"Lives of the Psychics" and "The Second Creation"

One book tries to pass off psychic hooey as science, and the other reveals the creativity at the heart of great biology research.

By Frank Browning
July 27, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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It is hard to know which is the greater scandal: that Syracuse University awarded a full professorship to Fred Frohock or that the esteemed University of Chicago Press elected to publish his "Lives of the Psychics: The Shared Worlds of Science and Mysticism," a singularly banal, mush-minded assemblage of psychogibberish.

Let's start at the very beginning: the title. Evoking every Roman Catholic schoolchild's religious training, it prepares us for stories of extraordinary souls who, even if they are not saints, should mesmerize us with the grandeur of their experiences. Moreover, the subtitle leads us, C.S. Lewis-style, to expect an engagement or, at the very least, a rapprochement between the methods of science and the insights of faith. And what do we discover on Page 1 of the preface?

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Frohock's daughter Christina has a nightmare. She is watching television and sees a plane crash that has taken her daddy, days before he is to fly away to a foreign country. Fact: The plane on which he had flown to Madrid did later crash. Lesson: Behold the psychic insight of little children into the unknown.

One wonders: Has Frohock ever joined other parents at play groups, particularly parents who fly frequently? It would seem not, for if he had he might have heard a dozen, several score, possibly several hundred if he circulated a bit, stories about small children suffering separation anxiety at a parent's departure, stories in which the children slip into terrors about their parents' disappearance and demise, their nightmares stitched together from television footage of airplane crashes.

Is it disturbing to have held one's sobbing child and then to have been on a plane that we know has crashed? Certainly. Is it disturbing to look in the rearview mirror on a busy freeway and see a car spin out of control behind us? Surely so. There but for the grace of God ... If we live long enough, not one of us in the modern world will fail to have such a moment. But most of us, fortunately, do not spittle out tomes about these random events and claim them as proof of a second psychic reality. We recognize, as children of Einstein and Bohr, or as high school students of introductory quantum theory and particle physics, that uncertainty pervades the universe, that random clustering of matter and action punctuate existence and that the human mind is eternally hungry to assert its own meaning over events that seem to be beyond our control. Perhaps most to the point, those of us who possess faith know as well that it has not come to us through the recounted anecdotes of magicians and "healers" whose stories are the common currency of the National Star and "Lives of the Psychics."

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Not that Frohock's topics are uninteresting. His long chapter on ESP and the ability of study subjects to divine information posted on blind test cards gives his paragraphs the shadow of scientific evaluation. Indeed, as he notes, military investigators both in the United States and in the former Soviet Union conducted extensive research on such phenomena. One of the most productive of these exercises brought together a panel of psychics to describe Russian military installations, and, Frohock tells us, the psychics produced "useful information roughly 10 to 15 percent of the time."

Intriguing. His source? One Richard Broughton, director of something called the Rhine Research Center. The Rhine Center was a descendant of a parapsychology lab that was once housed at Duke University and was directed by the grandfather of anti-behavioral, anti-cognitive psychology, J.B. Rhine. Once Rhine retired, the lab was put out to pasture. Broughton might be a very reliable source, yet it seems strange that Frohock's report on military research includes no data or response or commentary from anyone in the military. Stranger still when we come to know that Broughton -- the source -- has no interest any longer in verifiable, empirical method. Indeed, he abjures any participation in conventional methods of scientific verification, as in: Trust us, we have special access to the other realm of knowing.

What is most exasperating about Frohock's method is his pose of dispassionate inquiry. In Chapter 4 -- "Intuitive Science" -- he casts the metaphysical, intuitive psychics against the deep skeptics. Fair enough. Intuition, he says, often leads us to press on beyond the apparent empirical evidence. In such manner, we are told, did Copernicus finally establish that the Earth revolves around the sun, displacing the Ptolemaic system, which had the sun spinning around the Earth. Oops! Copernicus as intuitive psychic? Hardly. It was the evidence available to Copernicus, based on astronomical observation and data, that led him to demonstrate the flaws of the old explanation.

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Worse still, Frohock moves to claim one of the great geniuses of 20th century medical science, Dr. Judah Folkman. Early in his career Folkman suspected that cancerous tumors induce the body to build new blood vessels to feed the tumorous mass, a process now known as "angiogenesis." For decades, established cancer researchers doubted the thesis, and Folkman was unable to demonstrate sufficient evidence for his hypothesis. "Like many movements in science," Frohock writes, "Folkman's work initially encountered replication problems: In November 1998 officials at the National Cancer Institute announced that their scientists had been unable to reproduce the results of the experiments. Folkman counseled patience. Then, in February 1999, scientists at the institute announced that they had finally confirmed some of Folkman's experiments. Plans were put in place to begin testing the drugs on people."

