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Religious Fundamentalism, Modernist and Postmodernist
Recently I was invited to a conference of scholars of science-studies at the beautiful, lake-side campus of Cornell University. The agenda of this conference was to examine the influence of science studies on the wider "polity and the world"outside confines of the Ivory Tower. The conferees considered the influence of their discipline on just about every social movement that dealt with such things as biotech and computers to music (or rather, sound, as in "sound studies"). Completely missing from the agenda, even in this post-9/11 world that we live in, was any reference to the family of reactionary social movements that is making full use of the core ideas of science studies. I refer here to religious fundamentalist movements that are growing in all major faiths all around the world. I ended up having to remind the gathering that the key idea of their discipline may have some rather unanticipated and serious consequences outside the Ivory Tower.
Now, this academic discipline called "science studies" is not your average academic discipline. It is a discipline that evokes great passion, for and against it. It is a discipline that was parodied by Alan Sokal in his famous hoax in 1996, the hoax that sparked the "science wars" that rocked the American academia. For the sake of full disclosure, let me admit that I was a party to the science wars, from the side of Sokal and other scientists and philosophers of science who find science studies to be both wrong and politically dangerous. What I find deeply misguided and politically dangerous about science studies and postmodernism in general is the subject of my forthcoming book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India. To understand the significance of science studies to the issue of religious fundamentalism more broadly, and Vedic science in particular, an explanation of what science studies teach is in order.
Science studies, as I said, is not an ordinary academic discipline. It constitutes the beating heart of postmodernism, for it aims to "deconstruct" natural science, the very core of a secular and modern worldview. Since its inception in the 1970s, the discipline has produced a sizeable body of work that purports to show that not just the agenda, but even the content of theories of natural sciences is "socially constructed." All knowledge, in different cultures, or different historical times - regardless of whether it is true or false, rational or irrational, successful or not in producing reliable knowledge - is to be explained by the same causes. This demand for "symmetry" between modern science and other local knowledges constitutes the central demand of the "strong programme," the central dogma of science studies. One cannot assume that only false beliefs or failed sciences (e.g., astrology) are caused by a lack of systematic empirical testing, or by faulty reasoning, or by class interests, religious indoctrination or other forms of social conditioning. A truly "scientific" approach to science requires that we suspend our preconceived faith that what is scientific by the standards of modern science of our times brings us any closer to truth. In the spirit of true scientific impartiality and objectivity, science studies demand that modern science be treated "symmetrically," as being "at par" with any other local knowledge.
In principle, there is nothing whatsoever wrong in the agenda of science studies: modern science is not a sacred form of knowledge that cannot be examined skeptically. Science and scientists must welcome a skeptical look at their enterprise from social critics. The problem with science studies comes in their refusal to grant that modern science has evolved certain distinctive methods (e.g., controlled experiments and double-blind studies) and distinctive social practices (e.g., peer review, reward structures that favor honesty and innovation) which promote a higher degree of self-correction of evidence, and ensure that methodological assumptions that scientists make themselves have independent scientific support. Science studies start with the un-objectionable truism that modern science is as much a social process as any other local knowledge. But using radically relativist interpretations of Thomas Kuhn's work of science as a paradigm-bound activity, science studies scholars invariably end up taking a relativist position. They argue, in essence, that what constitutes relevant evidence for a community of scientists will vary with their material/social and professional interests, their social values including gender ideologies, religious faith, and with their culturally grounded standards of rationality and success. Thus, scientists with different social backgrounds, from different cultures and from different historical periods, literally live in different worlds: the sciences of modern western societies are not any more "true" or "rational" than the sciences of other cultures. If modern science claims to be universal, that is because Western culture has tried to impose itself on the rest of the world through imperialism.
This, in a nut-shell, is the state of scholarship in science studies. It carries a reasonable idea too far. Its skepticism regarding science is so radical that it does not allow any distinctions between science and superstition. No wonder it excites great passion among supporters and detractors. While science studies practitioners see themselves as brave iconoclasts, those of us who have criticized the field see it as promoting an "anything goes" kind of relativism which helps no one.
This, then, is the contentious history behind the conference that I was invited to. This conference was a kind of stock-taking of the influence of science studies on the larger society. In keeping with its tradition of extreme charity toward all sciences, this gathering came up with a generous and inclusive definition of who belongs to science studies. Sheila Jasanoff, doyenne of science studies, formerly from Cornell and now at Harvard, told the gathering that whoever sees the world through the conceptual framework of science studies, is a part of the science studies community, and has a claim on the discipline. All those, in other words, who see the content of science as a "co-construct" of the dominant interests and values of their respective cultures, are part of this movement of science studies, regardless of whether they are located in the academy or in the world and the polity outside.
But when I pointed out to the gathering that by this definition, the growing movements of religious fundamentalisms in all major faiths also deserve to be admitted to the guild of science studies, the suggestion was not well received. After all, I argued, the contemporary religious political movements use social constructivist arguments when they put aside whatever scientific theory conflicts with their religious faith, as a social construct of godless, Western secular-humanist atheists who have been ruling world since the Enlightenment. Moreover, I argued, if all sciences alike are social constructs, then why shouldn't the "sacred sciences" propagated by religious fundamentalist movements be admitted as bona fide "local knowledges" or "standpoint epistemologies" of the community of believers?
I was not being facetious, nor was I stoking the "science wars" when I suggested that there was a dangerous convergence - unintended, surely, but not entirely coincidental - between the social constructivist views of science routinely taught in science studies, women's studies, postcolonial studies and allied disciplines, and the views of those who defend creation science, Islamic sciences, or, as in the case of India, Vedic sciences. The point I was making was not that the foot-soldiers of religious fundamentalist movements are sitting and poring over the works of David Bloor, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway or even of that great simplifier, Sandra Harding. They are not - although the more sophisticated among them do cite the classic works of (a hugely misinterpreted) Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and those of local post-colonial and feminist scholars who have popularized the social constructivist critiques of objective knowledge and reason at home. I wanted to show how the promotion of an anti-secularist, anti-Enlightenment view of the world by well-meaning and largely left-wing scholars in world-renowned centers of learning has ended up affirming a view of the world which constitutes the common sense of the rather malign, authoritarian and largely right-wing fundamentalist movements. I wanted to show that that having invested so deeply in anti-modernist and anti-rationalist philosophies, the academic left has no intellectual resources left with which to engage the religious right.
Nowhere is the influence of social constructivist and postcolonial critiques of science more evident than in India, where these ideas have become indistinguishable from the Hindu nationalist promotion of assorted "Vedic sciences." As anyone familiar with global academic trends can attest, ostensibly secular, left-wing intellectuals from India have played a leading role in debates about the nature of knowledge that have raged during the last two decades in American and other Western universities in science studies, feminist epistemology, eco-feminism, postcolonial studies and allied disciplines. Ashis Nandy, Vandana Shiva, Claude Alvares, Gayatri Spivak, Partha Chatterjee, Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakravarty, Gyan Prakash, Veena Das, Chandra Tolpady Mohanty and many others have been guiding lights of university humanities departments in America. Not surprisingly, the global prominence of Indian scholars in the assorted postmodernist debates brought them enormous prestige back home. Their critique of "mental colonialism" and their promotion of local knowledges found a strong echo in literally thousands of "alternative development" NGOs and social movements.
The anti-Enlightenment seeds they sowed are now ready for harvest: the cultural authenticity of the non-Western "other" that our radical intellectuals were looking for, has become the official ideology of the Hindu nationalists that have ruled India for a decade. The postcolonial theorists looked to women, working classes, and other marginalized groups to provide more adequate alternatives to Western knowledge. The Hindu nationalists use the same postcolonial arguments against "mental colonization" to find a more adequate alternative epistemology in the most orthodox and mystical core of Hinduism, namely the Vedas and the Upanishads. These nearly three-millennium old Sanskrit texts are being introduced in schools and colleges as "just another name" for modern scientific knowledge including 20th century physics, biology, medicine and even engineering. Conversely, modern sciences are being peddled as "just another name" of the perennial wisdom of the Vedas and the Upanishads. Notwithstanding the deep hold of all kinds of dangerous superstitions in India, Hinduism is being portrayed as the most hospitable of all religions to the spirit of scientific inquiry. All in all, the idealistic view of nature and the mystical mode of knowing taught by the Brahminical texts of India are being whitewashed into a valid - nay, preferred - way of learning and doing science, not just for "Hindu India" but for the whole world.. Two unequal and very unlike methods and view-points are being declared to be equal and alike to the point of being interchangeable.
One could say that this is simply the Indian way of embracing the new by first turning it into an aspect of its own tradition - "traditionalizing the innovation,"as it is referred to in the Indological literature. Others like Nandy and his followers who see themselves as the defenders of a popular, folk Hinduism scoff at the Vedic science project as another example of "hyper-modernity" of Hindu nationalists who are accused of "distorting" the living religion and local knowledges of the masses. For my part, I believe that both of these "explanations" of Hindu nationalist eagerness to appropriate modern science for Vedic Hinduism miss the point entirely. Because Vedic Hinduism has perpetuated itself for centuries by claiming its teachings are in accord with "laws of nature," modern scientific understanding of how nature actually works poses the greatest challenge to its credibility. Developments in natural science have finally made it possible for the suppressed native materialistic and rational traditions - from those of the ancient Charvakas, the original Buddha to the Deweyan, secular-humanist interpretation of Buddhism by Ambedkar - to finally come into their own against the mystical, elitist and superstitious worldview of Vedic Brahmanism. If the defenders of the faith are allowed to "traditionalize" this one innovation -- namely, the modern science of nature -- that will amount to yet another defeat of those who have stood for reason and social justice in India. Hinduism, it is true, has always perpetuated itself not by suppressing the innovations by force of arms, but by traditionalizing what is innovative. What the Hindu nationalists are doing to science, is what Hinduism has always done to all that is new, foreign and threatening, i.e., pretended that it has always been a part of the tradition. But this kind of self-perpetuation ends up perpetuating the worst elements of the tradition. This kind of "traditionalization" of science will disarm the one innovation that has the potential to challenge the core beliefs of the faith, insofar as they gain their credibility as being consonant with the laws of nature. That is why any philosophy of science that denies the clear cognitive progress modern science has made in demystifying the workings of nature, or any philosophy of science that denies the distinctiveness of the scientific method in comparison with other ways of knowing, ends up aiding and abetting the forces of religious conservatism in India. And that is why the romance of Indian intellectuals with social constructivism and postmodernism has been so harmful to the fight for the development of a secular worldview in India.
In this essay, I will be examining at length the arguments Hindu nationalists mobilize to justify the Hindu high-holy books as scientific treatises. How these arguments mirror, and often directly borrow from, the postmodernist attacks on the universality and rationality of modern science will become obvious as we go along.
Postmodernist religious fundamentalism
But before I explore the Indian material, I want to briefly examine the emergence of a postmodern or post-foundational apologetics that is emerging in all major religious- political movements. Hindutva is a prime example of a fundamentalist movement that indulges in this kind of postmodernist apologetics. Hindutva is postmodernist both in the kind of perspectival epistemology and the in the kind of enchanted, holistic understanding of nature it promotes. (To a large extent, the perspctivalism and holism are a part of the teachings of high-Hindu Sanskritic sacred texts. To use them to justify the religious core of Hinduism as "scientific" is the achievement of Hindu nationalists.)
What do I mean by a postmodern style of religious fundamentalism? I mean simply those elements of religio-political movements that deploy the logic of postmodernist deconstruction of natural science in order to defend their use of God, Spirit and other supernatural forces as legitimate sources of scientific explanation. To use Karen Armstrong's vocabulary from her popular The Battle for God, postmodernist fundamentalists insist upon defending their right to employ the mythos of their faith (i.e., all that was meant to be a source of intuitive meaning and experiential insights) to redefine the logos (all that is rational, empirical) of natural science.
Postmodernist defenders of the faith demand the right, to quote Alvin Plantinga, a well-known philosopher of religion, "to pursue science.. as Christians, starting from and taking for granted what we know as Christians." Structurally similar arguments appear again and again in other faiths, defending their right to pursue "Vedic science" or "Islamic sciences," complete with miracles and other manifestations of the supernatural. Indeed, among Hindu and Islamic faithful, the right to their "own" science is asserted with a special vehemence, because it is mixed up with anti-colonial and anti-Western rhetoric.
