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Neher to the Truth

Andy Neher
Robert Scheer

On the Level: Cabrillo College master skeptic Andy Neher can find the cold harsh reality in just about everything, including Santa Cruz's beloved Mystery Spot.

Cabrillo College skeptic and debunker looks for the good and the bad in some of Santa Cruz County's favorite pastimes

By Traci Hukill

I MET AN OLD MAN ONCE WHO WORE nothing but a tattered pair of shorts and thick-rimmed glasses. He claimed he'd forsaken a career as a nuclear physicist at White Sands Missile Range for a contemplative life on the island of Kauai, and he shared his philosophy with anyone who would listen.

"There are two kinds of people," he confided. "Artists and critics. When you act like a critic, you don't do. You just watch and pick it apart." Naturally he considered himself and people he liked artists.

It seemed profound at the time, a tidy way of dividing the seas of humanity into a manageable, static dichotomy. It's versatile, too--perhaps too versatile. "Doers and spectators" works. So do "optimists and pessimists" and "dog people and cat people." It falls apart pretty quickly after that.

But we're a culture founded on a Manichean inheritance of good and evil, rich and poor, smart and stupid, and as simplistic as those labels are, we still revert to them when life gets too confusing. We divide ourselves into liberals and conservatives in the political arena, givers and takers in the emotional sphere, and when it comes to faith in things unseen, we're either believers or we're skeptics.

Andrew Neher literally wrote the book on skepticism. Lacking a text for his course on anomalistic psychology (the study of experiences that seem inexplicable), the Cabrillo College professor wrote his own and published The Psychology of Transcendence in 1980. The book is a skeptic's bible. It examines and demystifies a wide range of extraordinary experiences, including faith healing, remote viewing, water witching, out-of-body experiences and readings of various kinds, including astrology.

Neher subjects these experiences to rigorous tests. He theorizes. Occasionally his explanations seem as improbable as the phenomena they're meant to dismiss, proving that even the terms "skeptic" and "believer" are relative. Neher, it turns out, passionately crusades for the scientific method.

But Neher also believes that many so-called paranormal experiences are useful, even if they're not paranormal, and he'd like to believe in the paranormal. That's what drives him to test its appearance so rigorously. He wants to make absolutely certain it's real. "Once I did a remote viewing study like those done at Stanford Research Institute," he recalls, "and by God, it looked like it came out in support of remote viewing and I thought, 'Whoopee, I finally found it!' I thought it was just great. I'd love to know that we could do those things."

Just to be sure, he reviewed his method. And found a loophole. "I was kind of disappointed," he admits. "I thought I'd found God, and it was just an illusion."

Here in Santa Cruz, where real estate agents and convenience store clerks alike eagerly turn to the paper's horoscope page, and where computer programmers swill ginkgo juice and people on the street discuss other people's energy without a trace of embarrassment, skeptics are an oddity. They seem out of place and a little out of date.

This community likes magic, signs, portents and omens, and we don't usually have to defend them--at least not to each other. So in the spirit of inquiry and lively debate, Metro Santa Cruz invited Neher along for an afternoon of quintessentially Santa Cruz activities. We visited an astrologer, the Mystery Spot, a holistic health practitioner and a psychic. Neher debunked. The New Agers argued back. And a few more lines were added to the universal conversation between those who practice faith and those who live by reason.

You Gotta Have Chart

ROB RYAN READS astrological charts. Not to determine "whether people are going to stub their toes or fall in love," as he says, but to identify areas of power, opportunity and "challenge" in his clients' lives. He charges $136 for a half-hour session. Clean-cut and personable, tweed-jacketed and tied, he looks more like a salesperson than an occultist. He starts the session by introducing himself and telling about his background. Then he takes a marker and starts drawing symbols on a white board.

"People tend to know what their sun sign is," he begins. "So you probably know your sun sign is Sagittarius ... ."

