Science on the Fringe

ESP, UFOs and reincarnation are treated with respect at the world's most bizarre scientific conference


    OUTSIDE THE BOX: In this room, Nelson's theory of a planetwide field of consciousness is no laughing matter

    Roger Nelson's formal credentials are in the respectable field of experimental psychology, but the project he has been working on since 1998 would make plenty of scientists cringe. Nelson heads the Global Consciousness Project, which is based on the theory that emotionally charged world events will cause blips in the output of random-number generators scattered around the globe. He and his colleagues believe they have already documented that effect in the aftermath of Princess Di's death, the 9/11 attacks and, more benignly, in the wave of international optimism that seems to settle over the world each New Year's Day. The simple electronic devices that generate the random numbers, he argues, may be picking up some sort of planetwide field of consciousness.

    Nelson would have a tough time getting this stuff published in a major journal like Science or Nature. But he doesn't have to, thanks to an organization called the Society for Scientific Exploration, or S.S.E., which held its annual meeting outside Gainesville, Fla., last week. The location--a Best Western overlooking Interstate 75--wasn't quite so lavish as the conference centers where neurologists or physicists routinely meet. Yet that didn't seem to matter for the hundred or so researchers who came to hear learned talks on, among other things, consciousness physics, astrology and parapsychology. Here, and in the society's Journal of Scientific Exploration, such topics are standard fare, alongside research on reincarnation, UFOs and near-death experiences. Pretty much anything that might have shown up on The X-Files or in the National Enquirer shows up first here.

    But what also shows up is a surprising attitude of skepticism. "We get plenty of nonsense," admits Charles Tolbert, an astronomer at the University of Virginia and the S.S.E.'s president. "Sometimes you know just five minutes into a talk that it's absurd. But you also hear things that make you think." Like Tolbert, many of the scientists here are on the faculty at major universities, and were doing fine at conventional research. But sometimes that gets boring. "I was plodding along, adding a little to a large body of knowledge," says Garret Moddel, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado. "Doing experiments on parapsychology is a lot more interesting and potentially much more important."

    At the back of their minds, those researchers always remember that the scientific establishment has a long history of scoffing at big, implausible ideas that ultimately turned out to be correct: the assertion that the Earth orbits the sun, the idea that brain-wasting diseases are caused by misshapen proteins, the proposition that hand washing can prevent doctors from transmitting disease, the claim that continents can drift across the surface of the world--all these and more were scorned at first.

    While S.S.E. members know that scorn doesn't prove that a controversial idea is right (people laughed at Darwin, after all, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown), it doesn't prove an idea is wrong, either. "What we do," says Nelson, "is give everyone a respectful hearing. If we think a speaker is doing bad science, we consider it our duty to criticize it. We get our share of lunatics, but they don't hang around long."

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