VOL. 10 NO. 2 FALL 1997
Florida's "Dolphin Therapy" to be featured on the BBCby Miles W. Hardy, Ph.D.
CSICOP recently received an inquiry from Vanessa Colosi of the British Broadcasting Company in London. She was seeking skeptical input about claims of "Lourdes-like" physical healings attributed to human-dolphin interactions, a popular subject in the British press and a phenomenon that, as I came to learn, is allegedly occurring on a regular basis in south Florida.
Colosi was referred by CSICOP to TBS and then specifically to me, in my capacity as a clinical psychologist and TBS vice chairman. Within a few days I received her preliminary call, and not long thereafter a follow-up and an invitation to participate in a BBC documentary on the subject.
On the morning of August 13 I was flown, at BBC expense, to Miami, and met their team at their hotel. The crew of five consisted of Ms. Colosi, two additional female producers/interviewers, a camerman and a soundman. They had all just returned from what they referred to as the Dolphin Treatment Center in Key Largo, having interviewed both dolphin trainers and individuals who gave testimony of amazing observations and treatment successes involving dolphin-human contact, particularly with children.
I felt my role was to provide a skeptical view and alternative explanations regarding what was clearly a primary story about the special, even paranormal, powers of dolphins to sense (perhaps in part by use of their echo-locating or sonar abilities) and treat illnesses in humans. I stressed that the skeptical position is not to deny such possibilities, but to point out the need for proper scientific research and evidence/proof of the purported elements that may or may not actually be evident in such claims. I discussed a variety of possible psychological explanations that might be playing a role in reported healings, including the desperation of parents to explore any and all possibilities for healing their children (or themselves), the drama of flying to another country for therapy (e.g., from Britain to Florida), the water and sunshine, the glamour of swimming with exotic animals, and other manifestations of suggestibility and the placebo effect.
My interview lasted about an hour, and left me impressed with the BBC's professionalism and technical skills. I felt support from them for my skeptical position, as they clearly exhibited an "open-minded" approach as opposed to one of total belief. I requested a videotape of the program, which is expected to air on the BBC in October, and they agreed to provide me with one. It will be interesting to see how they edit my interview in their presentation of the skeptical position on dolphin-healing therapy.
CHAIRMAN'S CORNERby Terry A. Smiljanich
Science Fiction and Skeptics
I am a big fan of science fiction. When I was young, I devoured books by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The Foundation Trilogy and Starship Troopers were my favorites. The movies that came out in the mid-fifties were some of the greatest science fiction movies of all time -- Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Conquest of Space, Invaders From Mars. I could go on and on.
I have noticed over the years that fellow skeptics often share this love of science fiction. This should not be surprising, since skeptics usually are fascinated with science. We love a good flying-saucer movie even if we know that an actual reliable UFO sighting is non-existent. Our belief that this big universe might harbor many other life forms does not color our healthy skepticism when someone reports a UFO abduction or shows up with a photograph of "strange lights."
In fact, I often wonder whether believers in paranormal phenomena are themselves fans of science fiction. If they are, their built-in "fact vs. fiction meter" must be broken.
Some recent science fiction movies, such as Men In Black, rely less upon realism and more on fantasy. Contact, however, is a realistic portrayal of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). One would expect no less from the imagination of Carl Sagan, on whose book the movie is based. Although far from a perfect film, Contact captures the full wonder of science, from the beginning sequence, which runs the clock back to the Big Bang, to an ending that epitomizes the eternal questioning that is science.
It was also refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a scientist (played by Jodie Foster) for a change -- in fact, a scientist who did not believe in God. When was the last time you saw a Hollywood movie with a non-religious central character? In fact, her non-belief is a central idea in this film. The movie also does a good job of illustrating the silliness that would surround a genuine contact with extraterrestrials.
This leads me to a discussion of The X-Files, a Fox television series based upon the exploits of an FBI team devoted to investigations of paranormal phenomena, UFOs, etc. CSICOP recently invited the creator and executive producer, Chris Carter, to its convention to discuss the series. The discussion included several criticisms of Mr. Carter for pandering to dangerous beliefs in government conspiracies and UFO abductions. Carter defended himself with the simple proposition that his series is science fiction and is not presented as fact.
I had never seen The X-Files, but when my local video store started carrying past episodes, I checked out a few. Even though the plots fall more into the fantasy mode, I confess I got hooked. The exploits of agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are rousingly good science fiction -- well written, well acted and well photographed. Yes, there are stories of channelers, of UFO abductions, of crashed Roswell aliens -- but this is fiction and I accept it for what it is.
We skeptics shouldn't take ourselves so seriously that we cannot accept good entertainment as such. In fact, in what other TV series will you hear CSICOP itself being mentioned (as I did in one episode), or a reference to the "Gulf Breeze hoax?" The series has as its theme, "The Truth is Out There." As Agent Scully (the more skeptical of the duo) said in one episode, however, "There are lies out there, too."
So, as long as we keep our perspective on the difference between fact and fiction, there's nothing wrong with enjoying a good science fiction story, even if it is based upon current myths such as alien abductions. Congratulations on the quality of your series, Mr. Carter. But remember, it's all just make believe.
"Psychic" Noreen Renier addresses international