Issue 261 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I am writing to complain about the two pseudoscientific articles in the July 1997 issue: Derrick Jensen’s interview with Cleve Backster [“The Plants Respond”], and Blaize Clement’s “Which Way to Siloam?” It doesn’t take much effort to see that the ideas promulgated in both are pure horse puckey.

Backster’s claims are extraordinary, and thus require extraordinary proof; he provides none. His experiments lack repeatability and control. In his example of a plant supposedly reacting to bacteria being boiled in a nearby drain, how do we know the plant wasn’t reacting to something else of which Backster wasn’t aware? Did he eliminate all possibilities besides the drain microbes? If, as he claims, the reactions occur over vast distances, why couldn’t they have been caused by someone cutting flowers at the florist down the street, or chopping down trees in the rain forest? He offers no demonstrable evidence that plants become “attuned” to our presence, but rather simply asserts that it happens. He reminds me of people who see something strange in the sky and, rather than consulting a scientist who is familiar with atmospheric phenomena, instantly conclude that it’s an alien spaceship. Backster’s stories of being rejected by “mainstream science” were howlers: there are plenty of grad students out there who would love to earn huge grants by showing “primary perception” to be real.

Backster’s claims are bogus, but at least they’re harmless. Blaize Clement’s account of her visit to psychic surgeons, on the other hand, could lead readers to actually seek out these charlatans. Twice while reading this piece I checked the contents page to make sure it wasn’t fiction. Apart from a massage the likes of which any well-trained therapist can provide, the healers’ technique seems to consist solely of extracting evil somethings from the body — like the worn engine parts an auto mechanic shows a customer — as if to provide tangible proof of healing. What good could this do someone with Alzheimer’s, AIDS, or lung cancer? The healers are as powerless as anyone else against these diseases.

The space taken by these articles would have been better spent interviewing a thoughtful scientist about why emotions are (so far) largely resistant to the scientific method, or why it’s not (yet) possible to quantify one’s reaction to a Beethoven sonata or a Rembrandt etching. (It is not simply that these matters are being ignored, as Backster claims.) An article about real science and its limitations would have made much more engaging reading.

Brian Skiff Flagstaff, Arizona

I wish The Sun would upgrade itself from “A Magazine of Ideas” to “A Magazine of Good Ideas.” I am often disappointed with the gullibility of its authors and editors, who need to think more critically; otherwise, they risk spreading bad ideas along with the good.

Cleve Backster, for example, claims that cells scraped from inside your mouth will respond to your mood even when you’re three hundred miles away. Why has no one else caught on to this miraculous discovery? Probably because you can’t predict the results of such an experiment.

“Which Way to Siloam?” in the same issue was a believer’s inside view that persisted to the end, even though the author had heard about how psychic surgeons use sleight of hand and chicken guts. This type of wishful thinking has caused documented fatalities.

How do you tell the difference between the truth and a mistake or a lie? Prediction. If you can’t make predictions, you don’t really know anything. These articles don’t just share personal feelings and observations; they tout claims that should at minimum allow us to predict results. But they don’t. Instead, they pillory science for not being more human.

Henry James Plainwell, Michigan
Cleve Backster responds:

The attitudes expressed here are not new to me. Unfortunately, almost without exception such criticism has come from individuals who have made no attempt to become better acquainted with my research. Since first publishing my findings in 1968, I have lectured before more than thirty-five scientific and academic groups, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

During the interview, I clearly explained that repeatability is a problem when events must occur spontaneously, as is the case with biocommunication. The cliché “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” sounds rather hollow when used to dismiss new ideas prior to widespread investigation. I see here a selective use of the principles of scientific method. A scientist is supposed to be a keen observer with an insatiable curiosity and a desire to explain ordinarily unexplainable phenomena. I believe my research reflects this principle. Yes, the scientific method’s expectation of repeatability is a problem in consciousness research. But this is no excuse for ignoring numerous high-quality observations suggesting that biocommunication exists.

If, as suggested in one letter, “there are plenty of grad students out there who would love to earn huge grants by showing ‘primary perception’ to be real,” I would like to meet them. Since 1974 I have sustained a well-equipped lab, mostly self-funded, and have always offered unlimited access to graduate students wishing to conduct biocommunication research. But because of attitudes like those exhibited here, most students are afraid to make grant requests relating to such studies. Those who do express interest are told that this research is low priority, and to some it has been implied that such activity might be risky for their future.

On a more positive note, I believe that attitudes are changing among more open-minded researchers. Here in California, I am currently active on teaching staffs and research-related advisory boards with a combined total of more than a hundred scientists.