All of these militant demands for "equal rights" to pursue their own version of theistic or sacred science take it for granted that it is no longer necessary to grant science the status of objective and universal knowledge. Science, it is assumed in true postmodernist fashion, no longer poses a challenge to the metaphysical assumptions of their own faiths, because scientific knowledge is itself is a construct of a wide variety of contested terms, held together, ultimately, by cultural power and social interests which define a given paradigm or an episteme. Take away the godless, materialist assumptions of modern scientists (who happen to be overwhelmingly male, white, imperialists Westerns anyway), and the given scientific evidence can actually serve as evidence for other kinds of theories about nature which do not exclude God as acting in nature or do not deny the existence of consciousness in matter. Different social values and cultural meanings can produce equally convincing maps of the world of nature. This has been the central dogma of science studies and has found numerous formulations in all kinds of "radical" defenses of alternative sciences. Religious fundamentalists are simply taking a page out of the social constructivist book.
More specifically, these movements are opposed to a naturalistic worldview which happens to be fundamental and necessary for science-as-we-know-it. They are keen on asserting their right to their own sacred sciences because they want to bring in the supernatural as an explanation of natural phenomena. All religious fundamentalists want a full-blooded version of their faith, which is there not just for spiritual solace (which would make faith not different from poetry), but which can make propositional claims about the world. They want to believe in a God that actually does some work in this world, both at the level of nature and at the level of social life of men and women. Naturalism as a worldview, and as a method, makes God, or Spirit, irrelevant and unnecessary to explaining the workings of nature, human beings and society. Religious fundamentalists correctly sense that naturalism is the biggest threat there is to a strong version of their faith.
What do we mean by naturalism? Basically, naturalism is the antonym of super-naturalism. Naturalism denies supernaturalism in all its forms, whether the supernatural is seen as a transcendent God over and above this world who can abrogate natural laws, as in Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions; or as a spiritual force or energy that resides in nature, but is able to exist separately from it as well, as in the case of Hinduism and Taoism. There are at least three senses of naturalism all of which are vehemently opposed by religious fundamentalists:
First, methodological naturalism is committed to a methodological principle within the context of scientific inquiry; i.e., all hypotheses and events are to be explained and tested by reference to natural causes and events which can be apprehended by sense experiences. (In contrast, theistic or idealistic philosophies hold that there are more valuable avenues of knowledge than "mere" sense experiences.)
Second, ontological naturalism is a generalized description of the universe. According to the naturalists, nature is best accounted for by reference to material principles, i.e., by mass, energy and physical-chemical properties which have been described by sciences employing naturalistic methodology. Naturalists deny the existence of soul and the belief that it can survive death.
This belief that there is nothing but nature - matter and energy - developed as a metaphysical belief and can be found as a minority position among all philosophical and religious thought (e.g. among the Charvakas in India, or among the pre-Socratic philosophers among the Greeks). But today, it is possible to defend this view on solid empirical grounds. There is no defensible evidence for the existence of supernatural forces anywhere in nature. Naturalism is the only possible inference from all the scientific evidence available to us, up to this moment.
Third, naturalism is humanistic in its ethical dimension. It simply rejects the idea that you have to believe in God in order to live an ethical life.
All major religious fundamentalist movements decry all these three senses of naturalism. The mostly Christian "intelligent design" movements decry naturalism of modern science as a "religion" of secular humanists that have, apparently, ruled the Western world since the Enlightenment. Islamic fundamentalists have their own grievance against naturalism, for it tears apart the unity or tawhid between the divine, the affairs of men, and the realm of nature. The assorted Hindu swamis, gurus and their political acolytes who champion "Vedic sciences" decry the idea of nature without Atman, matter without spirit, as a product of Semitic "dualism" between a transcendent God and dead matter. They promise to heal the wounds caused by Semitic dualism by unifying spirit and matter, as taught in the Vedas. On matters of methodological naturalism, Hindu apologists take a very curious stand, which is quite fundamental to their claims of Vedas being "books of science." Because in Hinduism the spiritual element is immanent in the world, i.e., resides in natural entities, living or non-living alike, many Vedic science proponents claim that they are not invoking anything supernatural: references to gods are actually references only to forces of nature. (This kind of defense of the inherent scientific of Hinduism was first made by Swami Vivekananda and has become an integral part of the neo-Hindu tradition.) But this is really hair-splitting, for the fact is that Vedic Hinduism is a spiritual monism: it sees objects of nature as secondary manifestations of Atman. Thus to say that Vedas are "naturalistic" is simply not tenable, for in fact the Vedic teachings make no room for an autonomous, independent, un-designed, unsupervised and un-enchanted existence of matter which naturalism demands.
In the militantly conservative movements in all major world religions, then, the secularization of science -- the hard-won freedom of science from the churches, the Brahmins and the mullahs - is seen as a modernist error that needs to be corrected. These calls for various sacred sciences are religious versions of the postmodern arguments against the "logocentrism" of modern knowledge which strips objects of their subjectivity, turning them into mere objects of domination and even rape. To see further parallels with postmodernism, let us follow the modernist and postmodernist impulses in the "Vedic science" movement in India.
Modernist Apologetics: Hindu Examples
In India, knowledge of modern scientific developments in the West led to similar splits, but with one crucial difference: the conservative apologist camp won hands down and has been ascendant right through Indias modern history to the present date. While in the US, mainline Protestant churches themselves and some of the most influential public intellectuals of the era took up the cause of naturalism and secularism, in India only the marginalized and powerless dalit and non-Brahman intellectuals took on the cause of secular reform of religion. The Indian response to science was predominantly conservative and like their Christian counterparts in the creationist movement, neo-Hindu apologists also tried to fit science into the Vedic view of the world.
The Vedic science movement began in 1893 when Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902 ) a Bengali Vedantist and an ardent, reform-minded nationalist, addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. His address sought to present Hinduism not just as a fulfillment of all other religions but also as a fulfillment of all of science. In the spiritual monism of the Vedas which teaches that the spirit, Atman, that animates man also animates all the rest of the creation, Vivekananda claimed to find the ultimate unity, the ultimate source of all energy, which creates the universe and keeps it going, without a beginning or an end.
Vivekananda was followed by another Bengali nationalist turned spiritualist, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). Aurobindo proposed a divine theory of evolution, an alternative to Darwinism, which treats evolution as the adventures of the World-Spirit finding its own fulfillment through progressively higher levels of consciousness, from matter to man to the yet-to-come harmonious "supermind" of a socialistic collective. Indian intellectuals thus have had "their own" theory of evolution for a very long time. Newer theories of Vedic creationism, which propose a "devolution" from the original one-ness with Brahman are now gaining popularity.
Vivekananda and Aurobindo lit the spark that has continued to fire the nationalist imagination, right to the present time. Even ostensibly secular and modernist intellectuals like Jawaharlal Nehru paid homage to the "scientific spirit" of Vedic Hinduism. Countless gurus and swamis took Vivekananda's lead and began to teach that the Vedas are simply "another name for science" and that all of science only affirms what the Vedas have taught. Quite like the American Institute for Creation Research, the religious order started by Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Mission, has been producing booklets, and arranging lectures propagating Vivekananda's "synthesis" of reason and faith. This scientistic version of Hinduism, also called neo-Hinduism or neo-Vedânta, has found its way to the West through the numerous ashrams and yoga retreats set up, most prominently, by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his clones. Neo-Vedantist defense of Hinduism mostly invokes extremely speculative, largely unproven theories from modern cosmology, idealistic interpretations of quantum mechanics, completely discredited theories of vitalism and parapsychology, and other such fringe science to prove that the mythos of Hinduism is verified and affirmed by the methods of modern science.
In standard books on the history of the Bengal Renaissance or Indian independence movement, it is quite often made to appear that that is all there was, that Indian intellectuals found "no contradiction," "no conflict" between Hinduism and science, and welcomed science with "open arms." In the Hindutva literature, the neo-Hindu distortion of science to make it fit into the Vedântic world view is celebrated as evidenceof the rational spirit of Hinduism. Unlike "those" bigoted Christians who oppose science, "we" enlightened Hindus embrace it as our own.
What is carefully hidden from such readings of history is that there were many who challenged this ideologically motivated and false "harmony" between science and Hinduism. Like the liberal, secular humanists trends in the US, in India too there were intellectuals who took the revolution in thought that science represented extremely seriously. The most sustained attempts at a liberal, secular use of the modern science of Newton and Darwin came from intellectuals and leaders of the non-Brahman and "untouchable" castes. The most important among these liberal modernists, Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956), turned to the historical Buddha to defend a naturalist and skeptical worldview that denies the presence of Atman or consciousness in matter, and consequently, demolished the cosmology which supported karma, rebirth and caste distinctions. Not coincidently, Ambedkar was a student of John Dewey, the best known philosopher of a naturalistic, liberal Christianity. ( I offer a detailed account of Ambedkar's secular thought in my previous book, Breaking the Spell of Dharma and Other Essays, 2002. A very thorough and critical review of this book by S. Anand is included in this book.)
Coming as they did from the oppressed and powerless sections of Indian society, these non-Brahman and dalit rebels against Brahminical Hinduism were no match for the neo-Hindu apologists that swelled the ranks of the Indian nationalist movement led by Gandhi and Nehru, which sheltered all varieties of Hindu chauvinism. They found sporadic and half-hearted support from humanists and socialist writers, artists and activists, but by and large, Indian intellectuals (including most Marxists) did not actively take up the battle for secularization. Most of them considered fighting the scourge of colonialism and capitalism their chief priority. The non-Marxist intellectuals, mostly of Gandhian persuasion, remained committed to an essentially anti-modernist, Hindu view of "harmony"and "community" which they preferred to the spread of industry and capital. In the main, it is these Gandhian anti-modernists who took to postmodernism like fish to water, and became the conduits of this reactionary academic fashion in India. Overall, the spell of dharma over the hearts and the minds of the Indian people was never challenged. Science was instead turned into an affirmation of the Vedas.
The contemporary Vedic science movement, led by militant Hindu chauvinists, carries on this task of modernist apologetics. Under the BJP's dispensation, this neo-Vedantist project is enjoying a revival. With full blessings of the state, new foundations and "research institutes" have sprung up defending every miracle and every superstition as "science." Even dangerous frauds like "cow urine therapies" and faith healing are being sponsored by government funded groups. Hindu customs, from the four-fold Varna hierarchy and patriarchy, are still being justified as being in accord with "laws of nature" which were known to the Vedic sages and were now confirmed by modern physics. This scientific gloss has always been most appealing to the English-educated, upwardly mobile middle-class Indians, including those living in the West, who wanted modern reasons to be proud of their heritage.
The project of yoking modern science to conserve and propagate Hindu metaphysics shares the spirit and the tactics of the creation science movement. Since this scientific defense of the Vedas is enmeshed not just with defense of the metaphysics of Hinduism, but also with a very militant, chauvinistic variety of nationalism, Vedic sciences are potentially more dangerous than their Christian counterpart. And given that the Indian Constitution does not prohibit religious education in public schools, Hindu nationalists have had not any problems propagating age-old superstitions in the guise of science, and conversely, science in the vocabulary of vitalism and other varieties of supernaturalism.
All this may sound rather alarming - and it is. But this is not the last of it. Indeed, this kind of modernist apologetics is quite old-fashioned and passé. Both Christian and Hindu apologists are adding a far more radical weapon in their arsenal, a weapon which launches a frontal attack on the universality and objectivity of science. For this radical attack on science, they have found unlikely allies among the academic postmodernist critics of science and modernity. To understand the radical threat of postmodernist apologetics, it is important to understand what the modernist apologists are up to.
Even though vastly different in the content of their "sciences," creation science and Vedic science have one thing in common: Both movements take modern science seriously enough to try to claim the rigor, objectivity and universality of science for their own tradition-sanctioned metaphysics and methodology. The far-fetched claims of finding their own gods through the evidence of fossils (as in Christian and Vedic creationism) , or through the developments in quantum mechanics (wildly popular among the defenders of the God of the Vedanta), are nothing more than a pathetic attempt to borrow the authority and prestige of science for their own outdated metaphysics.
Moreover, for all the difference in their conception of God and nature, the Christian and Hindu apologists share a thoroughly modernist epistemology: that is, they see the enterprise of modern science as resting on firm and universally shared foundations of logic and empirical observation. They see scientific knowledge as advancing an objective knowledge of the actual entities in nature. That is why they are keen on showing that the facts about nature contained in the Bible or in the Vedas converge with the facts revealed by the application of scientific method. By this reasoning, they are "merely" translating the ancient texts into a modern vocabulary that can be easily understood by modern men and women who are more used to thinking in scientific terms.
