Joe Schwarcz can fill a room, even over reading week. Last Thursday, McGill’s renowned science educator gave a talk titled “Science and the Paranormal” to a near-capacity crowd in Leacock 232.
The talk was sponsored in part by the McGill Freethought Association, a club that encourages skepticism about, among other things, religion. Schwarcz’s talk, therefore, was mostly interested in showing the scientific explanations behind things called “paranormal.”
“The world of the paranormal is all about … people making observations and making the wrong conclusion,” he said.
Schwarcz pointed to UFOs as one example.
“Isn’t it bizarre in this day and age, when everyone is walking around with digital cameras, taking billions of pictures of everything, somehow nobody is there to take a proper picture of a flying saucer?” Schwarcz said. “Every picture looks like it was taken by a camera made in the 1930s being held by someone with Parkinson’s disease.”
In the discussion after the lecture, one woman said she had seen UFOs on two occasions, and gave a detailed account of each. A number of audience members laughed and rolled their eyes during her stories. Schwarcz’s answer was more scientific.
“We can’t really say anything about it because we were not there,” he said.
Schwarcz said he has kept track of how public psychic predictions correspond to what really happens to “see how inaccurate psychics are.”
He showed one page of a 1993 news magazine predicting that Bill and Hillary Clinton would divorce, which has not yet happened.
“If ever there was a reason for a couple to split up, [they’ve had it],” he said.
Nor did Paula Abdul elope with Arsenio Hall, Martina Navratilova have John McEnroe’s baby, or Donald Trump have a fling with Barbara Walters, all of which were on the same page.
While the incorrectness of these predictions is harmless, other psychics and paranormal personalities use their gifts to profit from people’s emotions, Schwarcz said. Psychic Sylvia Browne, whom Schwarcz called the “worst” of these, charges $800 for a 30-minute telephone interview that has to be booked two years in advance.
“She is a con artist fully aware of what she is doing,” he said.
Browne predicts serious things to people in distress, which, according to Schwarcz, is a form of emotional abuse. For instance, she tells parents what has “happened” to a child who has disappeared.
Another instance of mass fraud is psychic surgery—the “supernatural” removal of a tumor without an incision.
“That’s not entertainment, that’s horrific fraud,” he said. “This is done usually by uneducated Filippino [or South American] peasants who prey upon the desperate.”
Telekinetic master Uri Geller was also on the chopping block.
“If Geller really had that ability to bend metal with the power of the mind, there surely must be some better purpose to which that talent can be put than tormenting cutlery,” Schwarcz said.
The reason there are so many “paranormal” events, he said, is because there is “not enough critical thinking, not enough education.”
In the discussion period following the lecture, Schwarcz and audience members discussed ways to make people more skeptical. Though Schwarcz didn’t openly link his message to skepticism about religion, many audience members did. They targeted proponents of creationism and intelligent design in particular.
“Teaching critical thinking obviously applies to more than just strictly what he talked about,” said Warren Huard, a Master’s student in Classics and president of the MFA.
“It was very interesting to see some of the tricks that mediums and magicians use. But I think also it illuminated well how people will see things the way they want to see them, and how people can get deceived,” said Tim Skene, a member of the Centre for Inquiry, which co-sponsored the talk with the MFA and McGill’s Office for Science and Society, of which Schwarcz is the director.
“We thought it was important to have someone talking about how things that seem very inexplicable aren’t,” he added.
Though Schwarcz’s talk was an argument for a more scientific worldview, he left a little room for mystery, refusing to explain the science behind the numerous magic tricks he performed.
“There is an explanation,” he said after stiffening a rope, “which hopefully you will never find out.”