10th European Skeptics Congress - Miscellanea


Mihály T. Beck
Department of Physical Chemistry, University of Debrecen,
H-4010 Debrecen, Hungary

In the last two decades one of the important and influencing school of the sociology of science expressed the view that science in general, including the natural sciences, is a social construction. There began the so-called science war. An important and tragicomical moment of this war was the Sokal affair.
It appears to me that the main reason of this long and bitter fight is that several sociologists of science did not put the correct question and consequently could not get correct answer. There are two correct questions: 1.) Are there objective laws of the nature? If the answer is yes: 2.) are these laws recognizable for us? All of our experiences testify that there are objective laws in the nature, and the history of science proves that these laws can be gradually recognizable. Although the full knowledge of these laws certainly are not and will not be exactly known for us, it can be hardly denied that there is a progress in our insight, leading to besides a coherent and deep knowledge of the nature, basically important practical applications in the field of technology and medicine.
However, this does not mean that in the process of increasing and deepening of our knowledge there are no subjective elements. Undoubtedly the personal circumstances of the scientists, including their nationality, religion, ideological convictions, etc. and therefore the societal conditions play important part in the process. But the generally critical view of scientific life, the open discussions of the different approaches guarantee that in the normal science the subjective elements, the errors are eliminated. This statement, however, is not valid for erratic approaches. The discussed examples are typical cases.

0. The case of Pragmatic (German) versus Dogmatic (Jewish) Physics. From the late twenties of the last century a number of German physicists, first of all Stark and Lenard initiated a fight against the theory of relativity. The roots of this movement are partly personal animosities, partly ideological considerations.
0. The so-called science disputes in the Soviet Union. In the forties there were a number of so-called disputes in different fields of science. The most notorious was the dispute concerning the situation in biological science. There was a fight against the “bourgeois” Mendelism-Morganism. There were terrible consequences of this fight. The irony of the case is that, in fact, the views attacked by certain “scientists” were quite materialistic and the real basis of these attacks was a Russian nationalism.
0. Creationism. There are still people who consider the statements of the Bible concerning the creation of the Universe and the living beings literally true. Creationism is obviously a social construction based on a misplaced religious view.
0. Afro centrism. As an overcompensation to the shameful handling of the blacks by the whites for centuries, the theory of Afro centrism appeared. One of the many faulty statements of this ideology is that the reason of the better working brains of the blacks is that melanin helps to use the energy of the light to increase mental activity.
0. Parapsychology. The whole history of parapsychology is very complex and the basis of wild theoretical considerations is a series self-deception and deliberate fraud. As a whole, parapsychology is a social construction in which anti-scientific feelings, overestimation of the values of the ancient and Eastern cultures furthermore religious considerations are mixed.
0. Cold fusion. It was declared 12 years ago at a press conference that cold fusion occurs and it was thought that this will give a final solutions for the energy problem. This was followed by a most vivid experimental work which (unfortunately) proved that there is no such a phenomenon. However, there are still laboratories dealing with experimental studies and there is a journal, Infinite Energy, indicating in every issue that within a few months working equipments will be available. It is revealing, that in this journal dozens of papers deal with the final solution of different types of perpetuum mobiles, and equipments making possible the transformation of elements.

It is concluded that while there is a definite progress in the field of institutionalised science, permitting the elimination of the subjective elements and leading to an ever-deepening knowledge of nature, the parasciences and pseudosciences are, in fact, social constructions. The most important elements are as follows: national, religious and ideological biases; antiscientific feeling in general, chemophobia in particular; extreme credulity and shameful exploitation of human gullibility; overcompensation of inferiority complexes.