Modernist apologetics, then, in both the Christian and Hindu guises, are back-handed compliments to the universal power of conviction of the enterprise of science. But in their great "love" for science, religious fundamentalists of all stripes are subverting the very ideals of a scientific method which abjures making untested connections between evidence and hypotheses purely by analogy. As we have seen above, creationists and Hindu fundamentalists defend their respective "sciences" by arbitrarily extracting the existing body of scientific evidence, which supports Darwinism, quantum mechanics and other such well-established sciences, and cite it as evidence for their own "theory" about the world. Moreover, in their great stampede to get certified as "modern," the fundamentalists are subverting the very ideas that make the modern epoch distinct: namely, the freedom to refuse God.
Just because fundamentalists use modern sounding vocabulary, that does not make them scientific or modern in any meaningful way. It is not enough, therefore, to scoff at them as "another manifestation of the modern mindset," and move on. (This is the strategy of those like Ashis Nandy and other professed Gandhian anti-secularists who are now scrambling to establish anti-Hindutva credentials. After years of haranguing the secularist currents in the India society, Nandy and other nativists now have this impossible task of distinguishing their own calls for "alternative modernity" from a full-blooded "Hindu modernity" favored by Hindutva). Hindutva is only camouflaging itself in modern colors, while actively subverting the spirit of modernity. Real opposition to the fundamentalists in our midst will come by actively drawing distinctions between what is science and what is pseudo-science, between what is modern and what is modern only in name. Intellectuals will have to show their colors, stand up and defend the spirit of scientific inquiry and modernity against the many pretenders.
Postmodernist Apologetics: Christian and Hindu examples
But theologians and other defenders of the faith are waking up to postmodernism. Postmodernism, as the name suggests, refers to an era beyond modernism, an overcoming of the modern mind-set which was dominated by a search for objective and universal knowledge claims of science. Conservative religious movements fear it - for its threat of relativism. But they also love it - for it promises to demolish the secular Enlightenment, the Enemy Number One of all religious conservatives everywhere.
Christian believers in the West are realizing that, as Stanley Grenz, an evangelical theologian puts it, "the rules of the game have changed." Grenz and other conservative evangelists exult over two main changes that they see as giving Christian faith a new lease on life in the culture of the West. One, they claim that the secularized, disenchanted view of nature popularized by the Enlightenment has been discredited by developments in modern science itself, and in the postmodernist theory emerging from within secular academia itself. Two, they see that modern science, the Chief Accomplice of secularization, has been severely "chastened": its realist view of truth having given way to a constructivist view, the ideal of the dispassionate individual knower has given way to a community of knowers. Social constructivist theories have demolished modern science's claims to provide an objective and true "God's-eye view" of the real world, opening the way to bringing back the real God's eye view, revealed by God himself in the Bible. This, in short, is the source of cautious optimism that many conservative evangelical Christians derive from postmodernist fashions in the academy, even as they fear that carried too far, postmodernism can encourage nihilism and total relativism.
Similar sentiments that the "old" mechanistic science of Newton has been "overcome," that the secular worldview is being rejected "even in the West," that "Western science is the source of all the world's problems" abound in the Hindutva discourse as well. Like the Christian conservatives, Hindu apologists also make use of this "end" of Newtonian science to build a case for a specifically Hindu science that can accommodate such unorthodox sciences as astrology, yoga, reincarnation and many such phenomena which are declared to be beyond the realm of possibility in the kind of natural world we live in, but phenomena which have to be true, if the Vedic view of God and nature is true.
The idea of science as a social construct made popular by science studies provides the philosophical argument for "chastening" the claims of science, cutting them down to size and making room for other ways of looking at the world that may not meet the standards of modern science but are scientific nevertheless -- in their own social context, that is. This is just the opening postmodernist apologists need for asserting the reasonableness of "theisitic science" or "sacred science" which allows for supernatural forces to enter scientific explanations.
Postmodernist apologetics, to go back to our definition, are simply those by religious fundamentalists who accept the chastened, socially constructed view of modern science, seeing it as just one way, among many equally valid ones, to interpret the book of nature. (Modernist apologetics in contrast do not question the legitimacy of science, nor plead for special sciences of their own. They "only" claim the existing scientific evidence is compatible with their view of god and nature. ) Postmodernist apologetics in both Christian and Hindu fundamentalism take aim at the naturalist methodology and worldview of science. Their aim seems to be to make room for a "theistic science" or a "sacred science" that openly brings in their conception of the divine as a cause of natural phenomena.
How is the case for "theistic science" or "sacred science" argued? The following is a succinct summary of the argument for a specifically and self-consciously Christian scholarship that is emerging from the school of "reformed epistemology" that includes such prominent philosophers of religion as Alvin Plantinga, Nancey Murphy, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Under the new norms of chastened rationality, science stands on no more universally convincing foundations than any other knowledge system, including theology. There is nothing but a place-, time- and language-specific tradition that constructs what we take as "facts." Empirical evidence itself can easily be fitted into a variety of theories. What makes one theory more probable and more plausible than another is the set of contextual assumptions provided by the rest of the culture, including, above all, the culture's views of god and nature.
Once you accept this picture of science, the reformed epistemologists argue, there is no rational compulsion for the believers to change their understanding of the world in the light of scientific findings. It makes as much rational sense for believers to actively bring in their own contextual values - all that they know as believers - into their scholarship. Indeed, mainstream naturalistic science is at a huge disadvantage, for it "artificially," "ideologically," "by fiat," closes off the possibility of divine action. Those scientists who are also Christians, on the other hand, are more "open minded" and therefore more scientific as they don't restrict themselves to purely naturalistic hypotheses and explanations. Christian scholars let their Christian faith shape their scholarship: it is good for them, and good for science, too.
Anyone familiar with the writings of feminist epistemologists, especially Helen Longino's much acclaimed "contextual empiricism," and Sandra Harding's "stronger objectivity" cannot but be struck by the close parallels. That is not surprising, for the reformed epistemologists derive their logic from the same postmodernist sources, chief among them a radically relativist reading of Quine, Kuhn and Wittgenstein. Indeed, they have one distinct advantage over their secular colleagues: by bringing in God in scientific explanation, theistic science is not afraid of relativism, for God provides the ultimate assurance of the truth of their science. They literally claim to offer a God's eye view of the world!
This brings me back to the argument I made at the beginning of this essay: theistic science is no different in its logic from feminist science, or ethno-mathematics or any of the multitude of alternative sciences that have flourished in the academy. If the academic left can condone feminist science, it has no choice but to accept theistic science as well. Yet, there is a great reluctance among social constructivist theorists to admit that theistic science is a variety of local knowledge. There is much concern among social constructivists to be even-handed and "symmetrical" with local knowledge systems of particular groups and cultures, especially if these groups belong to non-Western cultures. But what is not realized adequately is that many of the unorthodox and minority ways of knowing are part and parcel of the dominant ideologies and religious teachings of that culture. While it may look as if the academic critics are supporting the marginalized minority's right to know, their even-handedness ends up, indirectly, supporting the dominant ideology and religious worldview of that culture. Many of the women's ways of knowing that feminist critics of science support, for example, include elements of nature worship, goddess worship and even magic. Likewise, the constructivist thesis that science does - and should - reflect cultural preferences and interests of scientists, opens the door to religious preferences and values of the scientists.
The problem with doing science as a Christian believer or a Vedantist is not just that it is based upon a wrong understanding of the distinctive self-correcting social dynamic of modern science. The problem is that this whole idea of theistic science is wrong in a politically dangerous way. Postmodernist arguments for faith-based science are being used both by the Christian creationists and Hindu apologists to attack the assumption of naturalism in modern science. The alternative to naturalism is supernaturalism, which means the re-introduction of revelation, miracles and rituals as legitimate sources of empirical knowledge.
The sharpest attack on naturalism comes from the intelligent design (ID) movement, the postmodern incarnation of the creation science movement. Well known ID philosophers, Philip Johnson and Wlliam Dembski have argued that the acceptance of Darwinian evolution rests not on adequate evidence, but on scientists' ideological preference for naturalism. In other word, because most modern biologists tend to be atheists or at least agnostics, and because in the secular culture in the West, scientists occupy positions of power, they deny the existence of the supernatural by fiat. Naturalism wins for the reasons of dogma, not for reasons of evidence. Darwinism, in other words, is a social construct of powerful scientists, who are suppressing the alternative view points of a marginalized, powerless group of Bible-believers.
Robert Pennock, one of the most astute critics of ID creationists, describes the features they share with postmodernist thought in the following words, cited here from his 2000 book, Tower of Babel:
The intelligent design creationists are in lockstep with postmodernism's skeptical contention that human truths, including scientific truths, are merely subjective narratives. Both hold that what passes for objective knowledge depends simply on which narrative is in political power, and both think that science has been in power long enough and seek to overthrow its epistemic privilege. Both hold that human knowledge is relativistic.... But while postmodernist accept relativism and seem happy to dispense with notions of objective truth, embracing instead the rich plurality of subjective human viewpoints. Creationists, however, believe that though human reason itself is impotent, there remains one way to get a "God's-eye view" of the world, namely, from God himself. God's divine revelation saves us from relativism, by providing us with absolute truth in Scripture.
How do these postmodern arguments play in the construction of Hindu sciences? Both the elements of a distinctively sacred science discussed above - the "epistemic rights" of believers, and the rejection of naturalism - play a dominant role in Hindutva discourse as well.
First, the more sophisticated, Western educated ideologues among Hindu nationalists (notably, Subhash Kak, David Frawley, N.S. Raja Ram, K. Elst, Rajiv Malhotra and his circle of intellectuals associated with the Infinity Foundation), have begun to argue, using arguments very similar to those of the conservative Christian reformed epistemologists and the left-wing postcolonialists, that modern science, as we know it, is only one possible universal science, and that other sciences, based upon non-Western, non-materialist assumptions are not just possible, but are equally capable of being universalized. It is only the imperial, colonial power of the West that has made Western science look like it is the only and universally true knowledge. Hindutva ideologues see their role as creating alternative sciences, grounded in the Vedic assumptions, which is able to convince all people, in all cultures, universally, of the correctness of its findings.
This alternative science, Hindu apologists argue, must start from the Vedântic assumption of non-dualism of matter and spirit. While the Christian theists want scientists to consider the will of the creator God as a reasonable explanation of natural phenomena, Vedic scientists want scientists to consider the presence of the spark of divine consciousness in the entire universe as a reasonable explanation of phenomena that "Western" science cannot explain.
From within a Vedanti paradigm, all the phenomena which modern science discards as "paranormal" are fully explicable as normal, and amenable to "scientific" demonstration, explanation and control. Indians need not reject the paranormal. Instead, they need to "decolonize their minds" so that they can understand nature through "Hindu categories."
This is the philosophical basis on which the Indian government recently introduced the study of astrology as an academic discipline at post-secondary level in state-funded colleges and universities. This is the philosophy that underlies the defense of countless miracles (idols "drinking" milk, for example) and supernatural powers of countless "god men" from levitation to the memories of previous births. This is the philosophy that is used to declare the very first, and the most ancient Veda, the Rig Veda to be a "book of physics" and Vedic fire rituals to be shorthand for cosmology.
On the matter of asserting their "epistemic right" to their own science, Hindu nationalists have a distinct advantage over the Christian fundamentalists in the West. They can count upon the anti-colonial and anti-Western biases of Indian people, including Indian intellectuals. Once they can establish that different cultures allow different facts to be accepted as true, using the standard Kuhn-Feyerabend-social constructivism arguments, it becomes easy to ascribe those aspects of science which contradict the orthodox Hindu worldview as "Western" and therefore, colonial. Hindu nationalists mix up their defense of Vedic sciences with invocations of national pride and the need to "decolonize the imagination." While Christian fundamentalists have only their own evil secular-humanists to rail against, Hindu fundamentalists can in fact use the anti-Western writings of their supposedly progressive intellectuals to make a case for bringing religion into science.
On the second count of anti-naturalism, Hindutva stands with its Christian counterparts to decry naturalism and materialism of scientific knowledge. (Of course, Hindutva also decries the transcendent Creator God of the Christian and Islamic theists. But for all their deep disagreements, fundamentalists of all stripes agree that treating nature as just matter and energy without a directing hand of God is heretical.) On Hindutva's account of the history of science, the age of naturalism is long dead. Depending on purely speculative, idealistic interpretations of the developments in quantum physics, and invoking fringe new-age and paranormal sciences popular in the West (e.g., the neo-vitalistic theories of Rupert Sheldrake), Hindutva intellectuals claim that the idea of consciousness-free, inanimate matter is a Western fallacy, a fallout of the mindset of the Semitic races to divide the world in dualistic categories in which mind and matter, subject and object are separate. On Hindutva's account, Vedântic conception of monism or non-dualism of nature and divine consciousness contains the post-modern, post-materialistic philosophy of nature.