"No, no," Neher interrupts. "I'm an Ophiucan." He is referring to the constellation Ophiucus, which lies between Sagittarius and Scorpio and which doesn't figure in astrology.

"OK," says Ryan. "That's the astronomer's reply to astrology: 'So if you look at where the sun is, it's in front of the constellation Ophiucus, and astrology is nonsense.' Well, there are two kinds of astrology--Eastern and Western. I do Western."

He continues reading Neher's chart. He hasn't been talking long when Neher asks how he knows that Uranus is in Taurus. A complex discussion ensues concerning celestial midpoints and the disparities between Eastern, Western and New World astrology.

"They ought to be equivalent," Neher points out, "because the heavens are the same everywhere ... so somebody got it wrong. In New World astrology, Venus represents what?"

"Venus represents love and attraction," Ryan says.

"In New World astrology, Venus represents what Mars represents in Western astrology--namely war," Neher says.

"I'm not looking at right and wrong," Ryan counters. "I'm looking at the explanation I can provide by my interpretation of the symbols, and I ask my client to see if it's appropriate."

"So you put it out there and the client says, 'Hey, that sounds like me?' " Neher queries.

"Yes," Ryan replies.

His affirmative gets to the heart of Neher's argument against astrology. People project themselves into their horoscopes, he says, and identify with the readings regardless of whether they're irrelevant or, conversely, universally applicable. Sometimes people engage in self-fulfilling prophecies in order to make astrological predictions come true, unconsciously obeying the dictates of suggestion. Furthermore, he says, astrologers (and this goes for psychics too) are often very astute people who read body language and other clues "leaked" by their clients.

When Ryan asserts that Neher is a contrarian who insists on solid evidence to satisfy his curiosity, Neher later says that's obvious. Neither is he impressed by Ryan's suggestions that Neher is a good teacher, possesses a fine sense of humor and craves time out from his duties. The first observation is evident by his association with Cabrillo, Neher says. As for the second, he asks, "Who would say, 'No, I don't have a sense of humor?'" And to the third he responds, "No, I've arranged my life so I work as much as I want to."

After listening to a recording of the session per Ryan's request, Neher's wife, Linda, declares it "a good description of Andy's personality." She also can't help remarking that although Ryan got Neher's personality right, he misread many of Neher's circumstances and behaviors. "He pulled a lot out of what he saw in the interview, but on things that were further away, the accuracy wasn't as high. For example, he said Andy is interested in politics and money. And he's not."

Then again, maybe Linda Neher has herself fallen under suggestion's sway. As she says with a laugh, "I've heard the same lecture on astrology for 30 years."

Stephanie Di Pietro
Robert Scheer

Armed Insurrection: Reflexologist/acupuncturist Stephanie Di Pietro performs applied kinesiology on debunker Andrew Neher.

Shrinking and Growing

FROM RYAN'S PLUSH OFFICE we head up Branciforte to the Mystery Spot, where the trees are fragrant, the hills are steep and the houses are crooked. Since 1940, this tourist magnet has astounded thousands of visitors with balls that seem to roll uphill and a pendulum that appears to defy gravity, not to mention a disorienting effect in which people seem to shrink and grow depending on where they stand.

Business is slow today. A dozen people loiter around the ticket window waiting for Ethan the tour guide, who shows up in a reindeer sweater and a fine humor. After a theatrical introduction in which he informs us that gravity is slightly tilted to the northeast here at the Mystery Spot, we move to the first order of business: the Mystery Spot's seeming ability to change people's height.

We happen to be standing on a steep hill. In front of us lie two parallel concrete slabs with a board laid across them like a bridge. Ethan makes a great show of testing the board with a level. A member of the group verifies: Yep, it's level, all right.

Then two volunteers of about the same height stand on either end of the board, and we all stare in amazement. The guy on the downhill side now looks taller than the guy on the uphill side. They switch places.

"Did you feel the space-time continuum change?" asks Ethan provocatively as they trade positions.

Now the guy who just looked short looks tall and vice versa.

