I entered into organised skepticism because of anti-science tendencies in academe. Though a member of the Swedish Skeptics since 1997 and co-editor of the society’s journal since 2002, I’ve never been much of a skeptical activist outside academic archaeology. I’ve written articles and a few letters of protest. But I’ve visited no spirit mediums, gone to no New Age fairs, crashed no fundie revivals. I have engaged with Teh Woo only in the manner of a sniper. In fact, I hardly ever meet any true believers apart from my New Age mom. But last night I had two such encounters: first one that was planned, polite and academic in tone. Then one that was unexpected, hostile and decidedly low-brow.
Not knowing really what to expect, it was with some trepidation I went to hear Professor Etzel Cardeña’s lecture to the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research. Cardeña is the first Thorsen Professor of Parapsychology and Hypnology at the University of Lund. Poul Thorsen was a Danish margarine tycoon who was interested in hypnosis and published a book on how to use it to have your way with women. The controversial endowment that bears his name spent four decades in limbo after Thorsen’s death, until finally Lund accepted it in 2003 — on one condition. They tacked the words “and Hypnology” onto the Chair’s title, much to the true believers’ chagrin.
Parapsychology is unique among the sciences in that no-one has been able to prove that the discipline’s object of study, “psi”, exists. While other sciences investigate the properties of their objects, parapsychological research tends to aim at demonstrating its object’s existence — so far unsuccessfully. Hypnology, on the other hand, investigates sleep and sleep-like mental states such as hypnosis. When the Thorsen Chair was announced, skeptics hoped that Cardeña would concentrate his efforts on the latter subject, which was what he had been doing before that date.
Last night, Cardeña spoke to an audience of about 35 people. The man who introduced him remarked that this was an unusally large gathering for the Society for Parapsychological Research, and us non-members were asked to raise our hands and be counted. We could become members as part of our entry fee if we wanted. Compared to the audience at a typical lecture event organised by the Swedish Skeptics, this one was markedly smaller, markedly older, and had a markedly more even gender ratio, though men dominated here too. Everyone was nice and quiet. As we waited for the talk to begin, I overheard an old guy behind me telling his none too enthusiastic friend about the Swedish Skeptics in appreciative tones, about how having thousands of members and a growing membership gives us a certain financial oomph, as evidenced e.g. by the Enlightener of the Year Prize of $3100.
Etzel Cardeña is a shortish, lively and likeable Mexican who honoured his audience by wearing a dark three-piece suit. I could see that his shirt collar caused the poor man some discomfort. He reminded me of Martin Sheen as the President in West Wing. Heroically, Cardeña gave his talk not in his native Spanish, nor much in his fluent English, but almost entirely in his recently acquired and decidedly patchy Swedish. But I could understand him well enough. He spoke for an hour and a half about “The relationship between anomalous states of conscience and parapsychology”. Most of the talk concerned his research into hypnosis, with psi entering only at the end.
I learned four main things about Etzel Cardeña’s beliefs. He thinks that:
- Hypnosis is real, in the sense that Cardeña believes himself able to place susceptible subjects in an anomalous mental state through suggestion, and they do not make up the experiences they describe to him.
- Psi, paranormal mental capabilities, is real and distict from hypnosis. Indeed, much of Cardeña’s research in Lund aims at studying the relationship between the two.
- The world is not just physical matter. I asked Cardeña specifically about this after his talk, and he explained that though he is definitely not a philosophical materialist, he hesitates to call himself a dualist, preferring to speak of a “oneness”.
- The mind, hypnosis and psi should be studied with scientific methods and test protocols: Cardeña notably uses EEG, questionnaires and statistics.
Of these four core beliefs, at least two are extreme minority positions among the world’s scientists. I’ll leave it up to the Dear Reader to identify which one is not.
To understand Cardeña’s mode of thought, one may ponder the fact that he called William James his hero and ended his talk with a quotation from Alan Gauld to the effect that mesmerism is underrated. (I kid you not!) In my opinion, Cardeña is using Thorsen’s money to study the relationship between a certain fantasy-prone personality type and thin air.
Horror fans may also like to know that Etzel Cardeña has adapted and performed Edgar Allan Poe as radio theatre in Spanish and published it on the web!
During Cardeña’s talk, somebody in Scania called my cell phone once and my home phone twice. Then, just as I got home at about 21:40, the persistent Scanian called my cell again and I answered. It turned out to be an irate Christian fellow who greatly admires professor of medicine Lennart Möller and his absolutely batty brand of Biblical pseudo-archaeology. Ostensibly, the caller wanted to learn about my opposition to Möller (which I have published in Folkvett 2004:2 and Skeptical Inquirer 28:6 (2004). But he hadn’t read anything I had written, and the conversation soon turned into him ranting “Who do you think you are with yer fancy university degree, you haven’t even been to the sites Möller writes about, you aren’t even a Biblical archaeologist, Möller is a DNA researcher you know, I might just read something you wrote and say it’s all blah blah blah”. The caller pointed out that he had been able to build a small hydroelectric dam and save a lot of money despite the skepticism of his neighbours. And then he rattled off a long list of Christian Swedish celebrities, suggesting that this list in itself was an argument for the truth of his religion. The list ended, a bit confusingly I must say, with a woman whose name is known because she’s spent decades in a US jail for her participation in a murder.
The cool thing about this is that either Lennart Möller himself is telling shocked rural congregations on his lecture tours about my satanic criticism of his pious attempts at Biblical archaeology, or there’s a rumour about me among his fans. Luckily, most of them seem to be a bit more restrained than the guy I talked to last night, because this is the first time anybody’s contacted me about Möller. To my knowledge, he hasn’t responded in print to my arguments.