Demonstrating ... what? In Frohock's mind, here is proof positive that "intuitive science" -- allegedly Folkman's lifelong "intuition" that tumors require angiogenitive blood vessels -- had trumped Cartesian reasoning. One can only guess at the apoplectic response Folkman, a brilliant man of empirical science, might have at the confusion between persistence based on data and psychic faith. Still more egregious is the use Frohock makes of Folkman when as his next case he cites one of the notable quacks of modern medicine, Charles Gant, who would ditch nearly all of modern Western medicine for something he calls the "toximolecular economy" of the contemporary world. To cite only one Gant-ism, we need not bother with providing insulin for Type 1 childhood diabetes when a better nutritional scheme will reestablish the body's internal harmonies and solve the problem. Through a return to such "natural" harmonies, Gant, and his booster, Frohock, assert, we will recover access to the great healing forces that have been given to psychics, spiritualists and touch healers.

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One could go on and on and on: Frohock confuses Newtonian physics and general field theory when he tries to explain how wood is converted to smoke (no, Frohock, burning wood is not simply converted to smoke but to smoke, ash and a number of gases), misrepresents basic brain research on strokes and Alzheimer's disease, gets lost in confused quantum theory while trying to "explain" out-of-body experiences.

Saddest of all is that this book and others of its ilk pretend to wrestle with a genuine conundrum of contemporary life: the place of mystery in the secular world. Scientists, priests and commuters -- all of us are surrounded by levels of mystery, uncertainty and inexplicable phenomena unimagined either by Thomas Aquinas or by Denis Diderot. The question that Frohock seems incapable of posing is how to understand faith, which is the defining base of certainty, in a material universe where science has defined uncertainty as the norm. Rather than take on a handful of the most compellingly faithful or psychic figures, examine their lives and experiences intensely and question and contextualize their stories, he has simply packed his pages with dozens of uncritical anecdotes.

By contrast, Ian Wilmut in "The Second Creation: Dolly and the Age of Biological Control," one of the most valuable books of the current season, defines the practice of science as clearly as it has ever been stated: "Science is, after all, an attempt to explore the unknown."

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Wilmut and Keith Campbell, his collaborator at the Roslin Institute in Scotland, were the creators of Dolly, the bioengineered sheep. Working with science writer Colin Tudge, Wilmut and Campbell have written a careful, accessible history not only of Dolly but of the last quarter century of bioengineering. Though they never shy from using necessary technical terminology, they walk the reader clearly through the genetic intricacies of basic reproductive biology, explaining precisely how it is that sperm and egg unite, what the pitfalls were both in humans and in animals for developing the first in vitro fertilization and how it was that geneticists finally managed to develop multiple-cell embryos that could be divided and cloned.

The story is itself intriguing, a scientific detective tale marked by false starts and dead ends. It is also the very antithesis of the sort of book Fred Frohock chose to write: It's steady, detailed and forthright about ongoing and to-date irresolvable mysteries of biology. Moreover, in a straightforward scientific narrative, the authors of "Dolly" confront the persistent conundrum Frohock skirts in "Lives of the Psychics": Are there "essences" that exist beyond the realm of science, which, God given or nature made, are unknowable, unalterable by the techniques of Cartesian inquiry? For in creating a cloned mammal, science has walked into one of the great debates of 19th century ideas, the notion of "vitalism" vs. "mechanics."

If we mammals are merely biomechanisms, whose parts and processes can with time and technique eventually be known, then should we not eventually be able to possess the key to the creation of life? If on the other hand, as the "vitalists" insisted, we are driven by some special force that is not knowable "by the standard laws of physics and chemistry," then we must acknowledge the power of an unknowable realm. Dolly and the birth of her progeny have clearly answered the easy question: We now possess the technology to fabricate life, to create a mammalian clone. That does not mean that we have destroyed the soul, that we have eliminated mystery from existence or that all healing can be easily explained by mechanistic medical procedure. Rather, in the way that only great books can, the authors of "The Second Creation" have taken us so far into the frontiers of science that they have revealed whole galaxies of mystery that the thoughtful, creative mind must now explore.


Frank Browning

Frank Browning reported for nearly 30 years for NPR on sex, science and farming. He is the author of, among other books, "A Queer Geography" and "Apples."

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