Pseudoscience, Skepticism To Make A Close Encounter

Pseudo-science and skepticism are coming to Seattle.

First comes a presentation next weekend by three men claiming that the story adapted in a 1984 Hollywood science-fiction movie called "The Philadelphia Experiment" is true and that two of them, Duncan Cameron and Al Bielek, are actually half-brothers who traveled through time.

A week later, June 23-26, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, (CSICOP) an organization that publishes the debunking magazine "Skeptical Inquirer," holds its national convention in Tukwila featuring a keynote address at 8 p.m. Friday by astronomer Carl Sagan.

Both groups have booked facilities holding up to 750 people, with more than 600 already signed up for the CSICOP convention.

The two presentations represent the polar extremes of attitudes toward a burgeoning American subculture of belief.

Seattle is certainly appropriate, with a 1947 spotting of flying saucers near Mount Rainier having initiated the modern UFO craze and channelers such as Tacoma's J.Z. Knight having drawn celebrities such as Linda Evans and Shirley MacLaine to the region in the 1980s.

The "Montauk Lectures" at the Seattle Center are expected to draw "people interested in conspiracies, UFOs, extra-terrestial contact, goddess worlds, people experiencing angels and all things that are a matter of sensitivity and looking beyond the obvious," explained Paul Ballard, a promoter of such events who heads a company called Avenues of Inspiration.

CSICOP, in contrast, features a lineup of speakers challenging claims of the paranormal.

Besides Sagan they include University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has challenged courtroom claims of "repressed memory" of past abuse, Phillip Klass, a longtime debunker of UFO stories, and Joe Nickell, a handwriting analyst who disputes claims that handwriting gives clues to personality disorders such as sexual deviancy.

A local invitation-only 40-member branch of CSICOP, called the Society for Sensible Explanations, meets periodically and includes psychologists, engineers, business people and a magician, said co-chairman Mike Dennett.

While mainstream science and technology dominates our civilization, the pseudo-science subculture of belief is flourishing.

It can range from nightmarish UFO abduction stories and government conspiracy stories to optimistic accounts of benevolent aliens, angels and channeled spirits far more comforting than modern scientific theories of a vast, cold and seemingly uncaring universe.

This public fascination is tapped and fueled by the publishing and entertainment industries.

It has spun off books on the Bermuda Triangle and alien kidnappings, television series such as the "X-Files" and "Unsolved Mysteries" and movies such as "Close Encounters," "Ghost," "Field of Dreams," "Fire in the Sky," or "Angels in the Outfield."

Ballard said he is simply being open-minded in listening to stories such as the Philadelphia Experiment, in which a Navy destroyer escort named the USS Eldridge supposedly disappeared briefly from the Philadelphia Navy yard in 1943 during a disastrous experiment with technology designed to shield vessels from radar.

"I'm interested in bringing these guys to town and having them show me their evidence," he said. "I think all these sightings of UFOs are just a transition to a more moral planet. Most of the universe is waiting for us to make a decision between killing ourselves off or waiting for the Light."

Such belief periodically draws some credibility from mainstream sources such as Harvard psychologist John Mack, who recently wrote a book claiming his patients are victims of alien abductions. CSICOP is hosting Mack at its convention here in order to have a spokesman from the other side.

Many people no doubt regard such stories as simply fun diversions, not a substitute for science.

But others take them seriously enough to spend large sums of money on books and lectures. Critics such as Sagan and Klass see public enthusiasm a sign of the failure of science education to get across the principles of logic, testable hypotheses, and judgment.

Rather than demand extraordinary proof for extraordinary claims, scientists complain, too many people demand irrefutable government proof that claimed supernatural or paranormal events did NOT occur.

The Philadelphia Experiment, for example, has over the years taken on such baggage as time travel, UFO visits, alleged secret-government experiments at an abandoned Air Force base at Montauk, Long Island, and reinterpretations of modern physics. Navy protests of ignorance of the whole affair are taken as evidence of a cover-up.

The movie version featured two sailors who jumped overboard when the experiment went haywire, killing some and driving others insane. The escaping sailors were transported forward in time.

Cameron and Bielek claim to be those sailors, explaining how they happen to look too young to be credible World War II-era vets.

The third scheduled speaker, Preston Nichols, claims to have worked at Montauk from 1969 through 1983 on bizarre government extensions of the Philadelphia Experiment.

Robert Sheaffer is a columnist at "The Skeptical Inquirer" who is investigating this story for an entry in the upcoming Encyclopedia of the Paranormal.

He said it apparently started in the mid-1950s when a drifter named Carl Allen, who changed his name to the more romantic Carlos Miguel Allende, wrote a UFO author named Morris Jessup with claims that he had witnessed a Navy ship disappear.

Apparently the Office of Naval Research and a Pentagon think-tank called the Varo Corporation were contacted by Jessup and looked into the claims, this brief official interest giving the tale a subsequent stamp of legitimacy even though the military debunked the story.

Over the years the story has been embellished.

"It took on a life of its own," Sheaffer said. "Time travel, as near as I can tell, started with the movie. But it all comes back to this guy Allende writing these letters."

As always, people will judge for themselves.

The Montauk-Philadelphia Experiment Lectures are 8 p.m. Friday at the Rainier Room at the Seattle Center and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the San Juan Room. Cost is $15 for the first, $40 for the second or $45 for both, with tickets available through Ticketmaster or at the door.

The full four-day CSICOP convention at Tukwila's Doubletree Suites hotel is $135 but the public can hear Sagan's keynote address for $15, room permitting, or attend other portions for smaller sums.

Space may be limited. Those registering should contact Mary Rose Hays at CSICOP, PO Box 703, Buffalo, NY, 14226.