Right from its beginnings with Vivekananda's boastful and deeply distorted picture of Hinduism, Hindu nationalists have always presented Vedic Hinduism as the religion and science of the future. With the growth of postmodernism, Hindutva has finally found an intellectual environment where its own views of what constitutes nature and knowledge are finding acceptance among the mainstream intellectuals who have taken the postmodern turn. The fact that postmodernism can shelter and nurture the worldview of Hindu and other fundamentalists is what makes it so dangerous.
Meera Nanda's book, Prophets Facing Backward: Postmodern Critiques of Science and Hindu Nationalism in India, has just been published.
There is an entrenched idea, even among many atheists, secularists, skeptics that arguments about religion - arguments between atheists and theists, science and religion, believers and non-believers - are futile, at best a waste of time and at worst offensive if not cruel. But the trouble is there seems to be no such idea on the other side. Believers and theists seem to have no hesitation or diffidence whatever about assuming their beliefs are both true and synonymous with virtue, and saying as much. This is a peculiar arrangement, any way you look at it. The side that has it right, that considers evidence and logic and probablities, is politely silent. The side that has it wrong, that ignores evidence and logic and just believes, never shuts up. There is much to be said for politeness and tolerance and not offending, but not if it's all on one side. And in any case, even though there is much to be said, there is not everything. There is also a great deal to be said for understanding how the world is and how things come about there - whether through the actions of an omnipotent omniscient benevolent supernatural being who created a world full of disease, accident, pain, sorrow, hardship and death, or through natural and unconscious causes - in order to deal effectively with that world.
But, sad to say, all too often the much to be said for tolerance trumps the much to be said for truth. Ironically the result is not peace and harmony and mutual respect but rather that the religious crowd gets more and more full of itself, more demanding and aggrieved and truculent, more inclined to tell everyone what to do and slander atheists as immoral nihilists. That's where tolerance gets you, apparently. The atheist side, i.e. the side that's able to see the world as it is without the aid of absurd fictions, is (out of pity for the weak-mindedness of the other side?) all politeness and respect and tactful silence. The theist side, the side that prides itself on believing in supernatural beings and heaven and life after death, is all assertion and scorn and noisy disagreement.
So the hands-off policy is no good. That just lets the believers have it all their own way, and they use their advantage to chastise and bully the skeptics. The people who have no evidence for their beliefs rebuke and tyrannize over the people who do have evidence for their beliefs: a highly perverse set-up. Daniel Dennett wrote in a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times of matter-of-factly telling a group of clever high school students that he was an atheist.
Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.
As Dennett points out, this is what happens when skeptics, atheists, and secularists keep silent: they begin to seem a far smaller percentage of the population than they are: doubters feel isolated and peculiar, and believers feel superior, confident and self-righteous. It simply doesn't answer in the long run to give way to error and bad thinking, it only encourages it.
But it's futile, goes the cry. It's a waste of time, it's useless, people never change their minds about these things. So Susan Greenfield, in an interview a few years ago:
I've sat through many science-religion ding-dongs, and they strike me as a complete waste of time. No one is going to change their views. The Atkins-Dawkins stance treats science almost as though it were a religion, and evangelically try to convert other people. Meanwhile, the religious person can't articulate why they believe what they do: they just do.
But people do change their views. Not all of them all the time, not easily, not necessarily even when they are confronted with evidence or good arguments. But they do change them sometimes, and it's impossible to know in advance what those times are. People read books, they discuss, they think, and sometimes they do change their views. Sometimes from atheism to theism, alas, but also sometimes the other way. And as for 'just believing' something, what of that? We can all believe all sorts of things that are not true. We can believe the sun travels around the earth, or that crystals have healing powers, or that it's a good idea to take antibiotics when we have a cold, or that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was an authentic document. What is wrong with someone better-informed disabusing us of our mistaken beliefs?
I don't believe in God but that is a belief, not some thing I know. I believe I love my husband, but I couldn't prove it to you one way or the other. How could I? I just know I do. My particular belief is that there is no Deity out there, but I can't prove it and therefore I would not have the temerity to tell other people they're wrong. The coinage of proof is not appropriate for belief...
But belief in one's own internal emotional state is not the same thing as belief in the existence of an entity in the external world. Naturally we can't prove our own emotions to other people, any more than a bat can prove to us what it is like to be a bat. But what does that have to do with truth-claims about a supernatural being? And in any case the issue is not one of proof but one of evidence. We can't prove our emotional states, but we can offer evidence. We can't prove the non-existence of a deity, but we can ask why there is no good evidence of its existence. Bertrand Russell pointed out that we can't prove there's not a china teapot orbiting the sun, and Carl Sagan pointed out that we can't prove there's not an invisible odorless inaudible dragon in the garage, and both pointed out that that's no reason to assume there is.
Of course, if we simply want to believe in orbiting teapots, or fairies at the bottom of the garden, or Quidditch, or the Easter bunny, for our own amusement, that's reasonably harmless (except for the state of our intellects). But religion is a public matter, to put it mildly. Religion doesn't just sit back and let the world go its own way and believe whatever it 'just does', religion intervenes. Religion makes truth claims about the world, and on the basis of those truth claims, it tells us all how to think and behave. That alone is reason enough to consider the assertions of religion every bit as open to contradiction and challenge and discussion as any other set of truth claims.
One way people try to protect religion from these harsh inquiries is by declaring that it inhabits a separate sphere from that of science, that it is more like poetry or story-telling than it is like science. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a surprisingly silly book making that claim a few years ago. But it won't wash. First because of the truth claims issue: religion doesn't act like poetry, it doesn't just tell stories or create images, it makes assertions that we are expected to believe. Second, because religion does not have the expertise that is claimed for it, even in that 'separate' sphere. Gould (this was one of the silliest things in the book) repeatedly said that religion had expertise in morality among other things. But why? What conceivable expertise does religion have on moral questions? What does religion know that moral philosophers do not know? Richard Dawkins is incisive on this point in his classic essay 'Dolly and the Cloth-Heads':
Religious lobbies, spokesmen of "traditions" and "communities", enjoy privileged access not only to the media but to influential committees of the great and the good, to the House of Lords (as I mentioned above), and to the boards of school governors. Their views are regularly sought, and heard with exaggerated "respect", by parliamentary committees. Religious spokesmen and spokeswomen enjoy an inside track to influence and power which others have to earn through their own ability or expertise. What is the justification for this?...Isn't there more justification for choosing expert witnesses for their knowledge and accomplishments as individuals, than because they represent some group or class of person?
Or there is the notion that science can answer 'how' questions and religion can answer 'why' questions, as in this item from a television discussion of science and religion.
Science can tell us how chemicals bond but only religion can answer the why questions, why do we have a universe like this at all?
But of course religion can't do any such thing. It only says it can, which is a different matter. Anyone can say that. Anyone can say anything at all. But since the answers religions give are not true, it is not clear why their answers to the 'why' questions are any better than their answers to the 'how' questions, or any other questions. Richard Dawkins, again, puts the matter well:
I once asked a distinguished astronomer, a fellow of my college, to explain the big bang theory to me. He did so to the best of his (and my) ability, and I then asked what it was about the fundamental laws of physics that made the spontaneous origin of space and time possible. "Ah," he smiled, "now we move beyond the realm of science. This is where I have to hand you over to our good friend, the chaplain." But why the chaplain? Why not the gardener or the chef? Of course chaplains, unlike chefs and gardeners, claim to have some insight into ultimate questions. But what reason have we ever been given for taking their claims seriously?
Needless to say, it's a large question. So all the more reason to pull together some material on the subject.
Unfortunately, the hope that religion might provide a bedrock, from which our otherwise sand-based morals can be derived, is a
forlorn one. In practice, no civilized person uses Scripture as ultimate authority for moral reasoning. Instead, we pick and choose the
nice bits of Scripture (like the Sermon on the Mount) and blithely ignore the nasty bits (like the obligation to stone adulteresses,
execute apostates, and punish the grandchildren of offenders)...Yes, of course it is unfair to judge the customs of an earlier era by the
enlightened standards of our own. But that is precisely my point! Evidently, we have some alternative source of ultimate moral
conviction that overrides Scripture when it suits us.
Richard Dawkins: Free Inquiry Spring 1998
I am all in favor of a dialogue between science and religion, but not a constructive dialogue. One of the great achievements of science has been, if not to make it impossible for intelligent people to be religious, then at least to make it possible for them not to be religious. We should not retreat from this accomplishment. Steven Weinberg: A Designer Universe?
What is boasted of at the present time as the revival of religion, is always, in narrow and uncultivated minds, at least as much the
revival of bigotry...
John Stuart Mill: On Liberty
Paul Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?
Texas school officials rejected a widely used environmental textbook, claiming it was filled with errors. The author says they're censoring him because they didn't like his green views -- and he's suing.
By Frederick Clarkson
Nov. 5, 2003 | A federal lawsuit filed last week in Texas may very well turn into the Lone Star State's own version of the Scopes "Monkey Trial" -- the famous 1925 court battle in which two of America's most famous attorneys debated whether evolution should be taught in the public schools. Then, the underlying issue was whether Christianity should trump science; today, it is the scientific status of mainstream environmentalism. In the current case, the author of a widely used environmental textbook is suing five present and former members of the Texas State Board of Education, who two years ago rejected his book because of alleged factual errors and pervasive bias. Claiming that the author's free speech and equal protection rights were violated by an act of censorship, the lawsuit asserts that the real reason the book was rejected was the author's environmentalist views, which clash with those of right-wing school-board members.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 30 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas by the Washington-based Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, was also filed on behalf of several Texas high school students, who the suit alleges have been denied access to this book. The plaintiffs want the book included on the state list of approved texts, a court order declaring that the board members' rejection of the book was unconstitutional, and unspecified damages stemming from the lost sales.
The stakes of the suit could hardly be higher. The battle is a veritable microcosm of the culture wars, pitting the Christian right, energy industry supporters, and defenders of Texas' right to control the textbooks its students read against environmentalists, the publishing industry, First Amendment advocates, and professional educators.
The textbook at the center of the suit is "Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future," by Daniel D. Chiras. The book, which is in its sixth edition and has been taught in many colleges and high schools in Texas and across the country for 20 years, passed the usual rigorous peer review process and had been recommended by the commissioner of education, along with two others. However, in a last-minute hearing before the board in November 2001, the book was rejected by conservative board members, who said it was factually inaccurate and espoused a "radical" environmental agenda. The board called it "anti-Christian" and "anti-American" because, among other things, it claimed there is a scientific consensus regarding global warming.
The unusual feature of the rejection was that the board and its individual members ignored the formal review, apparently relying on a 24-page critique prepared by a conservative think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), an organization closely tied to the state Republican Party and one of whose board members is married to the chairperson of the board of education. The board was also apparently influenced by testimony from members of a right-wing activist group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, at the hearing. After a stormy hearing, the board, which is made up of 10 Republicans and five Democrats, voted to reject the book along straight party lines.
At the hearing the TPPF charged that the book was not acceptable for use in Texas classrooms. Asserting that the "vitriol against Western civilization and its primary belief systems is shocking," the TPPF's critique, written by Duggan Flanakin, alleged that the book is full of "errors of fact and significant omissions, in addition to the heavy bias toward radical politics." At times, the TPPF's critique veered into shrill rhetoric more reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh than a sober academic review, as when it charged that by championing solar energy and turning "producers and marketers of traditional energy sources into bogeymen ... this text provides yet another form of flag burning." The TPPF also engaged in some crude smearing, saying that Chiras' claim that air travel has an "increasingly high environmental cost ... makes Osama Bin Laden into a hero of sorts for discouraging air travel in the United States and elsewhere."
The director of Citizens for a Sound Economy claimed, among other things, that the book "blames Christianity, Democracy and Industrialization ... as causing the so-called [environmental] 'crisis'" and that this is "highly offensive to patriotic Americans and Christians."
