors’ parting advice to the reader is that critical faculties should be allied with human ones. This was more or less the position taken by Sir Walter Raleigh, who once wrote, “The skeptick doth neither affirm nor deny any position but doubteth of it, and applyeth his Reason against that which is affirmed, or denied, to justify his non-consenting.” He was beheaded shortly afterwards.
John Eades, Tokyo.

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