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Debunking, again, the belief in ESP and the occult

ACCORDING to a recent news report, the Panamanian military leader, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, wears a black onyx ring to concentrate his mental powers. His political opponent, Roberto D'iaz Herrera, depends on a holy man from India to protect him from ``strong negative impulses'' beamed by enemies. Ancient belief in occult powers still grips gullible people in spite of the lack of scientific evidence that such powers exist. This is as true in the scientifically advanced United States as in Panama. The Wall Street Journal reports that many Americans also look to crystals to channel mental ``energies.''

It's tempting just to snort ``What else is new?'' But occult notions have crept into some management training and ``creativity enhancement'' courses and so may influence business and government. So it's worth re-emphasizing their lack of a credible scientific basis.

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One of the main pseudoscientific claims now made is based on a misunderstanding of quantum theory. That's the theory that deals with the realm of atoms and subatomic particles.

Experiments over the past decade have established what, at a casual glance, may seem like a ``telepathic'' connection between widely separated physical entities. Once two such entities - say, a pair of light particles called photons - have interacted, they remain linked in a peculiar way. Even though they may shoot off to opposite ends of our galaxy, each retains something of the essence of the other. Thus, a measurement of an attribute of one photon - its polarization, perhaps - is instantly reflected in the corresponding attribute of the other photon no matter how widely separated they are. It's as though each photon ``knows'' what the other is doing, instantaneously, even though Einstein's relativity theory holds that nothing substantive can pass between them at a speed faster than that of light.

Now that sounds weird - and it should! Quantum physics is weird. We have no way to relate such phenomena directly to our common-sense expectations. But this offers no support for occult beliefs.

Some believers in extrasensory perception claim the weird interaction of widely separated quantum entities shows how ESP might work. They are mistaken. The two photons are in some way interlinked, but no energy or information can pass between them faster than light. Relativity theory is not violated. There is no basis for telepathy in the interaction itself, nor for an ability to affect matter mentally in the fact that someone must make an observation for the interaction to arise.

As quantum theorist Alastair Rae of Birmingham University in England observed in discussing this issue in New Scientist, ``...quantum physics may make it easier for some to give credence to such matters, but only on the basis that if quantum physics conflicts with everyday logic then why shouldn't other things that conflict with everyday logic be equally real?'' That's hardly a scientific reason for belief in the occult.

Nevertheless, such belief seems to be on an upswing. For example, 42 percent of Americans sampled in a recent National Opinion Research Council poll believe they have contacted the dead, as opposed to 27 percent in a 1973 survey. Aspects of ancient, occult beliefs and Eastern religious mysticism enter into the burgeoning ``new age'' fads, which see mankind moving toward salvation or destruction. Some believers expect us to have an opportunity to make a new beginning this Aug. 16 and 17 when they think certain extraterrestrials will be waiting for us to contact them telepathically.

Such silliness is not always harmless. Many people are taken in by frauds who charge high fees for self-improvement or consciousness-liberating courses that involve an ``altered'' mental state induced by hypnosis, meditation, or other means. What's worse, they leave themselves open to mental domination, as Reginald Alev, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, has pointed out. As quoted in the New York Times last November, he noted that these people are ``told they're the master of their own destiny ... but they don't know they are being subjected to mind control.''

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To repeat, there is no scientific evidence to support belief in the occult or ESP. There is no scientific verification that groups of people reciting prayers in unison can influence events, as followers of some Eastern gurus claim for altering weather. And no one has shown scientifically that individuals or groups can hurt others merely by concentrating thought on them, with or without the help of mineral crystals.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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