Whenever astronomy professor Charles Tolbert gets a chance to debunk astrology, that field with the all-too-similar name, he takes it. On a morning in September, in a lecture hall packed with more than 200 introductory astronomy students, Tolbert is discussing how the gravitational pull between the moon and earth stretches the earth very slightly into an oval shape, creating tides. The effect, he stresses, has nothing to do with any special power the moon holds over water.
“If you talk to astrologers, they’ll tell you that one of the reasons that you’re influenced by the moon is that your body is mostly water,” he tells the class. “That’s a bunch of crap!”
Tolbert might debunk astrology with all the vehemence you’d expect from a scientist. But talk to him a little more, and you’ll find the professor surprisingly open to all sorts of phenomena that might raise most scientists’ eyebrows—and their hackles.
Tolbert, it turns out, is president of the Society for Scientific Exploration, a 25-year-old group dedicated to providing a forum for researchers who use scientific methods to study the most irrational-seeming topics. If you want to publish a study on UFOs, dowsing, parapsychology or reincarnation, the society’s journal is the place to do it. Many of the group’s members are credentialed scientists from reputable universities—places like Princeton, Stanford and, yes, UVA.
In fact, the society has deep Virginia roots. According to Tolbert, at least five UVA professors were among its initial members, and the society has held its annual meeting in Charlottesville five times. “You might chalk it up to the Jeffersonian ideal,” Tolbert says, “of being willing to look at any idea, as long as it’s open to refuting.”
It all started in 1981, when Stanford astrophysicist Peter Sturrock visited Charlottesville to give a seminar in the astronomy department. Sturrock had had a long career in plasma and solar physics, but in the 1970s he also became interested in UFOs. He found, however, that none of the academic journals that had so readily accepted his articles on solar neutrinos would consider anything with “UFO” in the title. Sturrock got together with Robert Jahn, the dean of Princeton’s engineering department who had side interests in clairvoyance and psychokinesis. Together, they decided to form a society to publish a scholarly journal dedicated to the kinds of topics that other journals refused to accept.
At the 1981 seminar, Sturrock recruited several UVA faculty, including Tolbert, astronomy professor Larry Frederick, physics professor James Trefil (now at George Mason University) and psychiatry professor Ian Stevenson. Tolbert was the society’s treasurer for 19 years and became president six years ago; he’ll hand over the reins next year.
During the past 25 years, the society has published a quarterly journal—edited and peer-reviewed like other scientific journals—and held annual meetings. It also eventually opened its ranks to include “associate” members. Full members—there are about 300—must have an advanced degree and published papers or other credentials in mainstream science, but associate members need only have an interest in the subject.
The society’s members realize that many of their colleagues consider their membership in the group odd, and some take pains to divorce it from their mainstream research. University of Colorado engineering professor Garret Moddel, for instance, keeps the Web sites of his two research groups entirely separate; his mainstream work involves optics and photonics, while his side interests include psychokinesis and telepathy. Still, he says his “anomalous” research is not a secret. He even teaches an undergraduate seminar, called “The Edges of Science,” on paranormal phenomena.
“I’m willing to talk about the research with anyone who’s interested,” Moddel says. But he and other society members agree that it’s prudent for interested scientists to wait until they gain tenure to officially join.
Not everyone thinks the society’s goals are so noble. Michael Shermer is a historian of science, head of the Skeptics Society and publisher of Skeptic magazine. He says that although the group has the right to publish whatever it wants—“This is America, we’re the society that’s a free market of ideas. So hey, why not?”—he rejects the premise that mainstream scientific journal editors are too close-minded.
“Science is conservative for a reason, and there are a lot of goofy ideas out there,” he says. “You want to be open-minded, but not so open-minded your brains fall out. I think these ideas tend too much in that direction.”
Sturrock, not surprisingly, disagrees. He says that while his mainstream research has always taken priority in his career, he’s found his unorthodox work just as valuable. “I think I’ve learned more about what science really is in my society work than in my mainstream work,” he says. “In physics, you don’t worry about whether what you’re doing is science or not. But when you’re in a completely different area, it makes you think about those questions much more carefully. What makes something science? What is the basis of the scientific method? Those are very interesting questions.”
So has his 25 years in the society convinced Tolbert that any of the strange subjects its members study are real? Not really, it turns out. He rejects the research in the areas he feels most knowledgeable about, like astrology. “That stuff I can’t really stomach,” he says. On other topics, such as reincarnation, dowsing and psychokinesis, he says he doesn’t know enough to make a definitive pronouncement—but nothing’s ever convinced him beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Tolbert stays involved in part because he simply finds the society’s doings interesting. And, he says, “I really believe that rational people doing rational research should have a venue to publish it and read about it. If you want to read it and then consider it crazy, okay, but you should have a chance to read it.”
Some of Tolbert’s colleagues, however, have a different take on his longtime involvement with the group. “Charlie loves to argue,” says UVA astronomy professor Robert Rood. “He’ll go around hunting for people to debate. And this is a whole group of people to argue with.”