Cornelis de Jager
Sonnenborgh Observatory
3512 NL Utrecht, The Netherlands

In many if not all cultures ideas have been developed about the universe, its structure and origin. In virtually most of them, the origin of the Universe is assumed to be due to the voluntary action of one or more gods. Restricting ourselves to the western and middle-eastern countries one may distinguish between the antique cosmologies (examples: Egypt, Babylon) and the cosmologies called ‘classical’ (example: Greece). In the Greek cosmology of around the beginning of our era, traces of modern scientific thinking are clearly present, and -- by consequence -- little is said of the origin of the Universe, in contrast to its structure. The Hebrew cosmology, as found in the book Genesis 1 of the Christian bible takes an interesting position in between, since it is not based on physical theories, and yet it presents clear traces of rational thinking about the question how the Universe could have originated. Very remarkable and nearly modern ideas are found in the writings of the 2nd century gnostic man Basilides of Alexandria. He was the first to realize that the Universe originated as a kind of spontaneous action, and that time and space originated with it. The notion ‘earlier than the universe’ does not exist, because time did not exist. We compare these ideas with modern knowledge about the structure and expansion of the Universe. The universe originated about 14 Gigayears ago, presumably after a quantum-instability in the absolute vacuum. Then, space and time originated. The Universe is expanding since and, as it now seems, with an increasing acceleration. These findings are based on the observations made with modern instruments during the past century, combined with rational thinking based on good knowledge of physics. If the hypothesis about the origin of space and time in a quantum-instability is correct then there is no reason why there should not exist an infinite number of other universes. One may even expect that, sooner or later, man will be able to produce a universe in his laboratory.


Jiří Grygar
Center for Particle Physics, Institute of Physics, Czech Academy of Sciences
CZ-182 21 Prague 8, The Czech Republic, E-mail:

UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object and the goal of the scientist is to change its status to Identified Flying Object (IFO) through careful and critical examination of eyewitness evidence. The principal parameters that have to be determined are time of the observation, the linear distance and geometrical dimensions of the UFO plus additional data about the speed of motion, apparent brightness and description of the trajectory. However, we must be very cautious when assessing laymen description as most people are simply not aware that from a single observation one is unable to determine the linear distance, linear dimensions and linear velocity of the distant unfamiliar object. Angular data would help but most people have no idea about approximate angular estimates. Quite a lot of them are also surprisingly uncertain when guessing the time/date of the observation. Errors amounting to several hours and even days are frequent, especially in delayed investigation.
This has been demonstrated (J. Grygar, P.Lála, K. Pacner: Czechosl. J. Phys. A37 /1987/, 365). by the critical analysis of the UFO 831202 observed by 263 laymen under clear skies in a December 1983 night over the territory of former Czechoslovakia. Their written accounts were in our hands prior to the correct identification. It turned out that all these eyewitnesses watched the atmospheric re-entry fragmentation of the last stage of the Soviet rocket launching the satellite Gorizont 8. The linear height, spacing and velocity of the bright fragments were substantially underestimated by several orders of magnitude. However, a critical cross-examination of the raw data was quite sufficient for retrieving reasonable data about the linear distance of the UFO, thus making the transformation into IFO possible, before we received the objective evidence from the British radar in Farnborough.
Similarly the UFO 920124 and UFO 920126 observed in 1992 at European Southern Observatory, Chile were easily identified as rocket manoeuvre of Soviet satellite Kozmos 2176 and wasted-water release from the U.S. space shuttle Discovery, respectively. An almost textbook UFO 940503 was seen in May 1994 by thousands of laymen all over the Northern and Central Europe. Later on it was disclosed that people observed the release of unused fuel from the upper stage of the U.S. spy satellite SIGINT. Thus turning of UFO into IFO is fairly straightforward when we have plenty of independent, albeit biased laymen sightings from large enough area. However, for obvious reasons UFO remains of necessity unidentified when observed by people at a single location. Of course, this does not mean that UFO phenomena with lack of independent observational data are manifestations of the extraterrestrials.

This investigation was partly supported through project no. LN00A006 of the Czech Ministry of Education granted to the Center for Particle Physics, Prague.