"Do you get it?" Neher whispers. "This is the hardest one to figure out."

Later he explains how the Mystery Spot manipulates our perceptions. "We tend to use the ground as a point of judgment because usually it's relatively level," he says. "If you're on the uphill side looking down, the person downhill looks taller because your reference point is lower." The same optical illusion tricks the spectators. To see how this works, Neher suggests drawing two stick figures of the same height on a sheet of paper, then drawing a diagonal line simulating the slope of a hill beneath them and seeing which one looks taller.

In similar fashion, our common expectation that houses are "level and straight up-and-down" skews our perception within the Mystery House itself, which is obviously built at a slant in addition to perching on a very steep hill. Probably the most potent illusion happens when Ethan places a plank in the cabin's open windowsill and rolls a ball along its length. The plank appears to be tilted down into the house, but the ball rolls "up" the plank toward the house's exterior.

"Do you mind if I check this?" Neher asks.

"Go right ahead," Ethan allows magnanimously.

Neher tests the plank's level in several places. It is level at both ends, but the center is bowed a little so the ball picks up momentum as it rolls. Again, the presence of diagonal lines--in the windowsill, the graded ground, and even the fence in the background--where the eye expects horizontal planes fools viewers into thinking they're watching a ball defy gravity.

Ethan himself, who studied the Mystery Spot as a physics student and claims that gravity really is distorted here, supplies the most telling, if unintentional, clue when he winds up the tour. "The real mystery," he says in his resonant voice, "is really and truly in the mind of the beholder."

We Need to Be Touched

GRAVITATIONAL VORTICES safely behind us, we make the journey to the office of Stephanie Di Pietro, a graduate of Five Branches Institute and a licensed acupuncturist who also practices reflexology, Chinese medicine and applied kinesiology. It's a big week for acupuncturists. An independent panel of physicians has just pronounced their trade medically viable for certain conditions, and a copy of the article hangs in Di Pietro's office.

Neher himself remains undecided about the validity of acupuncture, but of one thing he's certain: The popularity of touch therapies like massage, chiropractic and reflexology traces more to culturewide touch deprivation than directly to their ability to heal people.

"We need to be touched," he says, citing studies showing that touch-deprived infants are sickly and distressed. "One thing about these touch therapies is that they feel good. You can let someone touch you in the most private places, and if it's legitimized by some theory, you're not going to run into personal difficulties because this person touched you there."

At Di Pietro's office, we decide to examine applied kinesiology (AK), a diagnostic system that uses muscle testing to help determine what is wrong with a patient. Many chiropractors use it regularly.

With Neher stretched out on a table, Di Pietro asks him to extend an arm and resist when she pushes or pulls at it, the idea being that systemic weaknesses manifest in certain muscular weaknesses.

Neher remains resistant until she gets to his left leg. Then his tensor fascia lata, the muscle that runs along the outside of the leg, weakens. This, Di Pietro says, indicates an inadequate supply of necessary flora such as bifidus and acidophilus in his intestinal system. She recommends a product called Pro-Flora to restore balance.

To test Pro-Flora's potential effectiveness, she asks Neher to hold a capsule of it under his tongue (in AK, mere proximity to a substance can affect muscle strength). When she tests his left leg again it resists pressure. According to applied kinesiology, that means Pro-Flora is good for Neher. It has strengthened what was weak.

Neher's idea for testing applied kinesiology, and to which Di Pietro agrees, goes like this: Fill several capsules with a substance that is universally unhealthy--we decide to use a small portion of motor oil inside a double capsule--and administer both the motor oil and the Pro-Flora one at a time to Neher while Di Pietro tests his reaction and determines which substance is in the capsule. Theoretically, the motor oil should make him weak and the Pro-Flora will make him resistant.

In six double-blind tests in which neither Neher, Di Pietro nor the person administering the test knows what substance is in the capsule under Neher's tongue, Di Pietro incorrectly guesses five of them.

