Los Angeles Journal; Winning the West From Nostradamus
By ROBERT REINHOLD, Special to the New York Times
Published: April 8, 1988
LOS ANGELES, April 7— As newcomers soon learn, Southern California is world headquarters for all manner of the New Age paranormal and the unorthodox: channelers to past lives, the healing power of quartz crystals, not to mention colonic hydrotherapy.
It is not an easy place for the scientifically minded to get along, never mind reverse the metaphysical tide. But some are trying, among them Southern California Skeptics. With 2,000 members, it was started by ''people who found themselves going crazy living next door to someone trying to fix their cars with crystals,'' according to its director, Al Seckel, a physicist in suburban Pasadena.
The latest rationality crisis involves the hysteria over Nostradamus, the 16th-century French astrologer. If one believes the film based on his writings, ''The Man Who Saw Tomorrow,'' Los Angeles is to be destroyed by an earthquake next month.
As it happens, the film makers got a little confused and this is not the year Nostradamus had in mind, and anyway it seems he was thinking about a hailstorm not an earthquake. But the word did not get out in time to prevent a run on video stores for the film by panicked Angelenos. In the last week of March, more than 2,000 orders for the tape came in to its distributor, Warner Home Video, which was happy to fill them. Nearly all the orders were from California stores.
Though weary from previous battles over fears that extraterrestrial beings were capturing our women for sexual purposes and from debunking a local firewalking entrepreneur, the scientists sprang into action.
The Griffth Observatory here issued a ''press kit'' explaining that there will be no planetary alignment or conjunction in May and that, though earthquakes are a real concern on the West Coast, they are caused by ''motions within the earth'' and not by the small gravitational forces exerted by distant planets.
Both the California Institute of Technology and the observatory fielded a dozen or so calls a day from jittery residents. And the observatory director, Edwin C. Krupp, went on radio talk shows.
While astrology, the occult and untested remedies are worldwide preoccupations, why do they find such fertile ground here, the second largest city in modern America?
To Mr. Seckel the answer is rooted in the the climate and way of life here. ''On the East Coast people try to make life interesting,'' said Mr. Seckel, an erstwhile New Yorker. ''On the West Coast they try to make it comfortable. The emphasis here is on fancy cars, how one looks, less on the mind per se. It's also due to the failure of the school system. There are a lot of people with their umbilical cords out looking to stick it into something, to remove responsibility.''
The goal is not just to debunk myths but to urge people to judge information better. ''There is a dearth of thinking skills - people are taught what to think, not how,'' he said.
The Skeptics made much hay some time ago in debunking Anthony Robbins, who sells ''seminars'' that promise to unlock ''the unlimited power of your brain through the science of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.'' One of the powers was said to allow buyers to walk barefoot over burning embers. The Skeptics showed that anyone could do this gratis because oak embers, however hot, are poor conductors of heat.
The Nostradamus flap grew out of the 1981 film, narrated by Orson Welles, a credulous account of the old seer's works. His adherents maintain that his vague verse, called quatrains, predicted such events as the rise of Napolean and Hitler, World War II and the assassination of President Kennedy. According to the film, an earthquake will strike ''New City,'' which Mr. Welles says almost certainly means Los Angeles or San Francisco, with ''Saturn, Capricorn, Jupiter, Mercury in Taurus, Venus, also Cancer, Mars in Zero.''
Retranslating from the French, the Griffith Observatory found this to be gibberish, and could find no alignment of planets in May by any astrological reckoning. Before this word go out, there was much trembling in the Los Angeles basin.
The film makers are unrepentent. The producer, David L. Wolper, said he would be out of town in May but not because of the prediction. ''If the quake does happen, we'll sell a lot more copies, maybe enough to rebuild my house,'' he said laughingly.
According to the film, the world will end in the year 3797. So unless the film was right and Los Angeles slips off the continental shelf next month, Mr. Seckel and his intellectual heirs have their work cut out for them for some time to come.