Creationism and Charles Fort’s talking dog

Patheos is hosting a book club this month on W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. It’s great fun and a whipsmart book, and I will have a more formal contribution to the discussion of it a bit later.

For now, though, I just want to share one small piece. It’s an aside, a tossed-off tangent mostly unrelated to the larger themes and ideas of Poole’s book, but it’s an observation that has lingered in my mind because the more I think about it, the more it explains so very much so very well.

Poole is in the middle of a discussion of discussion of the Bigfoot craze of the 1950s and ’60s. Since several of the prominent Bigfoot-hunters were influenced by the ideas and writing of Charles Fort, this is also where Poole touches on his role in the history of Monsters in America:

[Zoologist Ivan] Sanderson pursued a strange path first cut by the amateur naturalist and failed novelist Charles Fort. In the 1920s Fort mounted a full-throated assault on scientific positivism. His Book of the Damned (by damned he meant “facts” excluded a priori by science) examined the question of sea serpents, strange climatic conditions, and unexplained wonders in the sky. Fort mastered a writing style that seemed skeptical and hard-nosed about strange phenomena while also poking at the scientific establishment for its allegedly hidebound notions of truth. His writings are so influential among those interested in unexplained phenomena that “Forteanism” has found expression in quasi-academic associations and popular magazines.

Poole follows Sanderson for a bit more on his Bigfoot expeditions in the Pacific Northwest, and then writes this:

Belief in cryptids, and in the individuals who publicized them, offered the public an alternative vision of scientific knowledge. At its heart, the cryptid obsession provided a counternarrative to the idea that scientific experts connected to major universities and funded by the government had rationalized the world.

The birth of modern creationism in the post-World War II era represents another strand of this phenomenon. Proponents of so-called scientific creationism rely heavily on the claim that mainstream science exerts excessive control over the basis for knowledge of the world. Creationists make, in essence, the same argument as Charles Fort, that science represents a system of control based on circular assumptions that exclude certain facts a priori.

Ooh — creationism as Fortean philosophy. That works.

I should say here that I’ve always enjoyed Forteana. Even before Magnolia, I was a qualified fan of Fort, whom I view as a classic, genuine, native-American crank. His obsession with seeking out and aggregating the anomalous and the unexplained was, in a sense, admirably scientific. In one way, it was an expression of the very impulse that makes scientific progress possible. As Isaac Asimov said, the real excitement in science doesn’t come from “Eureka!” but from “Hmm, that’s funny …”

The problem is that Fort’s obsessive compiling of such anomalies did not include much concern or investigation into whether or not they had any basis in reality. Indeed, he seemed adamantly opposed to any such investigation or concern and only dimly interested in exploring explanations for the unexplained.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary’s somewhat fond entry on Fort does a good job of describing his oddly credulous brand of skepticism:

Charles Fort (1874-1932) fancied himself a true skeptic, one who opposes all forms of dogmatism, believes nothing, and does not take a position on anything. …

Fort spent a good part of his adult life in the New York City public library … looking for accounts of anything weird or mysterious which didn’t fit with current scientific theories. He collected accounts of frogs and other strange objects raining from the sky, UFOs, ghosts, spontaneous human combustion, the stigmata, psychic abilities, etc. He published four collections of weird tales and anomalies during his lifetime. … In these works, he does not seem interested in questioning the reliability of his sources. … He does reject one story about a talking dog who disappeared into a puff of green smoke. He expresses his doubt that the dog really went up in green smoke, though he doesn’t question its ability to speak.

Fort did not seem particularly interested in making any sense out of his collection of weird stories. He seemed particularly uninterested in scientific testing. … His main interest in scientific hypotheses was to criticize and ridicule the very process of theorizing. His real purpose seems to have been to embarrass scientists by collecting stories on “the borderland between fact and fantasy” which science could not explain or explain away. Since he did not generally concern himself with the reliability or accuracy of his data, this borderland also blurs the distinction between open-mindedness and gullibility.

Fort was skeptical about scientific explanations because scientists sometimes argue “according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence” and they suppress or ignore inconvenient data. … He took particular delight when scientists made incorrect predictions and he attacked what he called the “priestcraft” of science. Fort seems to have been opposed to science as it really is: fallible, human and tentative, after probabilities rather than absolute certainties. He seems to have thought that since science is not infallible, any theory is as good as any other. This is the same kind of misunderstanding of science that we find with so-called “scientific creationists.”