Marcel van Genderen
Department of Chemistry, Eindhoven University of Technology
P.O. Box 513, 5600 MB Eindhoven, Netherlands

Jan Willem Nienhuys
Stichting Skepsis
Dommelseweg 1A, 5581 VA Waalre, Netherlands

One of the hypotheses that have been put forward by Rupert Sheldrake is that crystals are somehow able to learn from each other. Specific substances crystalize easier as times goes by. This supposedly happens under the influence of socalled morphogenetic fields. In Sheldrake's view, these fields mediate in a vast number of natural processes. Whenever science seems unable to fully account for a natural phenomenon, these fields provide the missing explanation. The existence of fields that mediate 'easier crystalization' has been the subject of tests by Varela and Letelier (published 1988). However, this test involved the operation of a man-made machine, hence its negative result failed to impress Sheldrake.

Easier crystalization is one of many phenomena where the morphogenetic fields seem to act as a kind of catalyst, speeding up processes without affecting any parameters that determine the final outcome. However, Sheldrake has also proposed that crystals will manifest progressively higher melting points, the more often they have been produced. This suggests a test. In research labs of pharmaceutical companies new substances are created more or less as a matter of routine. Rises of melting points could therefore be established if one took the effort to preserve portions of a new compound just after it had been crystalized for the first time. Remeasuring the melting points later would show whether or not such conjectured rises occur.

We decided to discuss this idea with Sheldrake to ascertain what he thought exactly and also to determine whether the proposed test is feasible.

Sheldrake's ideas about rising melting points seem to have their roots in a conversation with a chemist who made a link between easier crystalization and 'strengthening of the morphic fields of crystals.' In ordinary chemical terms, this chemist may have taken the morphic field to be part of the field that defines the chemical potential energy of the crystal, in other words the Gibbs free energy. Indeed, the Gibbs free energy determines at what temperature a solid compound will be in equilibrium with the same compound in fluid form.
Sheldrake didn't think of this in terms of the Gibbs function, however. He collected many examples of substances that had undergone a spectacular rise in their melting points over the years, and he took the trouble to familiarize himself with the determination of melting points. He knew that ordinary chemists generally impute these rises to increased purity, but in Sheldrake's eyes this amounted to a circular reasoning, as the greater purity of any compound is deduced from its increased melting point.
Our correspondence covered all his arguments. The examples he gave of historical increases of melting points turned out to be unconvincing. They were mostly amino acids and other organic substances that decompose while they are melting. Such melting points are very unreliable. A typical defense of Sheldrake is that the morphic fields would strengthen both the crystal structure and the atomic bonds with molecules.

Other matters that were discussed were: why do Sheldrake's hypotheses not predict an unbounded rise? why aren't the first couple of billions of molecules not sufficient to produce the morphic field in full strength? what about compounds in his examples that seemed to have different melting points from their mirror compounds? what do chemists really do to establish purity of compounds? what if an older civilization in a galaxy long ago and far, far away has produced such compounds already?

In the end we concluded that the proposed test would involve a lot of effort. Ordinarily research proposals contain clear reasons for undertaking the research at all. In this case no such reasons could be found. Sheldrake was also not willing to view the test as an 'experimentum crucis', but rather as exploratory research.

Part of the correspondence with Sheldrake was conducted in cooperation with L. Koene, also of the Department of Chemistry of the Eindhoven University of Technology.


Fred Singer
Science & Environmental Policy Project, Arlington, USA

What are some of the common features of the Global Warming scare and other widely spread popular beliefs, like astrology, UFOlogy, harmful effects from low-level nuclear radiation and from electric transmission lines?

1. A tenuous scientific base. There certainly is an atmospheric greenhouse effect but is it significant?

2. Selective use of empirical evidence by ignoring contrary data. Weather satellites, balloon sondes, and a variety of proxy data show no current warming.

3. Misinterpreting other evidence. Deep-ocean warming, shrinking of glaciers and of Arctic ice-cover, sea-level rise are all evidence of past not of current warming.

4. Adjusting theories to fit the preferred scenario. Bringing in adjustable parameters like aerosols.

5. Manipulating the media. Manufacturing disaster scenarios

6. Quasi-religious fervor, faith-based acceptance of coming catastrophes.

In addition, Global Warming ("the mother of all environmental scares," acc. to Prof. A. Wildavsky) has special unique features of an economic and political nature: Money, careers, prestige, power, inter-nation rivalries, NIEO, and sovereignty issues.

