Michael Guillen, the reporter who was supposed to verify the Raelians’ cloning claims, is hardly a skeptical observer
TIME, Jan. 10, 2003 (Column: The Skeptical Eye, by LEON JAROFF)
To the TV audience, Guillen’s appearance seemed to lend a whiff of legitimacy to the claim of the Raelians, who happen to think, among other weird beliefs, that humans are clones of extraterrestrials. After all, in addition to his earlier prestigious television job, Guillen has a doctorate in theoretical physics, mathematics and astronomy from Cornell University. Then, too, he revealed at the conference that he had “privileged information” and that in an agreement with the sect, he had recruited an independent, objective team of scientists who would use DNA analysis to test the validity of the Raelian claim.
Almost immediately, doubts began to arise about Guillen’s objectivity — and judgment. In the months prior to the news conference, he had attempted to sell rights for a documentary on the Raelian cloning effort to several TV networks for $100,000. Even more troubling was his more than tacit support, during his TV career, of kooky claims and causes. For example, after scientists had firmly established that it is the HIV virus that causes AIDS, one of Guillen’s reports gave credence to two eccentric scientists who insisted that HIV was not the villain. Guillen seemed convinced. “Many AIDS patients,” he declared, “have never been infected with HIV.”
In another TV episode, Guillen visited the lab of one James Patterson, who demonstrated a gizmo that he claimed used plastic beads covered with layers of metal to produce nuclear energy without radiation — a version of the discredited “cold fusion” claim. Guillen was impressed enough to overlook one of the fundamental laws of physics “So,” he asked credulously, “it is producing 120% more energy than it is consuming? I am curious, critical but not closed-minded.”
Guillen is also guilty of producing a three-part TV series called “Fringe or Frontier,” which dealt with what rational scientists consider to be non-existent phenomena Guillen took them all seriously. “These guys are really not flakes,” he opined about practitioners and investigators of precognition, the ability to foretell events. About astrology? “I think that we’re just going to have to suspend judgment,” he hedged, allowing for the legitimacy of medieval mysticism. Then there was the segment on psychokinesis, the ability to effect physical change by sheer mental energy. Lifting an iron bar off a table, say, or bending a spoon (apologies to Uri Geller) by merely concentrating thought. “You have to take it seriously,” Guillen intoned.
Other phenomena about which Guillen’s TV shows gave open-minded or even favorable reviews: “human “energy fields” and auras captured on film by fraudulent “Kirlian” photography. Communicating with the dead (ala John Edward). Remote healing by prayer of patients unaware that they’re being prayed for.
It’s not that Guillen hasn’t gained recognition for his work. In 1997, he won the prestigious Pigasus Award (a pin featuring a pig with wings) given by the James Randi Educational Foundation for “the indiscriminate promotion of pseudoscience and quackery.”
Last week, as the Raelians backed off from their promise to identify and allow testing of their supposed first, and then a second cloned baby, Guillen conceded that the Raelian claims “may be an elaborate hoax.” Robert Park, of the American Physical Society and a leading critic of Guillen, was hardly surprised. His conclusion: “A PhD in physics, after all, is not an inoculation against foolishness.”