There’s that comparison again, interesting.

There remains some debate about what, if anything, Fort really believed of what he wrote. His elliptical prose allows for a wide range of interpretations, including that he may have been simply having a good laugh at his readers’ expense, or that he was an ironist who eventually got lost in his own layers of irony.

That bit with the talking dog going up in smoke certainly sounds like a joke (specifically, it follows the structure of the chestnut that ends “Sorry, I should have said ‘Dimaggio’”) but it’s difficult to know one way or the other with Fort. If he was joking the whole time, he never let on.

The frustrating thing about Fort — and this is true whether or not he was just putting us on — is that his notion of “skepticism” raises some valid criticisms, but those are intermingled with so much hokum and humbuggery that they’re reduced to slogans. He winds up unable to distinguish between black swans and talking dogs. If you object that the burden of proof for a story about a talking dog ought to be extraordinarily high, then the Fortean response is that you’re part of the oppressive priestly class of biased experts.

Here’s that paragraph from Poole again:

The birth of modern creationism in the post-World War II era represents another strand of this phenomenon. Proponents of so-called scientific creationism rely heavily on the claim that mainstream science exerts excessive control over the basis for knowledge of the world. Creationists make, in essence, the same argument as Charles Fort, that science represents a system of control based on circular assumptions that exclude certain facts a priori.

  • Tonio

    People don’t like things if there’s not a good story attached.

    It might be fair to call that the intellectual version of original sin, where it’s tempting to accept as true the things that feel true, instead of treating the emotional reaction as a reason to be skeptical of the truthfulness.

  • rm

    Regarding impenetrable prose . . .

    I gotcher impenetrable prose right here.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m sorry, your idea is too bad to be allowed to survive :(

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Of course, quite a lot of the stuff that Fort collected has been studied. Raining of frogs or fish, for example, is a perfectly natural phenomenon that scientists were able to explain once they were able to study it.

  • Matthew Funke

    histrogeek: Pasteur, as an example, disproved abiogenesis

    Let me be careful here, since this is the sort of thing that might promote misunderstanding in a discussion about creationists (among other things).

    What Pasteur disproved was spontaneous generation.  The abiogenesis form of spontaneous generation is a conjecture about living organisms systematically arising fully-formed from non-living material, such as bacteria in nutrient broths (the specific object of Pasteur’s study), maggots from rotting meat, mice from dirty rags, and so on — technically, a form of creationism.  (Curiously, Augustine cited this as a way to lighten Noah’s load, a problem creationists still find themselves having to wrangle with.)

    This should not be confused with the modern hypothesis of abiogenesis, which supposes that life arose gradually through normal organic chemical processes — and more to the point, that the boundary between “life” and “non-life” would have been somewhat fuzzy.  This abiogenesis was not even addressed by Pasteur (or Redi), and in fact, large and fascinating strides have been made in recent years to add substantial weight to the idea.

    I don’t mean to accuse you of failing to make this distinction.  I only mention this because in my discussions with creationists, “Pasteur (or Redi) proved that life cannot come from non-life centuries ago!” comes up an awful lot.  (Even though, strictly speaking, modern abiogenesis and evolution address different subject matters, both are threatening to creationists for many of the same reasons.  A lot of their rhetoric is devoted to folding a lot of things into “evolution” that don’t really belong in there so that they can attempt to discredit everything that threatens them in one fell swoop.)

  • Jeff Davis

    Ever notice how few of the comments to this post have ANYTHING to do with the initial post? Incredibly lame.

  • Kukulkan

    Jeff Davis wrote:

    Ever notice how few of the comments to this post have ANYTHING to do with the initial post? Incredibly lame.

    Well, you could do a comment based on the original post and show us all how it should be done.
    Inquiring minds want to know.
     

  • Anonymous

    Incredibly lame.

    How about we not use the word ‘lame’ to conflate ‘pathetic’ and ‘people with physical disabilities’, mmkay? Thanks.

  • P J Evans

    Ever notice how few of the comments to this post have ANYTHING to do with the initial post? Incredibly lame.

    This must be your first time at one of the blogs with Topic Drift. It’s normal here.


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