S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric and space physicist, is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, and the president of the Washington (DC)-based Science & Environmental Policy Project, a non-profit policy institute. [SEPP is an association of working scientists concerned with providing a sound scientific base for environmental policies.] He has held several academic and governmental positions, including as the first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, deputy assistant administrator for policy of the Environmental Protection Agency, and most recently, chief scientist of the U.S. Department of Transportation. He pioneered satellite technology, devised instruments to measure atmospheric parameters from satellites, and was first to point to and calculate the human-based production of atmospheric methane, an important greenhouse gas and source of stratospheric water vapor. He is author and editor of a number of books, including Global Effects of Environmental Pollution (Reidel Publishing Company 1970), Global Climate Change (Paragon House 1989), and Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate (Independent Institute 1997 and 1999).


Tim Trachet
SKEPP, Brussel, Belgium

Each war creates its legends. They are due to rumours or propaganda. The very typical situation of the war (lack of communication, censorship, military secrets) makes denial or confirmation of such stories very difficult.

This was certainly the case with World War I. Not only this war was waged on a much larger scale then every war before, but also the role of the press and propaganda was very new. Moreover the soldiers of both camps had to fight under extraordinary difficult conditions.

Some stories about WWI attained considerable notoriety. There were, of course, propaganda stories, like the Allied stories about German atrocities in the occupied territories. Other legends were real ghost stories. One of the best known is that of a whole British battalion that mysteriously disappeared during the Battle of the Dardanelles in 1915. Even a film was made about that ‘Lost Battalion’.

Another story is that of ‘angels’ who appeared near Mons in Belgium to help the British troops in the very beginning of the war. One need not to be a professional skeptic to discover that this story is based on pure fiction. However, recently the well-known actor Marlon Brando and film director Tony Kaye planned a movie about the ‘Angels of Mons’. The film should be based on ‘evidence’ that angels exist...

We try to give some skeptical information about some of those strange stories.

Tim Trachet is journalist at the Belgian (Flemish) public broadcasting corporation VRT, where he makes historical documentaries. He is also honorary chairman of the skeptical organisation SKEPP, treasurer of the European Council of Skeptical Organisations and scientific consultant of CSICOP.


Pavel Vachtl
Freelance journalist, Sisyfos,
Prague, Czech Republic


This paper includes a basic overview and a more detailed description of various mechanisms and forms of "electronic" propagation of irrational elements.

We focused, primarily, on the most common technological and cultural issues and aspects, while leaving aside specific social circumstances or political context. "Contemporary electronic media" are mainly understood to be "digital electronic media" in our paper. Its full text will be available in the Czech language by December 2001 (in the collection of works of Sisyfos members entitled Věda kontra iracionalita 2 /Science versus Irrationality 2/, Academia Publishing, Prague 2001, in press).

"Electronic barbarians"

The dramatic scientific and technological progress experienced through the entire 20th century resulted in a rather paradoxical outcome - formation of a whole generations or social strata of people who, in their practical lives, regularly use and rely on high-tech devices, but generally do not understand the basic principles of such devices. This may seem like a fulfilment of A. C. Clarke´s concept that highly advanced technology could resemble "magic" or "sorcery" to some people. These "electronic barbarians" are unable to differ between science and magic, as appropriate resolution seems to be unnecessary for their day-to-day existence. The situation corresponds with the idea that one big era of human technological expansion is drawing to its end, and contributes also to the concept of the "post-modern condition" and to a variety of post-modernist attitudes.

Visuality and illusion - the insufficiency of purely visual communication. Infotainment.