Perhaps what is needed is a fuller appreciation of the scientific method, one that recognizes that a measure of courage is helpful when exploring the unknown.

I found “Which Way to Siloam?” insightful and riveting, with one disturbing exception: the author’s intolerance and anger toward vegetarians. We are all trying to find our individual way through life. If choosing not to eat animals or animal products is right with someone’s soul, so be it. I don’t think vegetarians deserve to be ridiculed or have their lifestyle described as “stupid.” Acknowledging our differences with compassion and understanding also provides powerful healing.

Amy Stiles Matteson, Illinois

I have been a Sun subscriber for at least ten years, and have read many articles that seem devoid of truth, especially interviews with shamans, astrologers, and gurus. Most of these appeared harmless and were sometimes entertaining. But “Which Way to Siloam?” was a great disappointment. Do the editors really expect readers to believe that these quacks can push their hands through a person’s flesh and remove tumors? Do the editors believe this themselves? People suffering from serious, debilitating illnesses can be susceptible to questionable treatments that do nothing but lighten their purses. Please do not be a party to this.

John S. Doherty Tampa, Florida

I was mesmerized by Blaize Clement’s account of her journey to see the healers. I’m a nurse, and I tried to share her essay with a surgeon I work with, but he wouldn’t read it. “I don’t believe in those psychic healers,” he said. “I’ve seen David Copperfield do tricks, and to me it’s the same thing.” Still, I wonder, Is her essay true? And I wonder how many times she will have to visit the healers before her body is straight.

Susan Bauerle Alta Loma, California

I read Blaize Clement’s piece on psychic surgeons. I didn’t believe a word of it. The miracles she describes never happened anywhere near a reputable physician. Her healers have no last names, no hometowns, no identifying traits at all. I’m surprised The Sun would print such crap.

Mark O’Brien Berkeley, California

There are people who love me and respect me and would trust me with their lives, but who don’t believe a word of what I’ve told them about the psychic surgeons. If it hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t believe it either, so I don’t ever try to convince anybody or offer up any of the many theoretical explanations for the results. I’m stuck with the fact that this is what happened, and I need to tell about it because that’s my way of exploring its larger meaning for my life.

As to the fear that telling about my experience might cause some ignorant, gullible person to run off to a psychic surgeon instead of going to a medical doctor, the fact is that people who seek out nontraditional healers tend to be more aggressive, better educated, and more affluent than the average person. They take control of their own health, and while their minds are open, they’re not so open-minded that their brains are liable to fall out. Instead of avoiding doctors, they’re more likely to demand before-and-after X-rays so that they can evaluate the results of psychic surgery.

About my snide comment regarding vegetarians, I’m a vegetarian myself, so I certainly don’t think it’s a stupid lifestyle. I do think it’s stupid, however, to become so worried and obsessed about it that it destroys the joy in life.

Sitting in my cell on a hot, humid Kansas day, I often pass the time with a bit of enjoyable spiritual reading. When I read “Altars in the Street,” by Melody Ermachild Chavis, in the June 1997 issue of The Sun, it struck a familiar chord in me. What resonated most was her statement “Trying to change, I used to wonder, Is it possible that this cycle of violence is going to stop with me?”

Having been raised by a physically abusive mother, I used to (and still do) tell myself that I would not treat my or anyone else’s child as my mother had treated me. I harbored great anger, hatred, and resentment toward her for years. Then, upon practicing meditation for a period of time, I forgave her and accepted that she had done the best she could, the only way she knew how. Once I felt compassion for this single mother who acted the way she did because of her great burdens and struggles, my own life became less burdensome, and I became lighter of heart, and filled with peace.

I also identified with Chavis’s self-criticism for not being more diligent in her meditation practice. Yet I find that failure is just part of the process of getting to Truth, and it takes time and hard work to move beyond society’s conditioning. Being locked up for the past ten years has ultimately given me freedom.

Michael J. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

My husband and I have been Sun readers for several years, in spite of the melancholy, grief, anger, depression, and negativity that fill its pages. The May 1997 issue was our hands-down favorite, thanks to Sparrow’s hilarious “Why Didn’t You Vote for Me?” Instead of crying right off the bat, we laughed until we cried. Please publish Sparrow as often as possible: we love him. Sparrow for president!

Jane Kaiser Tucson, Arizona
Free Trial Issue Are you ready for a closer look at The Sun?

Request a free trial, and we’ll mail you a print copy of this month’s issue. Plus you’ll get full online access — including 50 years of archives.
Request A Free Issue