Most of the alleged factual errors cited in the TPPF's critique appear to be matters of ideological controversy or irresolvable philosophical disputes, not matters of provable fact. For example, Flanakin attacked as an "inaccuracy" Chiras' statement that indigenous peoples practiced sustainable development, which required an integrated set of goals. "One can hardly reason that these primitive societies set clearly definable goals, or even that they practiced sustainability," Flanakin wrote. "It is more likely that most of these largely nomadic peoples espoused a 'frontier ethic' that was made possible by the fact of very small populations and large territories." As Flanakin's use of the words "more likely" indicate, this would not appear to be a point that can be definitively proved one way or the other.
According to Texas law, the board has the right to reject a textbook if it contains factual errors, but not because it disagrees with the author's viewpoint. Burt Neuborne, a professor of First Amendment law at New York University, says, "You can't choose a book based on the viewpoint of the author. A government official has the power to make determinations based on quality and accuracy, but he does not have the power to censor what school children hear, and turn the school system into a propaganda mill." At the same time, he cautions, "If there really are questions of fact, and quality, the courts can't second-guess."
There is no question that Chiras is an active and committed environmentalist. His book sounds loud alarms about the state of the world environment, including global warming, deforestation and other crises. He argues that the current situation is not sustainable and that the developed nations, which consume a disproportionate share of the earth's resources, urgently need to change their ways. He points out that the rise of industrialized civilization had serious negative consequences for the environment. He critiques current policies and lays out a number of alternatives to them.
None of these viewpoints is particularly controversial within environmental science -- in fact, they could be said to pretty much represent mainstream environmentalist thinking. But mainstream environmentalism hardly seems mainstream to conservative board members, who note that Texas law requires that its textbooks promote democracy, patriotism and free enterprise. Chiras insists that his book is completely consistent with those goals.
Since environmentalism is not a hard science, like mathematics or physics, questions of fact can be hard to establish. The TPPF critique attacks Chiras' book for being one-sided, but the line between being biased and simply having a point of view -- and in Chiras' case, a point of view that is far from heterodox in his field -- is almost impossible to define. As a result, the outcome of the lawsuit is hard to call.
Whatever its fate, the Chiras case is a shot across the bow of a powerful, assertive and increasingly successful conservative faction on the board that openly boasts of its ability to affect the national textbook publishing industry. As the nation's second-largest textbook market (after California, which also has a statewide approval process for public school textbooks), Texas is likely to purchase some $700 million worth of school textbooks over the next two years. Because of the scale of the Texas market, publishers often cater to what they think will sell to the board. "Publishers fear offending the Texas board, which often sets the agenda for textbooks nationwide," says Adele Kimmel, an attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
The bottom line, in Neuborne's words: "The market is such that if publishers can't print separate editions, Texas censors not only its own books, but the entire nation's."
Most states select textbooks on a school-by-school or district-by-district basis. Texas subjects proposed textbooks to a rigorous review process according to what subjects are scheduled for review that year. Then the state's schools are given a list of approved books. The state will only pay for books on the list.
For decades, Christian right activists have made the Texas board a principal battleground in the culture wars. The book-selection process eventually became so politicized that in 1995, the state Legislature stepped in and largely cut the board out of the process. Book approval is now supposed to be primarily handled by professionals in the Texas Education Agency, and by outside review panels, with the board's role limited to approving or rejecting books based on whether the book is well made, factual and conforms to the educational standards measured by the statewide standardized test. Chiras' book is the first to be rejected since the law was passed.
Critics say that conservatives on the board have found a way around this by using bogus claims of "factual error" to get rid of books they disagree with. What's more, they charge that the board is using conservative groups like the TPPF as fronts, allowing them to provide critiques that authors and publishers must respond to -- which means rewriting their books -- in order to gain approval. "They are basically a mouthpiece for the board in these issues," according to attorney Adele Kimmel. She says the unstated but obvious message is that "if you don't correct what we think are errors, your book will not be adopted. Anything they disagree with is described as a factual error."
Suspicions that the board and conservative groups are working together are not allayed by the fact that current board chairwoman Geraldine Miller's husband, Vance, is a board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Don McLeroy, a board member from Bryan named as a defendant in the lawsuit, had not heard much about the suit when Salon reached him on his cellphone as he drove across west Texas. Before his cell connection broke up, McLeroy said that he made his decision because of factual errors in the book. "It's the only book we've rejected since I've been on the board for five years," he explained. "We can reject a book for factual errors and inaccuracies. And that's the basis for why we rejected the book." He referred Salon to an article he had written at the time in which he explained his action. The piece reads in part: "The entire construct of the book is based on a factual error and false premise ... The Western Christian civilization countries [sic] are the cleanest, and have the most stable population growths in the world ... The claim that the root cause of environmental problems is economic growth is simply wrong."
Steve Baughman Jensen, one of Chiras' lawyers, says the board's actions were "not based on any legitimate concerns for factual accuracy or curriculum fulfillment," but on disagreement with "Dr. Chiras' viewpoints on environmental and economic issues, views based on 30 years of scientific study." He adds, "We really think that this is a case not just of officials going beyond their authority, but officials censoring speech and viewpoints."
David Bradley, a board member from Beaumont and another defendant, rejects the argument that Chiras' First Amendment rights were violated. "That position just doesn't hold water," he said angrily. "You need to qualify for the right to speak to 4 million Texas public school children. He didn't meet the qualifications. His case is meritless. It's just opportunistic grandstanding."
In comments to the Galveston County Daily News, Bradley took issue with the fact that Chiras' book used panoramic photos of housing developments as examples of a negative impact on the environment.
"I'm in real estate," he said. "I see that and I see $250,000 homes; I see mortgage bankers; I see carpenters; I see jobs. I see a tax base."
For his part, Chiras said, "I was stunned by the board's decision to reject my textbook. Texas public high schools used an earlier edition of my book, and colleges across the country, including a state university in Texas, have used the current edition. It is incredibly offensive and unfair that my book was falsely portrayed as 'anti-Christian' when this same book is used at Baylor University -- a top-tier Christian school and Texas' oldest university."
The spectre of right-wing ideologues using financial pressure to force textbooks to be rewritten hangs over other Texas textbooks as well. This month, the Texas board will consider the adoption of statewide biology textbooks. The process has been shaping up for months, involving many of the same dynamics as with the environmental books. A conservative research group, the Discovery Institute of Seattle, has argued that the biology textbooks contain factual errors; the books' defenders say the criticisms, as with Chiras' book, are nothing more than viewpoint censorship. The Discovery Institute has presented the publishers with its criticisms, and is already crowing about "corrections" they have gained from publishers in advance of the final review by the state board.
Board member Bradley thinks the filing of the Chiras suit is intended to influence that debate. "The board is considering the adoption of biology textbooks this year, which has also been somewhat controversial and a hot issue." McLeroy agrees, adding, "You've got all this heavy lobbying, the National Center for Science Education on one side and the Discovery Institute on the good science side, or the anti-evolution side, whatever you want to call it."
The Discovery Institute is best known for promoting the "intelligent design" theory of the origin of the universe as a counter to conventional evolution theory. Intelligent design theory holds that the origin and development of the universe and living things are best explained by an "intelligent cause" rather than by such processes as natural selection and random mutation, cornerstones of the theory of evolution.
Charlotte Coffelt, a leader in the Houston chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, asserts that the Christian right members of the board are on a "mission to stop certain textbooks for children over the issue of evolution." She claims that the board's real agenda is to promote creationism -- the view held by fundamentalist Christians that God created the world, for which no scientific evidence exists -- by "masking it as intelligent design." The Discovery Institute denies that it is seeking to include intelligent design in the textbooks.
The lawsuit also discusses how the other two books that had been approved by the professional review process and recommended by the commissioner of education were handled, as further examples of the board's intentions and methodology. Their fate may be even more chilling than the banning of Chiras' book.
The second book, "Environmental Science: How the World Works and Your Place in It," was initially rejected by the board. It was finally published -- but only after its publisher, who desperately wanted the sale, agreed to allow it to be censored. According to the suit, unnamed state education officials and the publisher, J.M. LeBel Enterprises, had a late-night editing session during which the publisher agreed to change crucial passages about, among other things, global warming. (Cynthia Thornton, a member of the state Board of Education, called the text's pre-edited section on global warming "alarmist poppycock.")
A New York Times story on textbook censorship revealed some of the alterations. The Times reported, for example, that the sentence "Destruction of the tropical rain forest could affect weather over the entire planet" was changed to "Tropical rain forest ecosystems impact weather over the entire planet." The following remarkable sentence was added: "In the past, the earth has been much warmer than it is now, and fossils of sea creatures show us that the sea level was much higher than it is today. So does it really matter if the world gets warmer?" And this sentence was deleted: "Most experts on global warming feel that immediate action should be taken to curb global warming."
The publisher later told the New York Times that the process was akin to "book burning" and "100 percent political."
The third book reviewed and approved for use was "Global Science: Energy, Resources, Environment," 5th edition, by John W. Christensen, published by Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. Flanakin of the TPPF approvingly noted that the book was prepared with the help of the industry organization American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers. Also, according to the New York Times, the book was partly funded by the Mineral Information Institute, a nonprofit group whose board is almost entirely composed of top mining industry officials. In his statement to the board, Duggan said he felt it was the "finest and most readable textbook" he had ever reviewed.
Board chairwoman Grace Shore, co-owner of an oil and gas company, TEC Well Service, of Longview, Texas, told the Austin American Statesman, "[t]he oil and gas industry should be consulted" regarding environmental science textbooks because "[w]e always get a raw deal."
Adele Kimmel of TLPJ said that it "was not an accident" that the board "ultimately chose to adopt a book financed by the mining industry over one that emphasizes the importance of critical thinking."
Chiras vs. Miller may very well turn out to be a landmark case, even if the plaintiffs do not prevail. Neuborne told Salon, "It's a hard case to win. The board is going to say that they are acting within their authority and made their decision based on quality issues. They [the plaintiffs] are going to have to prove that the members of the board were not acting in good faith and that they are not telling the truth. And that's very hard to do." If the suit prevails, he thinks the board will probably be required to send the book out for an independent professional review. But he notes that there may be nothing to prevent them from rejecting the book over and over again.
"The only real defense against this [textbook censorship]," he said, "is better public school officials."
About the writer
Frederick Clarkson is the author of "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy" (Common Courage Press, 1997).
"Old inns often come complete with spirits, of the non-potable variety."
Explorers on the trail of Lost City of Atlantis
by Roger Highfield
"For more than two millennia, many of the world's greatest adventurers, explorers and thinkers have sought the fabled Lost City of Atlantis."
Three 'witches' kill themselves
"Three members of the same family accused of being witches have committed suicide, Indian police say."
Mormon church donates artifacts to Grand Rapids museum
"Some of the now-debunked Michigan Relics, once considered by some influential Mormons as evidence of the church's connection to a Near Eastern culture in ancient America, have a new home."
Next stop, the Pearly Gates
By K. Connie Kang
Los Angeles Times
"An overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe that there is life after death and that heaven and hell exist, according to a new study. What's more, nearly two-thirds think they are heaven-bound."
Palaces of Peace
By Dawn Wotapka
New York Newsday
"If enough donors come through, followers of an Indian guru say they can bring peace and harmony to the world -- one palace at a time."
Misunderstanding is blamed in research controversy
By Aaron Zitner
LOS ANGELES TIMES
"An apparent misunderstanding with Congress prompted the National Institutes of Health to put more than 150 researchers on notice in recent weeks that lawmakers were taking a skeptical look at their studies on AIDS, sexuality and high-risk behaviors."
Tanzania arrests 'witch killers'
"Police in Tanzania say they have arrested a number of people suspected of murdering old women in the belief that they were witches."
Handwriting Analyis Revisited: Are elements of personality revealed through
The Straight Dope
In your column about handwriting analysis you wrote "More than 200 objective scientific studies have demonstrated that graphology is worthless as a predictor of personality." After I whined a bit, you conceded that you had misstated matters. It wasn't that 200 studies had independently concluded graphology was worthless; rather, one researcher, Geoffrey Dean, made this judgment based on a "meta-analysis" of 200 previous studies. Even Dean's study is seriously flawed and doesn't support the conclusions drawn."
NASA Releases Documents as a Result of Sci Fi Investigation Into Kecksburg
"A day after SCI FI Channel announced its unprecedented support for legal action against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to release its records on the 1965 UFO incident in Kecksburg, PA, NASA informed Lee Helfrich, attorney for the Coalition for Freedom of Information (CFi), that it is releasing 36 pages of documents connected to the incident."