According to Umberto Eco, it is impossible to use images for the expression of non-existence or negation of something. This can be regarded as great disadvantage or fatal defect of this form of communication in terms of logical or rational content of messages and, consequently, also of critical thinking.
Unfortunately, the proportion of visual transfer through the electronic media (i.e. TV, PC games, Internet, video) is permanently increasing at present. Moreover, the visuality seems to consume a big part of human brain perception capacity. Another typical media phenomenon of our times is the genre-melting or genre-blending. It is growing more and more difficult for a media consumer to differ between information, documentary, fiction and even entertainment. This situation - when the spectators are "under fire" of the post-modern "info-tainment" - might be intentionally brought about by the mass-media creators.
In contrast with the totalitarian manipulative media practice, the post-modern spectators accept this form of mass misinformation voluntarily and receive it highly individually, on a multichannel basis. This makes the society become more atomised and cross-divided and also gradually unable to accept any form of objective knowledge, e.g. to accept scientific concepts. Publication of objective scientific facts might be therefore regarded (by a part of hypersensitive individuals) as a kind of non-democratic act, almost a violence. However, refusing the science would probably make the society vulnerable with respect to the rough natural and impersonal world.

Virtual reality (VR) - simulation of real world or creation of phantoms?

Obviously, both statements with respect to VR can be true soon (the word "virtual" itself is ambivalent, having the sense of "real" and simultaneously of "imaginary" ). On one hand, the VR technology may be used for a perfect modelling, learning and teaching of real processes in the physical world around us. On the other hand, VR can also serve as a mighty facility for various escapist illusions. (By the way, this technology along with all its chief consequences was anticipated by the Polish SF writer Stanislav Lem in his book Summa technologiae, published more than 36 years ago (in 1964), who then called VR "phantomology" or "phantomatics") Scepticism about the human resistance vis-á-vis a perfect neuro-simulation of pseudo-real world has been expressed e. g. in the recently made movie "Matrix" (1999), where only small group of rebels fights against this simulation.

Internet - a new digital media environment which is mostly textual today but may acquire a multi-media or almost purely visual character tomorrow

The Internet has a potential to beat the rest of the media (classical or analogue) within 10 - 20 years. At the same time, a fusion of Internet servers with the "big" press, TV or radio broadcasting is very probable - actually, it has already begun. However, unlike them, the Internet cannot be considered as a mass medium with only central transmission. The ability of information exchange on it is largely distributed and omni-directional, similar to neural network. Thanks to that, one can then better confront misinformation and pseudo-science over the Internet, compared to TV broadcast, press etc. On the other hand, the very low wwwpublication threshold allows any incompetent person to speak about anything.

Nevertheless, concerning the relation between the rational and irrational, science and pseudo-science, we have to generally conclude that the Internet represents a highly neutral tool.

Author´s note: I would like to thank for essential help of my friend Marek Říha during translation of this abstract to English


Gerd Weber
European Science and Environment Forum, Germany

Temperatures over large parts of Europe have increased in recent decades. This has led to a debate if that temperature increase is related to the postulated global warming thought to arise from the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Here it is shown on a basis of various statistical analyses that most of the temperature variations observed in recent decades can be closely related to variations of circulation parameters over the Northern Hemisphere, the North Atlantic Ocean, and over Europe. There is no significant relationship between the increase of greenhouse gas concentration and European temperatures. There is a seasonal and regional dependency of the statistical relationships between temperature and circulation: The closest relationships between circulation parameters and temperature occur in Winter and Summer at central, western and northern European stations, in Spring and Fall the significance of those relationships declines considerably. Possible reasons for this behavior are discussed.


Jan Zahradil MP
Parliament of the Czech Republic, Foreign Affairs Committee
Sněmovní 4, 118 25 Praha 1
Email :

