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Stanford Report, November 5, 2003

Wonderfest looks at ESP, overpopulation


Wonderfest, a two-day festival dedicated to inspiring a deep sense of wonder about the world, arrived at Stanford on Sunday. True to its spirit of stimulating curiosity and challenging underexamined beliefs, six faculty members from Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley took part in a series of lectures on ESP, human diets and the human carrying capacity of Earth.

Stanford Professors Lee Ross, psychology, and Paul Switzer, statistics, kicked off the lectures with a discussion of extrasensory perception, or ESP -- the ability to acquire information by means other than the physical senses. It includes precognition, telepathy and clairvoyance. According to the professors, the study of ESP and parapsychology also led to the founding of Stanford's Psychology Department in the early 20th century.

Since that time, however, both the public and academics have been skeptical of the field. Only 34 percent of psychologists believe in the field of ESP, according to a recent survey of more than 1,100 college professors in the United States. While this doubt has helped keep ESP from the scientific mainstream, Switzer insisted it's not a junk science. But study of ESP will continue to be considered quirky until useful applications can be found. In fact, at one time the CIA attempted to use an ESP process known as remote viewing for spying purposes. "ESP is more than knowing which card is which in [a] casino," he said. "What it will take is a study showing somebody can do something useful with it. I think it will happen."

Following the lunch break, appropriately, Professors Bruce Ames of UC-Berkeley and James Collman of Stanford delved into a discussion, "Are You (Really) What You Eat?" Ames, a biochemist and molecular biologist, discussed the epidemic of obesity in the United States and its links to cancer. Emphasizing a message mothers everywhere would love, he urged the audience to eat their fruits and vegetables and said they significantly cut the risk of cancer. "What we're eating now is calorie rich and nutrient poor," he added, noting Americans' fondness for sugar-heavy sodas and other junk food.

Even so, Collman, a chemist, cautioned against leaping into organic and vegan foods and fad diets. "There is a public phobia about trace residues [of pesticides] in food," he said, pointing out that even organic foods naturally produce their own pesticides. Eat fruits and vegetables regardless of such residues, he urged, echoing Ames' theme. And be careful not to eat too many foods rich in trans fatty acids, he said. He also encouraged people to seek a more balanced diet, as humans need a diversity of foods to function properly.

Finally, in a discussion of the human carrying capacity of the Earth, senior research scientist Anne Ehrlich of Stanford and Professor Daniel Kammen of UC-Berkeley raised questions about how much of the planet we can spare for the future. Although more than 6 billion people live on Earth, its resources are largely directed toward wealthy nations, said Ehrlich, a biologist. She added that these nations have 80 percent of the world's resources but one-sixth of its population. She then raised the interesting question of what would happen if some of the larger poor countries staked a claim for their fair share. "This would exceed areas of productive ecosystems on the Earth by about 40 percent," Ehrlich said.

Kammen, a professor of energy and society, agreed on the nature of the problem, but felt more optimistic about its solution. He argued that most developed nations overconsume resources, while poorer countries underconsume resources. Ideally, we need to make that process more efficient, he said. This can be achieved by combining new and old technologies -- technologies that can also help resolve a range of issues from global warming to agricultural production. Unfortunately, the political will to make this happen so far is absent, Kammen said. "Something has to give, and we are not seeing those sort of mentality changes on a large scale."


Hugh Biggar is a graduate student in journalism.