Conference on Controversial Research

      The annual conference of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE) is a rather unique experience, where speakers from both the scientific mainstream and the outermost fringes of scientific research have equal opportunity to present their case before a receptive audience. The organization itself, founded in 1978, consists of some 400+ members, and publishes the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on the investigation of scientific anomalies. As an appropriate climax to the semester, the three top students in analytical chemistry were invited to attend the 15th Annual Meeting of the SSE, held at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA in late May, 1996. The intent was to expose them to credible looking and sounding scientists presenting both conventional and fringe research, and test their ability to use critical thinking skills to discern the rational from the irrational. Topics included UFOs and alien abductions, precognition, psychokinesis, alternative healing practices, homeopathy, reincarnation, and more. The students were asked to record their impressions and write a paper after the conference. The following is a composite of their reactions to the conference and some of the speakers.
      Prior to the conference, all three students described themselves as "skeptical" in nature. One asserted that only "nutcases" believe in UFOs and psychic phenomena, while another felt the conference topics to be an affront to their conservative upbringing. Some of the speakers reinforced those opinions, while others made them realize that very intelligent people believe quite reasonably in unusual things. The students reserved their harshest criticisms for several talks on Friday afternoon. A speaker from the Meridian Institute described a capacitor-like device developed by Edgar Cayce in the 1920s, that was intended to improve blood circulation. One student noted that the control group was inadequate and that the experiments were performed on an irregular schedule, bringing up the possibility of data selection. Another found the evidence unconvincing. They were even more critical of a speaker from the Arlington Institute, who related the discovery of a "three-dimensional, dynamic geometric pattern" that was described as the "pattern of love" and that "held the key to energy and other scientific revolutions." Apparently the fact that this pattern was endorsed (in a near-death experience) by the Dalai Lama and Sai Baba, an Indian mystic (for the truth about Sai Baba, click here) held no particular relevance for the students. One student was struck with the non-science of the issues, the lack of plausible evidence (‘facts’ based purely on conjecture), and an obvious interference of personal beliefs with the ideas presented. Another was simply amazed that the talk was even given. Harsh criticism was also meted out to a talk advocating structural features on Mars (the Mars Face and pyramids) as evidence for extraterrestrial life. Several students recalled a talk given by Chip Denman (Manager, Statistics Laboratory, University of Maryland) earlier in the year at Mount Saint Mary’s College, in which it was emphasized that you often see what you expect to see.
      While these topics were easy for the students to dismiss, they found it more difficult to critique controversial topics that were more professionally presented. Their opinions varied on these more difficult topics. Wayne Jonas, NIH Alternative Medicine Program, was complimented by one student on his careful and controlled study of homeopathic dilutions, while another was suspicious since major journals would not publish his manuscript. Roger Nelson, Princeton Engineering Anomalies Laboratory, was complimented for his ability to present the facts and avoid judgmental opinion in his talk postulating a positive effect of group consciousness at Princeton University alumni and commencement events on the weather, but another student wondered that if PK could really influence the weather, why was it raining during the conference lunch break. Finally, the students were unanimous in complimenting several speakers, particularly Stephen Braude, Department of Philosophy, University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus, for his debunking of a would-be psychic superstar.
      Obviously, the students had been "prepared" for this event by a number of classroom discussions and demonstrations, but I was pleased that they seemed to understand my motivation. One of the students put it quite eloquently: "his purpose for inviting the chemistry students to the conference was twofold: he wanted us to learn to recognize holes in a faulty analysis, but also wanted us to develop an open mind toward slightly radical ideas that we might encounter during our scientific careers, and respect those ideas if they appear to hold some scientific validity. At the end of the conference, I found myself considering the possibility that I might be wrong about some beliefs I strongly held." I couldn’t have put it much better myself.


Figure 1. The SSE Conference on Controversial Research.
(A) Enjoying a break between talks and dinner in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia.
(B) Dr. Nelson (left) and Professor Braude (right) were complimented by the students for the critical nature of their presentations.

[Thanks are due to Professor Ian Stevenson of the University of Virgina, who approved complimentary registration for the students to attend the conference.]

Return to the Main Index Page

Page prepared by: Mike Epstein
Last Modified: 30 April 1999