Later she points out some flaws in our methodology. For one thing, we never tested to see if Neher would react adversely to motor oil. For another, she says delicately, "sometimes I think people don't try as hard to be open and receptive as at other times." Neher, being a skeptic, just might be one of those people.

Di Pietro also produces a study suggesting that the tensor fascia lata is a less reliable muscle to test than certain others. And she suggests that Neher tested strong to motor oil precisely because it is so toxic. "With a neurotoxin like that, if you leave it in the mouth for 30 seconds, then everything will in all inevitability go weak. In the meantime, it's like when you're having a retch reaction. All your muscles go strong." She points out that we didn't measure the amount of time the capsules were in Neher's mouth.

She's right. Our methodology was not watertight. But if other tests turn out like ours did, it will be some time before applied kinesiology wins the acceptance acupuncture has--if it ever does.

Rob Ryan
Robert Scheer

Sky's the Limit: Astrologer Rob Ryan explains the finer points of his craft to interested-but-still-unbelieving Andy Neher, the skeptic.

Bad Feeling

A GOOD PSYCHIC IS HARD to find. Several of those listed in the Yellow Pages are actually telephone psychics. One call to a local psychic yields a woman who is so hard of hearing that we can't make arrangements over the telephone. Susie Stevens, voted Best Psychic for several years running, eagerly agrees to read Neher (at $150 an hour), but several days before the appointment, she cancels because--surprisingly enough--of a "bad feeling."

Maria Orr does psychic readings at 13, a recently opened shop in downtown Santa Cruz that caters to followers of the occult. She agrees to participate in our afternoon of paranormal adventure on several conditions. She'll read me, not Neher, and she doesn't want him in the room for the reading.

So with Neher within earshot but out of sight, Orr and I sit down to learn about the topic I've chosen: my career. The reading is insightful in some areas, affirming in others. She suggests that I'll move away within the next several years, that most of the next 10 years will be unsettled, that I'll finally find a niche in magazine writing and literary magazine publication--or else go into the healing arts. She says I engage in a pattern of immersion and escape in many areas of life and that in January my workload will increase.

All of this seems reasonable to me. I move often, I'm working on a literary magazine right now, I certainly immerse and escape, and in January my workload will indeed increase.

On the other hand, says Neher afterward, "She said you were going to move--and then named every direction but west. About working for a magazine, she knows you're a reporter, so it's not unreasonable to suggest you'll work for a magazine eventually. She said you need to be immersed and also to get away. I don't know anyone to whom that doesn't apply. And she probed some. For example, she said you'd be doing more work, and you said, 'More work?!' And then she said, 'other duties.' I guess I wasn't surprised. She concentrated on the future, which is safe because you can't check on it."

Orr has clearly developed her perceptive powers, but Neher's doubts raise questions about the nature of a sixth sense. Maybe, instead of being wholly separate from our other senses, it's a highly evolved amalgamation of them, a refined system of reading cues about personality, motivation and even physiology--something like what the highly trained women of the Bene Gesserit use in novelist Frank Herbert's Dune. If that's the case, a well-developed sixth sense is no less valuable just because it's less mysterious.

Maybe some systems of occult belief--astrology, Tarot, runes, psychic readings--address a craving left unsatisfied by a crumbling infrastructure of community and organized religion. Those institutions at least give people a point of reference on the philosophical compass, and they serve the important function of giving people something to adopt or reject as they struggle to navigate in a world that often makes no sense.

Occult beliefs do the same thing: They lay latticework over chaos.

"I guess that's one way in which I find psychics useful," Neher concedes. "Like with astrologers, someone might be sensitive enough to know something about you that you're not aware of and that might be helpful. If I had to put my finger on one lack, it would be a longing for community. I see it everywhere. I see it in myself."

It's not likely that Santa Cruzans are going to give up reading their horoscopes, marveling at the Mystery Spot, submitting to holistic medicine or talking to psychics anytime soon. Nor should they if they derive comfort from these things. But they might ask themselves why they need to be comforted in the first place.

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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