For More Stories Visit:
Can religion improve health? While the debate rages in journals and med schools, more Americans ask for doctorsprayers
By Claudia Kalb
Nov. 10 issue
On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Ming He, a fourth-year medical student in Dallas, came across a man dying in the VA Hospital. Suffering from a rare cancer and hooked up to an oxygen tank, the man, an Orthodox Jew, could barely breathe, let alone speak. There were no friends or relatives by his bed to comfort him. When the young student walked into his room, the man looked at her and said, "Now that I'm dying, I realize that I never really learned how to live." Ming He, 26, had no idea how to respond.
"I THOUGHT, 'My God, the chaplain doesn't work on weekends, what do I do?'" She held the man's hand for a few minutes in silence; two days later, he died. And as soon as she could, she signed up for "Spirituality and Medicine" at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, a course that teaches students how to talk to patients about faith and illness.
More than half of the med schools in the country now offer such courses - up from just three a decade ago - largely because patients are demanding more spiritual care. According to a NEWSWEEK Poll, 72 percent of Americans say they would welcome a conversation with their physician about faith; the same number say they believe that praying to God can cure someone - even if science says the person doesn't stand a chance. On Beliefnet, a popular interfaith Web site, fully three quarters of more than 35,000 online prayer circles are health related: patients' loved ones - as well as total strangers - can log on and send prayers into the electronic ether, hoping to heal cancers, disabilities, chronic illness and addiction. Popular practices like these, as well as the growing belief in the medical community that what happens in a person's mind (and, possibly, soul) can be as important to health as what happens on the cellular level, are leading many doctors to embrace the God they banished from the clinic long ago in favor of technological and pharmaceutical progress.
All over the medical establishment, legitimate scientists are seeking the most ethical, effective ways to combine patients' spiritual and religious beliefs with high-tech treatment. Former mutual-fund tycoon Sir John Templeton spends as much as $30 million a year funding scientific projects that explore the nature of God. "The Anatomy of Hope," a meditation on the effects of optimism and faith on health, by New Yorker medical writer Jerome Groopman, M.D., is coming out early next year. The National Institutes of Health plans to spend $3.5 million over the next several years on "mind/body" medicine. And this weekend Harvard Medical School will hold a conference on spirituality and health, focusing on the healing effects of forgiveness. 'There's been a tremendous shift in the medical profession's openness to this topic," says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying the biological effects of meditation and prayer on the brain. "People like me are very intrigued by what we're seeing."
Modern medicine, of course, still demands scientific proof on top of anecdotal evidence. So over the past decade, researchers have been conducting hundreds of studies, trying to scientifically measure the effects of faith and spirituality on health. Can religion slow cancer? Reduce depression? Speed recovery from surgery? Lower blood pressure? Can belief in God delay death? While the research results have been mixed, the studies inevitably run up against the difficulty of using scientific methods to answer what are, essentially, existential questions. How do you measure the power of prayer? Can one person's prayer be stronger - and more effective - than another's? How do you separate the health benefits of going to church or synagogue from the fact that people who attend religious services tend to smoke less and be less depressed than those who don't?
For critics of this trend, that's precisely the problem. In 1999, crusading Columbia University professor Richard Sloan wrote a paper in the medical journal The Lancet attacking the faith and healing studies for weak methodologies and soft thinking. Along with a second paper published a year later in The New England Journal of Medicine, the broadside ignited furious letter-writing campaigns in the academic press and divided the medical profession into two camps. Some scientists, like Sloan, believe that religion has no place in medicine and that steering patients toward spiritual practice can do more harm than good. Others, like Duke University's pioneering faith-and-medicine researcher Dr. Harold Koenig, believe that a growing body of evidence points to religion's positive effects on health and that keeping spirituality out of the clinic is irresponsible.
To make sense of the morass of data, the NIH commissioned a series of papers, published earlier this year, in which scientists attempted to definitively assess the state of the faith-and-health research. Lynda H. Powell, an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, reviewed about 150 papers, throwing out dozens that had flaws - those that failed to account for age and ethnicity, for example, which usually affect religiosity. In one respect, her findings were not surprising: while faith provides comfort in times of illness, it does not significantly slow cancer growth or improve recovery from acute illness.
One nugget, however, "blew my socks off," Powell says. People who regularly attend church have a 25 percent reduction in mortality - that is, they live longer - than people who are not churchgoers. This is true even after controlling for variables intrinsically linked to Sundays in the pew, like social support and healthy lifestyle. While the data were culled mainly from Christian churchgoers, Powell says the findings should apply to any organized religion. "This is really powerful," she says.
In an effort to understand the health differences between believers and nonbelievers, scientists are beginning to parse the individual components that compose religious experience. Using brain scans, researchers have discovered that meditation can change brain activity and improve immune response; other studies have shown it can lower heart rate and blood pressure, both of which reduce the body's stress response. (Most religions incorporate meditative practices, like chanting or prayer, into their traditions.) Even intangibles, such as the impact of forgiveness, may boost health as well. In a survey of 1,500 people published earlier this year, Neal Krause, a researcher at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, found that people who forgive easily tend to enjoy greater psychological well-being and have less depression than those who hold grudges. "There's a physiology of forgiveness," says Dr. Herbert Benson, head of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, and a host of the upcoming Harvard conference. "When you do not forgive, it will chew you up."
Using prayer to effect health is perhaps the most controversial subject of research. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 84 percent of Americans said praying for others can have a positive effect on their recovery, and 74 percent said that would be true even if they didn't know the patient. But what does the science say? At a meeting of the American College of Cardiology last month, Duke researcher Dr. Mitchell Krucoff reported preliminary data on a national trial of 750 patients undergoing heart catheterization or angioplasty. A group of patients who were prayed for (by, among others, Roman Catholics and Sufi Muslims in the United States, Buddhist monks in Nepal and Jews at the Western Wall) did no better than a second group that received standard care or a third, which was given a special program of music, therapeutic touch and guided imagery. But there was one intriguing finding: a fourth "turbocharged" group, which received both prayers and the music program, had death rates 30 percent lower than any of the other patients. "Despite all the attention modern medicine has paid to new technology, it has neglected to ask what happens if you pay attention to the rest of the patient," says Krucoff.
Overall, the prayer studies have not shown clear effects, and even religious proponents are skeptical that it can ever - or should ever - be tested. So many people already pray for the sick that scientists cannot establish a control group; when the prescription is prayer, patients often get it whether doctors want them to or not. This "noise" - the extra prayers of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, church members - taint trial results. And the studies prompt questions that no one, not even the best scientists, will ever be able to answer: Can one extra prayer mean the difference between life and death? Can prayer be dosed, the way medicines are? Does harder praying mean better treatment by God? In the minds of many, especially theologians, those questions border on the sacrilegious. "To think that God would only respond to the group that was prayed for and leave the other group out in the dark is based on total misconceptions of how God responds to prayer," says Cynthia Cohen, a senior research fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. Still, prayer can be an enormous source of comfort to patients and their families. Anton Imling, 54, was raised Catholic, but he rarely attended church. In 2002, Imling was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and one day last spring he wound up in the intensive-care unit at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., battling a massive infection. His wife, Shirley, later told him he'd been close to death. Throughout his illness, friends and family had formed prayer circles as far away as Maryland and Texas, and Imling had begun exploring his spirituality with the Rev. Jon Overvold, who works for the HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York, an organization that provides chaplains to local hospitals. Imling believes those prayers and a "spiritual being" saved his life. He hasn't beaten the cancer and he hasn't become a zealot, but he now prays several times a week, mostly for others who are sick. "You can be the strongest person in the world, but there's a need for that extra little boost." When patients are in crisis, their religious upbringing often doesn't matter. Rabbis and imams have prayed with Catholics. Overvold's colleague, Sister Maureen Mitchell, recalls the parents of a sick baby saying, "Do your thing. We're Jewish, but whatever will help."
Other experts worry, however, that faith can sometimes interfere with a patient's journey through illness. Dr. Suki Tepperberg, a family physician in Dorchester, Mass., has concerns about those who put too much faith in God's will. One of her patients, a Jehovah's Witness who has diabetes and hypertension, believes her illness is in God's hands and she sometimes eats destructively, harming her health. Tepperberg is worried that, while this woman could take better care of herself, "she believes God really is the ultimate decision-maker." In her review of the literature, Powell found several studies suggesting that praying with a sick person can sometimes impede recovery; one study concluded that the risk of a bad health outcome doubled, perhaps because patients believed God would protect them or that their illness was some kind of divine punishment.
Interpreting disease as retribution for sin has its roots in the Bible. Miriam and King Uzziah were struck with leprosy after offending their Godand it continues to haunt many patients today. Molly Winterich, a nurse at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, often hears parents question God, especially in the dead of the night, when fear runs rampant. They'll ask: "Why would God do this to an innocent child?" and "What did I do wrong?" Those questions, and the belief that their prayers somehow failed their children, can lead to self-reproach, despair and even physical decline. Kenneth Pargament, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, studied the religious coping methods of almost 600 patients with diseases from gastrointestinal disorders to cancer. Those who thought God was punishing them or abandoning them were up to 30 percent more likely to die over the next two years. "Spiritual struggles are red flags," says Pargament. "We don't want to turn the medical profession into clergy, but to treat these struggles as divorced from the patient's medical problems is shortsighted." Koenig, director of Duke's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, could not agree more. He is leading the charge for a better understanding of patients' religious and spiritual beliefs in the medical setting. "It just makes too much sense," he says, when patient after patient tells him, "Doctor, religion is the most important thing; it keeps me going."Koenig advocates that doctors take spiritual histories of any patient they are likely to have an ongoing relationship with, asking questions like: "Is religion a source of comfort or stress? Do you have any religious beliefs that would influence decision-making? Do you have any spiritual needs that someone should address?"
Not asking can have devastating consequences because religion can affect the most pragmatic details of a person's life, says Dr. Susan Stangl, a family-medicine doctor at UCLA. Stangl recalls a Muslim patient who needed medication, but was observing Ramadan and couldn't drink or eat during the day. After taking a spiritual history - routine for all hospitalized patients at UCLA - Stangl chose a once-a-day medication that could be taken after sundown. "If we hadn't talked about it, I would have written him a prescription for four times a day and he would not have taken it,"she says. "He might not have wanted to tell me. People don't want to contradict their doctors."
Today, more than 70 of the United States' 125 medical schools - from Harvard to Stanford - offer specific courses in spirituality or incorporate the theme into the curriculum, says Dr. Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health. Students often shadow hospital chaplains in an effort to acquaint themselves with issues that don't show up in blood tests. "Patients really do want their physicians to connect with them on a deeper level than just their cholesterol," says Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, an M.D. and Episcopal priest who teaches the class Ming He is taking at the University of Texas.
Columbia's Sloan agrees, but says religion shouldn't be the arena for this kind of intimate doctor-patient connection. His main concern is that religion will creep into physicians' domain. Problems range from simple logistical issues, he says - physicians barely have enough time to ask how patients are feeling, let alone inquire about their faith - to ethical blunders. Simply asking about religious beliefs or faith could be a setup for manipulation, making patients feel as if they have to be religious for the benefit of their health and bear responsibility for their illness if they're not. Just because some studies show that being married can make you live longer, Sloan argues, "we don't expect physicians to say to patients, 'I recommend that you get married'." Doctors should feel free to refer patients to hospital chaplains, he adds, but that's as far as the religious conversation should go. "Nobody disputes that in times of difficulty, religion provides comfort for an enormous number of people," says Sloan. "The question is whether medicine can add to that. My answer is no."
Few would disagree that doctors have to tread carefully. Dr. Jim Martin, head of the American Academy of Family Physicians, teaches residents to take spiritual histories, but "if a patient flinches, we don't go there." And if a patient says faith or spiritual beliefs are not important, "we check that box and move on." Still, Martin says some residents have crossed the line. "My problem is trying to keep them from bringing that evangelical vigor into doctor-patient relationships," he says. Lee Ann Rathbun, a chaplain at Baylor University Medical Center, recalls one incident in which the doctor told his patient that "if she was right with God, she wouldn't be depressed. I felt like he was imposing his spiritual beliefs."
Even advocates of prayer in the clinic are concerned about practitioners like Dr. Darrell Hermann. A pediatric surgeon at Baylor, Hermann says he felt compelled to raise prayer with Tiffany Webb and Jeff Fendley, a young couple whose baby was born with a dangerous abdominal-wall defect, even though he had no idea if they were religious. "I heard them make a comment that they wished she'd get better and I said, 'You could take this a step further. You could pray'."Fendley says he was pleased to make a religious connection with his baby's doctor and that it helped him cope with the severity of her condition. "He quoted the Bible and said we'll need to talk to God. There's no doubt in my mind that we did," says Fendley. "I just knelt down and cried." While Webb and Fendley found comfort in the doctor's intervention, other patients might have seen it as an unacceptable intrusion. And so the debate rages on, from the ivory tower to the bedside of a very sick child.
