Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 21 issue 2

China Trip Marks Start of Major CFI Initiative

Bill Cooke

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 21, Number 2 (Summer 2005).

It seems that in China everything is either three years old or three thousand years old. Between the museums with their exhibits of ancient objects, massive new buildings are creating the face of the new China. So long as its environment doesn’t collapse under the strain, China looks set to become the economic superpower of the twenty-first century. Cities are growing at a breathtaking rate.

The spring of 2005 seemed like the right time for the Center for Inquiry/Transnational to send a high-level delegation to visit this extraordinary country. Our host organization was the China Research Institute for Science Popularization (CRISP), a government-funded body charged to defend science against pseudoscience.

The CFI delegation consisted of Barry Beyerstein and Jim Alcock, both distinguished Canadian psychologists; Victor Stenger, an American physicist of long-standing; David Koepsell, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism with a background in philosophy; and myself. The delegation was evenly balanced between those whose primary interest is skepticism and those who are chiefly concerned with humanism. It was interesting to hear the common threads in our various addresses. Whether the primary focus was pseudoscience or the advancement of humanist ethics, the underlying values of rationality, valuing evidence over assertion or faith, and grounding one’s views in science were much the same.

Professor Beyerstein has long experience with China, having taught as a visiting scholar at the University of Jilin at Changchun, in Manchuria. He is an authority on Chinese medicine and has written widely on a range of pseudosciences. His most recent book is a coauthored work exposing the pseudoscientific sham of handwriting analysis. To illustrate the ubiquity of pseudoscience, he mentioned the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States, which has been funded to the tune of $100 million. When Dr. Steven Strauss, the center’s director, was asked by a skeptic to name any alternative medicines his center had investigated that actually worked, he could not name a single one.

Professor Stenger’s address was about energy—what energy is and what it is not. He focused on the misuse of the Chinese notion of Qi (or Ch’i in the old spelling). Energy is a physics term, but is frequently misused when it is employed in connection with mind, spirit, soul, vital force, and the like. When Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in psychic energy, Einstein replied that he wouldn’t until such time as he saw that it fell off with distance. So there was great excitement in pseudoscience circles in 1987 when an experiment by a team led by Yan Xin claimed to have found precisely this effect. The results were eventually published in 2002, in a journal of low academic repute. Professor Stenger showed how the flaws in the figures presented by Yan Xin and his colleagues meant they had come nowhere close to demonstrating the effect Einstein proposed as evidence of psychic force. Professor Beyerstein’s address gave the broader context for the failure of Yan Xin to demonstrate the existence of Qi. (Pseudoscience doesn’t operate in conditions that can be replicated; it relies too heavily on anecdote and testimony. It is closed about its research methods. It nurtures a climate of paranoia about criticism rather than one of welcoming.)

Jim Alcock spoke on the psychology of religion and on parapsychology, the meeting point between psychology and pseudoscience. Parapsychology, like most other pseudosciences, is the attempt to give scientific basis to nonscientific beliefs. He outlined why we are justified to adopt a skeptical attitude with respect to parapsychology. He cited these reasons:

  • There is no unambiguous definition of what parapsychology is and does.
  • Parapsychology cannot be falsified, even in principle.
  • There is no prediction and replication in parapsychology’s “findings.”
  • There is no lack of consistency with other sciences.
  • No standard theory exists that helps make testable predictions.
  • There is no progressive accumulation of knowledge.
  • The lack of interest in the null hypothesis, which is the statement that parapsychology doesn’t exist. Failures are explained away.

Professors Beyerstein and Alcock both encountered some very polite skepticism from Chinese students who were concerned about protecting traditional Chinese medicine from the charge of pseudoscience, but most people were supportive of the visitors’ views. As it happened, they both endorsed significant parts of Chinese medicine as being valid in alleviating low-level pain but doubted its ability to help with more serious ailments.

David Koepsell gave a general introduction to secular humanism and the work of the Center for Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. I offered an outline of humanist ethics, using the metaphor of a winged anchor. Science gives us the anchor, or a firm foundation in the earth, while the poetry, philosophy, music, and the irrational joys of life give us the wings to fly. Humanism, I argued, is a philosophy that joins the anchor and the wings. It is a philosophy grounded in the sciences without being confined by them. As Chinese philosophy is essentially humanistic, both Koepsell and Cooke encountered a very supportive hearing.

Our colleagues at CRISP are concerned about the popularity of pseudoscience in China. They cited a recent poll that found that 71 percent of respondents had a talisman for good luck, 85 percent listened to fortune-tellers, and 40 percent believed that the constellations determine their destiny. However, further analysis of the results of the poll showed that significant percentages of respondents expressed some skepticism even about their own beliefs. It struck me that China is in better condition than many Western societies with respect to pseudoscience. While there are many pseudoscientific and even magical beliefs in China, they are held with less dogmatism and defensiveness than is often the case in the West.

We gave these addresses, or variations on them, at several venues. In Beijing, we spoke at the Committee for the China Association of Science and Technology. In Chengdu and Wuhan, we spoke to the provincial branches of this organization. In each of these cities, we addressed postgraduate students at universities. Between these formal engagements, we had many opportunities to see many of the extraordinary sights China has to offer.

This was such a productive trip that it is highly likely there will be further development of relations between the Center for Inquiry and our Chinese kindred associations.

Bill Cooke is international director of the Center for Inquiry/Transnational.

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