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Jack Smith

A skeptic listens to a defense of those headlines aimed at inquiring minds--and still can't swallow them

April 15, 1985|JACK SMITH

When I wrote skeptically the other day of those headlines one sees on tabloid newspapers of the kind sold at supermarket checkout stands, I was not unaware that millions of people believe in them.

They buy those papers by the millions, and make them profitable while such pillars of truth as the London Times fall into the hands of Rupert Murdoch.

They are the people who believe in witches, ghosts, the devil, extraterrestrial visitors, life after death, miracles, psychics and fortune tellers.

Laura Shields of Shields Communications, Santa Monica, writes to defend the tabloids, noting that they "have a combined circulation of God knows how many millions," as if that alone was enough to validate their worth. "These," she says, "are like the bits and pieces of fabric women use to make quilts, these stories. They do not have to be attributed; they are credible , based on what women know about human behavior in private life. The Times reports what people--mostly men--do in public life.

"So you find it hard to believe that people die, have a common experience, and are brought back to life? Where have you been? Dying and being told 'Go back, you aren't through yet,' is a common human experience. . . ."

I have been as close to dead as you can get and still come back; but obviously I was not dead; just unconscious and close to death. I had no experience whatever, except of being alive, and then of being alive again. In between was blackness. I did not even have any dreams. Unless you believe in miracles, no one comes back.

"You find it hard to believe Hitler would have children," Ms. Shields goes on, "and conceal them carefully so they would survive? Why do you find that hard to believe? In his position, you would have done it too. Men want their children to survive them."

Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun were the subjects of much scrutiny and gossip among their contemporaries during his years of power; it is not likely that Eva could have slipped away for two pregnancies without its having been recorded in someone's letters or diaries.

"You find it hard to believe," Ms. Shields goes on, "that a clinical lab could make a mistake and provide chimpanzee semen to impregnate a human woman?"

I do find that hard to believe. Not that a laboratory could make a mistake; but that chimpanzee semen would be kept in proximity with human semen, and that a woman could be impregnated by chimpanzee semen and carry a half-chimpanzee fetus full term.

Harriet Luger shopped on a different day from me. She noticed thes e headlines at the checkout stand:




"I would never spoil the headline by reading the story it refers to," says Mrs. Luger. "Headlines are for pure contemplation.

"The plight of the pregnant child's parents is the reverse of that of the nonagenarian couple, who became parents at the age of great-grandparents. The baby's parents, on the other hand, had grandparenthood thrust upon them with parenthood. As for that poor baby, she will become a mother before she can talk. What human drama! What cosmic mysteries!"

Of course the story about the woman divorcing a Siamese twin to marry his brother is quite possible, physiologically and legally, though perhaps repulsive aesthetically and morally.

Richard B. Crysler, quoting my comment that a "low threshold of skepticism" is held by those who believe such stories, recalls a paragraph from "The Dragons of Eden," by Carl Sagan.

"In the last chapter of 'The Ascent of Man,' Browowski confessed himself saddened to 'find myself suddenly surrounded in the West by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge.' He was talking, I think, partly about the very limited understanding and appreciation of science and technology--which have shaped our lives and civilizations--in public and political communities; but also about the increasing popularity of various forms of marginal, folk- or pseudo-science, mysticism and magic.

"There is today in the West a resurgent interest in vague, anecdotal and often demonstrably erroneous doctrines that, if true, would betoken at least a more interesting universe, but that false, imply an intellectual carelessness, an absence of tough-mindedness, and a diversion of energies not very promising for our survival."

Among such doctrines, he said, are the Bermuda Triangle "mystery"; astrology; flying saucer accounts in general; the belief in ancient astronauts; the photography of ghosts; Scientology; the emotional lives and musical preference of geraniums; psychic surgery; modern prophecy; spiritualism; the doctrine of the Special Creation.

Such doctrines, he points out, are mystical and occult, and devised in such a way that they are not subject to disproof and are characteristically impervious to rational discussion.

"It is only in the last day of the Cosmic Calendar that substantial intellectual abilities have evolved on the planet Earth," Sagan concluded. "We are unlikely to survive if we do not make full and creative use of our human intelligence."

Not long ago I mentioned my skepticism about flying saucers and received a hostile letter from a college professor whose avocation was tracking UFOs, and who believed in visitors from other planets. He was just then embarking on a year's sabbatical from his class in English rhetoric, which he intended to spend, he said, in the pursuit of UFOs.

I wrote back that, for the sake of his students, he should spend the year brushing up on English rhetoric; but I doubt that he did.

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