With Anne Underwood, Ellise Pierce, Joan Raymond, Jenny Hontz, Karen Springen and Sarah Childress
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In the News
Today's Headlines - November 14, 2003
SCIENTISTS QUICKLY MAKE SYNTHETIC VIRUS
from The Los Angeles Times
Scientists have created a synthetic version of a tiny, harmless virus in 14 days - a significant step toward the goal of creating tailor-made life forms to chew up pollutants or provide novel fuels.
The work was conducted by a team at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives, a Rockville, Md., research group headed by Craig Venter, one of the leading figures in the sequencing of the human genome.
The virus was made by synthesizing many short strings of DNA using the
molecule's fundamental chemical building blocks, then pasting them together in
the correct order, the scientists said Thursday.
SCIENTISTS LINK GLOBAL WARMING AND WINE QUALITY
from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
YAKIMA, Wash. -- Global warming may become a worldwide catastrophe, but at least the wine should be better.
Researchers from three universities have found that vintages improved as temperatures rose over the past 50 years, especially in areas with cooler climates. The findings could prove troublesome for vineyards in traditionally warmer regions.
"When you talk to grape growers and winemakers today, they will still tell you
climate is the final player in how good a vintage will be," said Gregory Jones,
Southern Oregon University climatologist and co-author of the report. "We are
going to continue to see a warming environment, and there will be some
challenges the industry will have to meet one way or another."
Unable to find heavy evidences in order to back up his theory, the archaeologist had simply been laughed at. Determined in proving his point to his skeptical colleagues, Carter decided to organize another dig in 1953. He invited many famous scientists to witness his finds. The invitation was declined by everybody. Carter later wrote, "San Diego State University refused to view the finds which have been found in his own back yard."
Russia is no exception when it comes to this kind of activities. Majority of sensational discoveries were for the most part considered a lie. One can hardly imagine the amount of exceptional, sensational information that is being stored in today's archives. Here are some facts concerning such matters. In 1961, two Russian scientists Okladnikov and Rogozhin discovered a large variety of tools in Siberia not far away from a town named Gorno-Altaisk located by the river Utalinka. They concluded that their finds date back to 1,5-2 million years. Another Russian scientist Molchanov discovered absolutely identical tools on the river Lena near a village Urlak. Radiocarbon dating analyses of these finds has clearly identified a precise date: almost 2 million years. The overall meaning of such finds appears to be of major importance, since it is thanks to them that we are able to trace the existence of the first human. They also ignite a rather controversial debate among scientists.
Every living creature leaves a trace. Certain evidences also indicate that humans existed during even earlier periods. Remains of a human skeleton vividly resembling those traits of a modern human being were found on the Pacific Coast. Their age had been determined as 5 million. France and Portugal have also contributed valuable data to the everlasting search of traces of human-s existence. Human remains have been found there ranging from 5 to 25 million years. In 1979 archaeologist Fili discovered several prints of human feet imprinted on a 4 million year-old volcanic lava. The most tedious research has indicated that those prints belong to humans, not apes. As it is known all apes or ape-like creatures have elongated toes. Some anthropologists, while being skeptical to dismiss Darwin-s theory of evolution, claim that those prints might have belonged to apes with clenched toes. Perhaps, this was apes' way of joking with humans. Who knows?
Another discovery of a calcified human's footprint has been made in Turkmenia. Its age leads us all the way back to 150 million years, to the Mesozoic period, and ultimately to the time of dinosaurs. Can it be possible that humans inhabited this planet along with such monstrous creatures? Yes.
Russian scientists however claim that a single footprint is not enough to rethink previous theories of human existence and come up with something radically novel. But what about an entire chain of footprints found near Carson, Nevada (USA)? Those are incredibly precise and clear prints doubtlessly left by a human. Their size is gigantic. Their age is 213-248 million years. It is not hard to conclude therefore that such discovery cannot possibly go hand in hand with today's preconceived notions.
Many scientists have proved the existence of remains of human-like creatures. Such finds constitute that giant people might have easily been our ancestors existing during the same era with gigantic creatures. A time will come when we will finally accept a possibility of the existence of giants on this planet.
Anatolii Vasilev, "Kontinent"
Nov. 14, 2003 | In the final days of October, Craig Manson, assistant interior secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, dealt a "Godfather"-style blow to a team of government biologists that was about to release a final report with flow recommendations for the Missouri River -- a blow that could have a sizable ripple effect on the river itself. The report was to have argued for the need to better mimic the natural flow of the Missouri (releasing more water from hydroelectric dams in the spring and less in the summer) to prevent extinction of the river's endangered sturgeon, tern and plover populations, and to reduce the risk of future flooding.
Responding to objections from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the report's suggestions would economically inconvenience dam owners and the Missouri River's barge industry, Manson penned a three-paragraph memo ordering a second opinion on Missouri River management. This opinion is to be provided by a "special national team of [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service experts ... referred to as 'the Wise Guys' or the 'SWAT Team,' [which] has served well in other complex, high-interest consultations,'" he wrote, with nary a trace of irony to soften the mafia-boss language. The replacement biological SWAT team will reach its conclusions after a 45-day study; the original team's findings were based on more than 10 years of research and were confirmed by independent peer review as well as by the National Academy of Sciences.
Those original findings were also upheld last year by a federal court: When the Corps refused to adopt the flow-change recommendations made by the team in 2000, the environmental group American Rivers took the agency to court and won. Still, the Corps has only partially complied, and is now arguing that river conditions have changed since 2000 and that the science is unreliable: "Our [most recent] engineering studies have demonstrated that the proposed flow changes will not achieve desired biological attributes," said Paul Johnston, a spokesperson for the Corps.
Johnston argued that mating habitat for river life should be created by bulldozers, not river flows: "We can build sandbars mechanically for mating habitat that tremendous flows [as well as commercial cost] would be required to accomplish naturally." Johnston estimated that the commercial cost of implementing the scientists' recommendations would be $30 million in lost annual hydroelectric plant revenue; in addition, the barge industry would face losses resulting from shutting down operations for up to two months of the year.
But the ecological costs of not adopting the recommendations are potentially far more calamitous. "Keep in mind that these are engineers talking about biology," said Allyn Sapa, a recently retired biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who supervised the Missouri River project for more than five years. "They don't seem to understand that right now we are pushing three species toward the brink of extinction and the current water-flow operations are violating the Endangered Species Act. It seems that the [engineers and the Bush administration] don't want to hear that. And it's hard not to think that because our findings don't match up with what they want to hear, they are putting a new team on the job who will give them what they want."
A scientist on the disbanded team who is still employed at Fish and Wildlife spoke to Muckraker on condition of anonymity: "What concerns me is not just that the officials seem to be looking for a predetermined answer [on how to manage river flow], but that the replacement 'SWAT team' scientists know almost nothing about the Missouri River -- whereas our team has worked in this river basin for years."
Equally calamitous could be the long-term political costs of jettisoning sound science to curry favor with industry, said Eric Eckl, director of media affairs for American Rivers. "This is just the latest chapter in a politically complicated book called 'War and Peace over the Missouri River.'" The central villain in this novel, said Eckl, is Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., a strong supporter of the barge industry who seems convinced that any kind of environmental protections for the river will sabotage his state's economy. His paranoia has been swallowed whole by the Bush administration: In August, President Bush attended a fundraiser for Bond and declared that no federal agency should govern the flow of the longest river in America.
There are reasons why Bush may find Bond so convincing: While Missouri is hardly the only state with a claim on the eponymous river, which runs from Montana to the Mississippi River, it is a swing state with more electoral votes than any other in the river's path. And Bush doesn't need to worry about those other states from a campaign standpoint, as most are solidly Republican.
From a legal and scientific standpoint, however, he might well have to worry. The fish and wildlife agencies of all seven states along the river have written in support of the original team's findings. American Rivers said that if the new team reaches pro-industry conclusions, it's more than prepared to go back to court. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has also publicly questioned the administration's move and is teaming up with other river-basin senators to call for an investigation into the Bush administration's decision to sack the scientists. "For over 10 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been saying that the science is on our side, but now the Bush administration seems to want different scientists to reach different conclusions," Daschle said in a statement. As we've seen before, this administration's M.O. is simple: If you don't like the science, change the scientist.
Slippery when wetland
That same motto could have been scrawled atop a resignation notice submitted in late October by Bruce Boler, a former U.S. EPA scientist in Florida who quit in protest when the agency accepted a study concluding that wetlands can produce more pollution than they filter. "It's a blatant reversal of traditional scientific findings that wetlands naturally purify water," Boler told Muckraker. "Wetlands are often referred to as nature's kidneys. Most self-respecting scientists will tell you that, and yet [private] developers and officials [at the Corps] wanted me to support their position that wetlands are, literally, a pollution source."
Why? So that Florida developers could fill in the wetlands to make golf courses (which use enough fertilizer and pesticides to make them among the highest-polluting forms of development). Boler's scientific judgment that wetlands were not pollution sources but pollution filters -- a judgment based on 25 years of research -- would not have stopped big-budget golf courses and other projects from going forward, but it would have forced developers to clean up all pollution runoff generated by their projects. By contrast, a finding that wetlands are actually pollution sources would decrease the cleanup burden (and the price tag) for developers.
"Developers were really upset with my findings and protested vehemently to the state and the [Corps], saying that we did not have the authority to raise these objections to their proposed high-dollar developments, some of which spanned nearly 2,000 acres and included many million-dollar homes," Boler said.
The Corps was upset with Boler's science, too -- so much so that John Hall, chief of its regulatory division in Jacksonville (which is responsible for issuing developer permits), "began referring to me as a 'loose cannon,' and during one meeting slammed down a 2-foot-long cannon replica on the conference table to dramatize [this nickname] for me," Boler said.
Not surprisingly, a developer put a different scientist on the job to come up with an alternative finding that traces nitrogen and phosphate to wetlands themselves -- a conclusion that the EPA eventually accepted. It's true that isolated wetlands do emit trace amounts of nitrogen and phosphate due to the natural decomposition of plant material in their runoff, but according to Boler, it's absurd to think that these natural toxins compare even remotely in either quantity or toxicity to the nitrogen and phosphate that come from artificial developments. But the replacement scientist found a way to prove just that: "The conclusions [developed by the new scientist] were skewed because he got his data from water-quality samples that were collected in wetlands or ponds next to roads and bridges where surrounding developments discharge pollutants," Boler said.
According to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the rate of replacing scientists in government agencies has been unusually high during the Bush administration. "There is always one major development or another that can't go forward without scientific evaluation," said Ruch, "and increasingly the scientific expert on which those developments hinge is twisting in the wind. If the scientist gives the inconvenient answer they commit career suicide, and if they give the convenient answer they get promoted."
Boler clearly didn't get promoted, but he did land another job at the Interior Department, working at Everglades National Park. In a strange twist, the man who ultimately oversees the National Park System is one Craig Manson. When Muckraker spoke with Boler, he hadn't heard about the fate of the Missouri scientists, but Ruch had: "He may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire."
Gag me with a memo
Two weeks ago, Muckraker correctly predicted that the U.S. EPA would eventually drop the backlog of cases against power plants that had violated the New Source Review rules of the Clean Air Act (which the Bush administration gutted earlier this year), thereby allowing the utility industry to avoid an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion of investments in new pollution-filtration technologies. What we didn't predict was that the EPA would try to muzzle its employees shortly before announcing that it would drop the investigations. The agency barred employees from talking not just to the media and the public, but also to congressional staff members and state and local government officials about the status of enforcement investigations or information related to enforcement actions.
The gag order was issued in an Oct. 28 memo signed by assistant EPA administrator John Peter Suarez and leaked to the staff of the Clean Air Trust. The four-page memo pays lip service to the need to "continue to work openly, fairly, and in accordance with all legal requirements," but its real message lies in the list of those to whom EPA employees shouldn't speak, another list of topics they shouldn't touch, and an exhortation to protect "sensitive and confidential information."
"This memo starkly demonstrates that those government officials evoking the courage to make the administration's anti-clean air policies public are operating in an extraordinarily difficult, if not hostile, working environment," said Frank O'Donnell, director of the trust.