Paranormal activities, all kinds of so-called sciences, charlatan movements etc. seem to be omnipresent in modern society. Rational sceptics are naturally rather worried by their presence, boom and blossoming. They are regarded as an epitome of dangerous irrationality, which is moving away from the modernist rational thinking and has acquired unprecedented explosiveness over the past decades. The question is whether their presence is something quite new in our times, something exceeding both in quality and quantity the activities of the past, or whether it is something that has accompanied humanity on its evolutionary way as one of its main characteristics. Many thinkers, different yet similar in certain aspects – such as social biologist Edward Wilson on the one hand and philosopher F. A. von Hayek on the other (there is a number of others we could name) – have proven, quite plausibly, I believe, that tendencies to irrationality and also to institutionalisation of irrationality are very likely an organic part of human nature. They may even be genetically encoded in mankind and thus hard and slow to overcome. I don’t think there is any comparative analysis of the extent or volume of irrational thinking covering for example the periods before and between the world wars. Such analysis would tell us whether we are better or worse off today. Personally, I am an optimist, because I am convinced that we are better off today. I also think, that this improvement – and here I am a sceptic – is an evolutionary process that needs time.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean we should contend ourselves with the tide of irrationality and paranormal occurrences – we only have to contend with the fact that there are limits in combating them and that these limits will be hard to overcome in the near future. Moreover, let’s concede that today’s reality is the breeding ground for both the irrational and paranormal. Hastiness leading to superficiality and distractibility. Sensationalism of the media. MTV-like reality of our time. Deluge of all kinds of information that is difficult to sort. Surge of fashionable and short-lived, parlour elitist philosophical and social fields. Easy access to knowledge about various world cultures and superficial and poor reflection of such knowledge. These are just a few from a number of features, which form the paradigm of our time. In these conditions, irrationality profits, whereas deep and critical cognition is absent or subject to relativism.

Post-communist societies without a stable worldview are often said to be more prone to embrace irrational teachings than stable, standard societies, which hadn’t been subjected to the tremor of building ‘real socialism’. I don’t think this is correct. It would surely be rather hard to prove that for instance the number of astrological magazines and their readers by far exceeds their number in a Western country. What is more, I think that the contrary may be true – the population of some post-communist countries may be, even if subconsciously – more sceptical to great and pathetic thoughts (and fraud, too) due to their very historical experience. Nevertheless, there is one specific tendency more visible and unique in the post-communist countries than anywhere else. We may call it the ”blind faith syndrome”. Let me briefly describe this syndrome.

Communist, or rather socialist systems have been regarded as extremely materialistic societies, or ”vulgarly” materialistic or ”vulgarly” rational. F. A. Hayek is often quoted in this context as saying that these systems suffered from the ”pride of reason”. Under this term, we usually understand their vain attempt to create a simple, foreseeable and planned model for the functioning of society – i.e. an attempt that needs to be regarded as irrational and, what is more, based on thoroughly wrong analyses and premises. However, the contemporary criticism of this tendency in socialist regimes is double-edged. Today’s critics see the failure of socialism, with a little hyperbole the degenerate heir of an extreme branch of rationalism and materialism, as a sufficient reason for rejecting or questioning the entire rationalist and materialist tradition, and in this lies an indirect attack on scientific cognition. This applies especially to the movements in society (and politics) that could be called traditionalist or ultra-conservative, usually rooted in Christian fundamentalism ( known in the United States as the ”religious right”). Their theories are very simple. According to them, all evil started with the enlightenment. Since then, mankind has been going in the wrong direction, because it had abandoned good and time-tested values. They see redemption in returning to some kind of a fictional open-air middle-age-like museum with saints, prophets, mysticism and miracles. The world and the universe are for them non-cognisable and non-accidental entities irreversibly moving towards the ‘Original Intention’. Faith is the key opening their secret. Everything is measured against the depth of this faith.

Such ”pride of blind faith” is none the better than the mentioned ”pride of reason”. It is merely an evidence of intellectual laziness and indolence, which resigns on difficult individual cognition. Holders of such views do not realise how close to the criticised Marxist principles they have come. Like Marxists, Christian fundamentalists reject accidental, spontaneous, unplanned things, interactions of random processes, etc., because these phenomena disturb their idea of reality as a ‘linear function’ represented by non-cognisable God’s will.

I don’t claim that this train of thought is decisive or that it prevails among others we are fighting in our current clash with irrational tendencies. However, it is here, it is visible, it is surfacing in the media or in the public discourse. I feel that the sceptic and rational thinkers very often regard post-modern relativism as their foremost enemy, which is more popular and louder than the ”blind faith syndrome”. However, this is no reason to forget about it. After the demise of the ”pride of reason” it is inevitable that the principal clash of the future will be between an open, free and critical thinking and the pride of ”blind faith”.

photos from the congress session

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