Barry Beyerstein featured on the cover of The Vancouver Courier, December 6, 1998

Debunking popular myths and conspiracies with the Barry Beyerstein fonds

February 04, 2022

By Matthew Lively

Over the course of the pandemic, we've become increasingly aware of the danger associated with popular myths and conspiracies. Often promising a more familiar or easier way of dealing with change, beliefs that run counter to science can limit our ability to put solutions in place. As a simplified example that we're all aware of, misinformation about vaccines (think 5-G networks and mind control) proves believable to many and leads to lower vaccination rates, putting communites at a higher risk for infection and serious disease.

The surfeit of conspiracies today would have been an intellectual smorgasbord for Barry Beyerstein (1947-2007). After completing his BA as an SFU charter student, Beyerstein earned his PhD in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1973. From there, he returned to SFU as a Professor of Psychology and made a name for himself debunking popular myths and conspiracies. Over the course of his career, he made over 800 media appearances on topics ranging from handwriting analysis, UFOs, ESP, alternative medicine, and personality tests, in which he analyzed how untruths tend to hold water during "cycles of social and economic malaise."

One of Beyerstein's most widely printed articles was a think piece on Y2K fever titled, "Stop the Millennium: I Want to Get Off!" Here, Beyerstein argues that millennium fever "stems from a combination of growing anxiety about the future and a rosy nostalgia for a supposed 'Golden Age' that never really was." Citing number superstitions, the impact of global communications, and New Age propaganda (e.g., misreadings of the Book of Revelation), Beyerstein claims that apocalyptic hand-wringing "serves to reduce anxiety while fostering an illusion of control in an uncertain and threatening world."  

Newsletter of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, F-255-6-2-0-29
A box of unprocessed records from Barry Beyerstein

This fonds was my first arrangement and description project, and given the state of the records at the time of donation, it felt a bit like being thrown in the deep end of archival practice. Beyerstein suddenly passed away from heart failure at age 60 while working from his desk in the AQ—which left his records in a state very much reflective of a busy academic career. Some files were organized by project, course, or event, but a large portion of the records were in a jumble, as though his desk drawers were emptied into tote boxes and sent to the Archives (which is likely what happened). Correspondence was mixed with research papers, publications with conference notes, course outlines with committee work, all diffused with newspaper and magazine clippings seemingly unrelated to Beyerstein's interests.

"Loose correspondence" files from the Barry Beyerstein fonds

In what I learned is a typical arrangement and description bind, I had to decide how to make the records accessible while preserving at least a semblance of the original order. "Order" might be a strong word here, but there was still a sense of the individual emanating from the disorganized shape of the records (it's like seeing a friend's messy apartment and getting a better sense of their personality). As a compromise, I decided to sort the loose material into chronological groupings based on record type (e.g., correspondence, publications, conference ephemera, etc.), and then create files with titles representing the conditions prior to arrangement. Files such as "Loose correspondence" are more navigable for researchers, and hopefully retain an impression of how Beyerstein created and used his records.

Sorting through boxes of loose records might sound monotonous, but this was far from the case with the Beyerstein project. My favourite finds were among the hundreds of collected newsletters and magazine articles spouting factual claims of UFO sightings, cults, self-proclaimed telepaths, paranormal activity, and miracle healers (and this is saying a lot since, due to the acidity of newspaper, I had to photocopy all the clippings, one by one). Examples include a Vancouver Sun article from 2005 that claims "1.7 million Canadians believe the Da Vinci code"; and a piece in Western Canada that describes how a family moved out of their home after a visit from "a ghostly monk." 

There are also records that document Beyerstein applying his findings on brain behaviour psychology to real world situations, working to effect change in the community. He was a constant proponent for decriminalization of illicit drugs, and towards the end of his life, he devoted time advocating for safe injection sites in Vancouver through Project Civil City. These efforts greatly benefited from Beyerstein's unique understanding of how people assume prejudices that don't necessarily align with deeper beliefs.

Coming out of arranging and describing Beyerstein's records, I find myself slightly more aware of how ideological falsehoods seep into my reality. And based on the many letters from students, friends, and colleagues in the fonds that express thanks for showing how our brains might gravitate towards easy answers, it's clear that this was a key component of Beyerstein's teaching, writing, and media appearances. This leads me to conceptualize the fonds as a three-step program to seeing behind the veil, quickly summarized as follows:

  1. Ways to practice hyperawareness in our consumption of media to identify subtle forms of misinformation.
  2. How to use brain behaviour psychology as a framework to analyze why misinformation is mindlessly accepted.
  3. Templates to advocate for solutions in the community based on findings.

Of course, there are many other ways of approaching Beyerstein's fonds—his interests in psychopharmacology, sensory psychophysiology, and biological rhythms being a few examples—and so I highly recommend taking a closer look on SFU AtoM and in the Archives' Reading Room: F-255 Barry Beyerstein fonds.