Worse, that memo could make it difficult for states to prosecute these investigations in the EPA's stead, said O'Donnell, as it blatantly prohibits staff from talking to representatives of state or local governments that don't enter into a joint prosecution agreement with the feds. The memo, however, does not seem to be intimidating the attorneys general of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, who say they are more than ready to take matters into their own hands and pick up the dropped cases against the polluting plants.
Muck it up
Here at Muckraker, we always try to keep our eyes peeled and our ears to the ground (a real physiognomic challenge). The more sources we have, the better -- so if you are a fellow lantern-bearer in the dark caverns of the Bush administration's environmental policy, let us know. We welcome rumors, tips, whistleblowing, insider info, top-secret documents, or other useful tidbits on developments in environmental policy and the people behind them. Please send 'em along to email@example.com.
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About the writer
Amanda Griscom is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.
How do the self-proclaimed psychics that you see on TV these days seem so convincing when they talk to people's deceased relatives? I understand the art of "cold reading," but some so-called "hits" seem too specific to be lucky guesses. Also, why hasn't a disgruntled ex-employee of these shows ever exposed these frauds? Surely they could make a buck. --Dean Rutherford, Hailey, Idaho
SDSTAFF Dex replies:
A good question, and one that has been discussed with great insight on the Straight Dope Message Board.
What's impressive about psychics is the number of times people go to a reading, or watch one of those "hotline to heaven" shows, and say, "He told us things he couldn't possibly have known." Psychics and their fans say it's evidence of genuine psychic ability. But keep a couple things in mind:
(1) To date there's no scientific proof of the existence of "real" psychics. A stage or TV performance or a personal reading doesn't prove anything. Yes, a psychic can come up with amazingly accurate "hits." But people who are NOT psychics and make no pretense of having psychic powers can do readings and get equally good results.
As an example, Ian Rowland (whom we consulted for this report) is an entertainer who claims no psychic ability. He has given TV demonstrations posing as a tarot reader, an astrologer, a clairvoyant, and a spirit medium (someone who talks to the dead.) He scored just as many hits as the "genuine" psychics even though he openly admits he isn't psychic. He got his impressive results using a technique called cold reading. More on this later.
(2) Demonstrations of psychic ability aren't considered evidence unless they're done under scientifically-controlled conditions – which is a fancy way of saying no fudging, trickery, or cheating is permitted. Psychic readings done in someone's living room, a carnival booth, or a TV studio aren't scientifically controlled. The search for evidence of psychic powers has been going on around the world for over a century – the American Society for Psychical Research was founded in 1885. All that research and effort has failed to produce a single psychic who can demonstrate genuine psychic ability.
So how do entertainers, carnival fortune tellers, tarot readers, and others get those amazing results? Let's correct a few overly facile explanations.
So how do stage psychics do it? They rely on three main techniques:
(a) Hot readings, where the psychic has secretly obtained advance information about the person being read.
(b) Cold readings, where the psychic has no advance information, but instead shrewdly elicits facts during the reading and plays them back to the subject, to the latter's amazement. This is the most common technique used by entertainers, and we'll spend the most time on it.
(c) TV editing.
OK, let's dig in.
In a hot reading, the psychic has surreptitiously gained information about the subject in advance. There are many ways of doing this, ranging from simple eavesdropping to sophisticated espionage techniques.
The spokespeople for the TV psychics strongly deny using such techniques. Skeptical Inquirer magazine sent people to one well-known TV psychic's show and had them talk about phony deceased relatives while waiting in line. If the psychic had mentioned any of those names or people, it would have been clear evidence of secret intelligence gathering – but he didn't. So we have no evidence that TV psychics use hot reading techniques, and I suspect for most it's a minor part of their arsenal.
Complete story at http://www.straightdope.com/mailbag/mcoldreading.html
Nov. 14, 2003.
Would the last Freudian please turn out the lights?
The dimming of Freud's influence and fading of what he preached and practised from penis envy to psychoanalysis are making him little more than a footnote of history despite his brand name.
"The idea that the unconscious mind makes people ill is no longer credible," says Edward Shorter, author of A History Of Psychiatry and history of medicine professor at the University of Toronto, on sabbatical leave this year.
"It's hard to imagine a scientific article in psychiatry that would treat him even as footnote."
In the film Neighbours: Freud And Hitler In Vienna, which opens the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival tonight, Freud's granddaughter Sophie reminisces about her famous relative. "In my eyes, both Adolf Hitler and my grandfather were false prophets of the 20th century."
Retired as a professor of psychology at Simmons College in Boston, Sophie Freud will be at tonight's screening and will participate in a discussion afterwards.
She dismisses most of her grandfather's theories as "outdated" and says that another psychiatrist, Irving Goffman, "had a much better grasp on human motivation than Freud."
She also faults her grandfather for "being very angry about any critique and viewing people who criticized him, or thought otherwise, as villains."
Freud and Hitler didn't just share a neighbourhood in Vienna, she says in the film. "They also shared the ambition to convince other men of the one and only truth that they had come upon."
Speaking by phone from Boston, Sophie Freud attacks Sigmund's certainty.
"Never could he be wrong," she says. "That lasted for 50 years after his death, until a few people started to dare to say, "Yes, but ..."
Before long, "but" became outright scepticism.
"Penis envy, the bad mother nobody believes that stuff anymore," says Shorter.
"Completely absurd," agrees historian of psychology Sonu Shamdasani of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine in London, England, and author of Jung And The Making Of Modern Psychology: The Dream Of A Science.
Freudian beliefs and psychoanalysis, he says, "were never a science. Freud was a fashion, and then he became unfashionable."
In little more than a century, Sigmund Freud went from upstart to irrelevant.
But in between, during the golden age of psychoanalysis from 1920 to 1970, he was regarded as a messiah and an intellectual icon.
"Everyone was into it," recalls Dr. Joel Paris, chief of the department of psychiatry at McGill University, about Freud's theories and psychoanalysis. "This is what we talked about and believed."
Unlike most analytical psychiatrists training in the 1960s, Paris didn't go to a psychoanalytic institute. "And I was considered a rebel for not doing it, " he says.
He adds, "I think it was a case of the Emperor's new clothes."
Paris is completing a book on "how it happened that 40 years ago, psychoanalysts were leaders of psychiatry and today they have become marginal."
One reason, he says, is because at the time psychiatry didn't really have anything else to offer.
Plus, "the public relations was really excellent because they said you had to be analyzed too, so we all got analyzed. Once you've been analyzed and the longer you've spent on couch, isn't it harder to say, `Maybe this wasn't the best idea'?"
Psychology historian Shamdasani says Freud was "a good marketer."
"Freudian legend erroneously gave Freud credit for formulating a revolutionary theory, which it is nothing of the sort," he says.
But even today Freud is not without some diehard disciples, a dwindling coterie who still practise Freudian analysis.
"A few of these aging dinosaurs clung to the true faith," says Shorter, "but psychoanalysis has really vanished from psychiatry."
The granddaughter of the father of psychoanalysis explains, "The bad thing was that psychoanalysis kept itself apart from the scientific advances of time, stuck in a 19th-century way of thinking."
Freud's status started to take a tumble in the 1960s when authority and established ideas were overturned, in particular those that he represented: institutionalized medicine, psychiatric treatment, patriarchy.
"It started with his view of women," Sophie Freud says, explaining her disillusionment with her grandfather's thinking.
"If you didn't have a vaginal orgasm, you were not a mature woman, and the clitoris didn't count. Stuff like that, penis envy, it was amazing. Women believed the great man more than their own bodily experiences."
But she doesn't hold Freud responsible for the subjugation of women.
"His ideas grew out of society. He mirrored in his theories the belief that women were secondary and were not the norm and didn't quite measure up to the norm."
But what really did in Freud was not feminism but drugs, according to Shorter.
Beginning with Miltown in the 1950s, the efficacy of pharmaceuticals in fixing mental ailments from schizophrenia to depression made Freud's theories outmoded, even risible.
"The mechanism could not possibly be the unconscious mind," says Shorter. "These drugs address the brain."
Other factors, too, contributed to the collapse of Freudianism: historical research revealing the falseness of the Freudian legend, the rise of evidence-based medicine, the motivation of psychiatry to get back into the medical mainstream, the theories of developmental psychology that contradicted Freud's theories about childhood, and competing psychotherapeutic approaches including cognitive behaviour therapy which was shown to be more effective than psychoanalysis.
Finally, a flap in the mid-1980s about "recovery" during therapy of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse and satanic rituals served as a nail in the coffin.
"If penis envy made us look dumb, this will make us look totally gullible," said psychiatrist Paul McHugh at the time, while chairman of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
The latest thrust in the demise of Freud is brain research. "The big shots in psychiatry now are people who do imaging and genetics," says McGill's Paris.
With biology and brain chemistry accountable for psychiatric disorders and technology replacing hypothesizing, Freud's theories have gone the way of leeches and laudanum.
Could it be that Freud is the Ptolemy of medicine, Ptolemy being the astronomer circa 150 A.D. who believed the earth was the centre of the universe?
Sophie Freud believes her grandfather deserves some respect for his ideas, if not adherents. "There's no need to tear down the interesting things he thought about," she says.
Paris says there's a legacy that does need to be retained.
"Psychoanalysis taught us to listen to our patients, to empathize, to spend time with them," he says.
Also, he says, "Everybody agrees that there is an unconscious. But the idea that it's structured in the way Freud described or that you can get access to it through dreams or free association is not generally accepted any longer."
New York psychiatrist Kenneth Porter, of the Center for Spirituality and Psychotherapy, is even more respectful.
"Right now society is in a stage of adolescence with regard to Freud," he says. "It's how our teenage kids relate to us: `You're crazy, you don't know nothing, you're outdated.'
"When they're little, they think of us as god, which was how we thought of Freud for the first 40 years. I think society is going to come to a more mature relationship with Freud. So much that he taught us is so healing."
Sure, he made mistakes, says Porter, "but he figured the whole thing out himself and never even had an analyst to help him!"
By James Langton, Evening Standard
The controversial cult which claims to have cloned five babies says it has discovered a way of reversing the ageing process.
The Raelian sect believes it can use stem cells to turn back the clock on any part of the body.
It says it has already carried out experiments which involve shortening ageing human DNA, which stretches over time.
The sect's claims are sure to reignite the controversy surrounding human cloning and the use of stem cells, which are obtained from foetuses.
Experts have admitted the techniques used are "good science" and that reversing ageing is "theoretically possible". However, they criticise the Raelians for refusing to reveal their methods and proof of their claims.
Cult chief Dr Brigitte Boisselier, 47, is set to reveal the details of the work at a conference in London next week. However, organisers, who say the cult used a false name to book their facilities, have now cancelled it.
"As far as I am concerned, this is just not science until they prove it," said Professor Christopher Higgins, director of the Medical Research Council's Clinical Sciences Centre at Hammersmith Hospital.
In an exclusive interview with the Evening Standard, Dr Boisselier said the cult had set up a new company, Stemaid, which is using stem cells. At least two patients are being treated; one has a brain tumour and the other is paralysed after a spinal cord injury.
"We have found a way to cure so many diseases and a way to look like you are 17 years old," she said. "There will be six to nine months demonstrating and then we will be showing everything."
She says she is ready to have the treatment herself because "while my mind is mature, I don't like all my wrinkles".
Unlike the cloning project, which is still shrouded in mystery, Dr Boisselier says details of the stem cell research will be made public, starting with a major press conference in Switzerland next month.
Experts are divided over the claims. Several refused to speak to the Evening Standard, claiming the cult was "absurd".
However, Anne Bishop, a stem cell expert at Imperial College, London, believes there may be some basis to the science.
She said: "What they are talking about doing is theoretically possible, although it has nothing to do with DNA. There are several research groups around the world looking at this. It does, in effect, allow you to turn back the effects of ageing on any cell."
Dr Boisselier says the real significance of her work is the promise of eternal youth. Speaking in Montreal where the cult is based, she said: "A generation is coming that will never die. People can expect to stretch their lives for 50 or 70 years."
She says details will be made public at a medical conference in Switzerland next month. Even if successful, the procedure is highly controversial because the stem cells used are taken from cloned embryos created from the patients themselves.
Clonaid's past claims have been treated with scepticism, not least because of its links with the Raelians, founded by a former French racing driver who claims he is in contact with aliens who created humanity from clones of themselves. Clonaid claimed last year that a cloned baby girl named Eve had been born on 26 December. Dr Boisselier promised that full scientific proof would be offered, but later claimed the parents backed away through fear of exposure in the media.
Today she revealed the existence of a "second generation" of clones whose
mothers are now in the final stages of pregnancy.