Blinded by the lights?
Paranormal claims should be subjected to scientific investigation
I crept down the stone stairs to the pulpit of the paranormal. The rock ledges at Wisemans View overlook the Linville Gorge and provide a breathtaking view of Table Rock and Hawksbill. And, supposedly, of the Brown Mountain Lights, mysterious moving balls of light.
This viewing session was on the occasion of the first Brown Mountain Lights Festival, a weekend gathering of those interested in the lights -- their science, pseudoscience and folklore.
From hope to skepticism
Would we see the lights? I was still the world's greatest expert on the lights who had not actually seen them. My interest goes back many years, when a student of mine fanned the flame of interest. I had hoped there would be some interesting science behind the lights. As the trips to try so see the lights came and went without any sightings, my hopes turned to skepticism. After trip 15, it turned to cynicism. How can some people claim to see them every time they try, yet I had never caught sight of anything truly odd? Something was clearly wrong.The first clue came when my colleague, Lee Hawkins, and I tried remaining silent as others came to look. We found they got excited about what were obviously camper lights. Similar to UFO sightings, about 95 percent of the sightings are of such familiar things as camper fires, flashlights, vehicle lights, planes taking off from the Morganton-Lenoir airport, and, yes, even the stationary street lights of distant Lenoir.
The remaining 5 percent are interesting but not necessarily paranormal -- they are just not yet unexplained. If doctors could diagnose correctly 95 percent of the time, they would be quite happy.
What about that 5 percent? A clue came after I was interviewed by an Associated Press reporter a year ago. The story went out nationwide, and I got many e-mails about sightings of "Earth lights," here and elsewhere. Some were probably bogus, but others stood out as remarkable.
These might be called "close encounters of the third kind," sightings made from only a few feet away. The reports are all similar -- soccer-ball-size glowing spheres of light. This sounded exactly like an enigmatic phenomenon called "ball lightning."
Now I completed the loop from cynicism back to curiosity.
Ball lightning is basically not understood -- we cannot make it in the lab with any repeatability and we cannot even say how it can theoretically exist. How do you make a moving, self-confined ball of glowing gas?
More importantly, how does Mother Nature manage to do it repeatedly in the Gorge area as well as in many other special locations around the planet?
Finally, something scary
The only paranormal effects during our weekend at the festival were actually more frightening than any myths of the lights. I speak of the haunting specter of "Quantum-Touch®."
Long hours of staring into the dark encourages a lot of storytelling. One of the attendees, from Charlotte, told us that one of her jobs is as a "Quantum-Touch®" practitioner. She shows the technique, passing her hands close to our bodies, asking if we feel any effects.
Well, no, you're not touching us.
She bubbles forth about energy fields and other things not in the domain of real science. She gets paid to do this for people, and even can do it remotely, from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It cures cancer, re-forms bones and spruces up roses, too -- check their Web site.
This would only have been an amusing side note, a meeting of science and pseudoscience at the Gorge, if it were not for what she claimed: Nurses can get continuing education credit for this "training."
Yikes! What did your nurse not take, instead getting this voodoo training?
Science has a responsibility to investigate claims of the paranormal, like the Brown Mountain Lights. The point? Not to spoil it by explaining it -- the rainbow is just as beautiful after you know its physics, perhaps even more so. But rather to see what clues about our universe lie in new phenomena.
We also need to debunk pseudoscience that has not been subjected to double-blind clinical trials. Validation comes through publication in peer-reviewed journals, not book reviews in The New York Times.
I hope I'll soon finally see the lights. And, I hope that those who were headed to experience some voodoo treatment or training will also see the light.
Daniel B. Caton