Tony Edwards, a former top BBC science producer, and a friend of ours, shared a few of his old programs with us the other day. One of them, ‘The Case of ESP,’ was made for Horizon, the BBC’s premier documentary show at the time and broadcast in the 1980s.
Here was 90 minutes of prime air time devoted to the scientific evidence of extra sensory perception, remote viewing and more –what skeptics like to label ‘pseudoscience’ when they’re being polite, but more often just ‘quackery.’
I watched this documentary for the first time yesterday, and it seemed like an artefact from a museum – not because of its reporting or filmic quality, both of which were outstanding, but for the fact that it was allowed on the prime-time television in the first place.
For 20 years, Tony recently shared with me, he’d had the freedom to produce shows like this. He was a very early journalistic pioneer in investigating psi and psychic anomalies, and he was especially recognized for a series he called ‘Heretics.’
He’d been given carte blanche to cover scientists who’d dared to challenge the orthodoxy with novel ideas and experimentation – people like Jacques Benveniste, the late French biologist who’d famously demonstrated that water has a memory of molecular frequency; and the late Robert Jahn, the former dean of engineering at Princeton University, who’d decisively shown through thousands of studies that mind can influence matter.
These renegades were producing discoveries showing that the universe and the way it works were more akin to the messy business of quantum physics than the tidy world of Newtonian science, and they were brave enough to carry on with their experimentation in the face of criticism, censure and worse.
At the time of Tony’s programs their work was already considered the stuff of scientific treason. Some, like Benveniste, had been marginalized. Every so often Robert Jahn, an internationally recognized engineer for his work on spacecraft propulsion, would submit a paper with unimpeachable statistical evidence to an engineering journal, and they would dismiss it out of hand.
Not for the science, but for its shattering implications about the current scientific world view.
But the point is that even so-called heresy was being openly aired in the media.
As censorious as science was about new ideas back then, consider the arc between 1990, when we launched What Doctors Don’t Tell You, and today.
The main reaction to us in the media was universal applause. The London Times called us ‘a voice in the science’ for challenging some medicine that hadn’t been proven and examining holistic treatments with evidence of safety and effectiveness.
Numerous papers and magazines devoted loads of column inches to our ‘bold’ and ‘refreshing’ point of view. Many doctors themselves subscribed to the magazine, wrote for the magazine and cheered us on.
The Observer wrote that our vital job was to ring the alarm bells about potentially dangerous treatments ‘before they become the stuff of national panic.’
We were wheeled out on TV and radio regularly to provide that point of view. Thorny issues like vaccination were put to public debate.
Because a different point of view was allowed to be aired, to be debated – to exist at all.
I fear now, for many reasons, much of them related to money, those dissenting voices are no longer allowed to be voiced.
Most concern about our modern cancel culture focuses on woke issues like trans rights or books written in during eras with different values, but what seems to have slipped our attention is also the cancelling of any discussion or debate over new ideas, particularly new ideas in science.
Science can only be seen as a process of understanding our world and ourselves – a story in installments – rather than a fixed set of rules for all time, and with the ushering in of the new, the old must often be discarded.
However, with every passing year, mainstream science has grown ever more fundamentalist, dominated by a few highly vocal scientists who believe that the entire scientific story has already been written.
Even more fundamentalist, I’m afraid, is the media, with its insistence on there being one finite truth –the orthodoxy of the day.
As history has repeatedly shown, progress of any sort only occurs with renegades and outliers – and even, as Jack Kerouac once described them, ‘the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, . . . the ones who never . . . say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’
Those considered mad today are the geniuses of tomorrow, who remake our world, with every brave scientific question asked, every unlikely answer.
True science resembles a person with a tiny flashlight stumbling around in the dark. He encounters many dead ends and false trails, but when a path opens up and it veers far left of what he expected, he is willing to follow wherever it leads.
Both Benveniste and Jahn had been revered in the scientific establishment – Benveniste for his work on allergies and Jahn for his work on space propulsion – until, they’d had the extraordinary courage to follow something in their work that didn’t fit the scientific paradigm, even if it meant professional suicide.
We need hero scientists like that more than ever today.
But what we need even more is the willingness of mainstream broadcasters like the BBC or NBC to make programs like Tony’s, and for all of us to be willing to watch them, talk about them, argue over them, dismiss or accept them, but allow them to be out there, up for discussion.
If you’d like to see Tony’s original video click here.