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.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Poole follows Sanderson for a bit more on his Bigfoot expeditions in the Pacific Northwest

    That reminds me, my father was a set designer on Harry and the Hendersons.  

    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.

    H.P. Lovecraft did something similar, but he played it for horror.  

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Lovecraft certainly was imaginative, but the most horror he could muster is a pedantic writing style.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Heh.  Granted, Lovecraft’s own horror was not exactly stellar, though I kind of liked his old-fashioned (even by the standards of his time) writing.  But much of the style of horror he popularized certainly struck a chord with me.  To me, knowledge is the antithesis of horror.  Something that I understand is something that I have no reason to fear.  Something that is unknown is simply something that I will have to seek to understand.  But to me, the real horror lies between those two things, where there is something that exists just beyond the edge of rational explanation, close enough that you can dismiss it as something else, but too far that you can say for certain.  A mystery that stubbornly refuses to be solved, that shifts and twists as though willing itself to evade your comprehension, that is where horror lies.

  • Anonymous

    Every crackpot with an axe to grind — creationists, 9/11 troofers, alt-med enthusiasts, etc — calls themselves a “skeptic”. A better (ie. more honest and descriptive) term is pseudo-skeptical contrarian — these people *know* that the Received Wisdom on whatever topic is wrong, that courageous skeptics like themselves can see through the Official Story to The Truth (ie: will credulously accept whatever alternative BS seems most appealing).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gus-Hinrich/100000151807749 Gus Hinrich

    I have been interested in the Bigfoot “controversy” insofar as advocates seem to think that all of science will be overturned if Bigfoot is real. It’s not that big a deal. Scientists (or the very small subset of biologists who would actually care) would simply make room for Bigfoot’s existence & carry on as before. The same with a lot of other phenomena.
    It ain’t no big deal.

  • Anonymous

    Another strand, but coming from the academic left, is the post-modernist critique of science.  My understanding is that it came out a critique of standards of evidence in anthropology (think Margaret Mead and the sexed-up Polynesians), taking a valid observation and running straight off the edge of the cliff with it.  We end up with the gibberish so soundly mocked in the Sokal Affair.  (Anyone unfamiliar with this, Google it:  it will be worth your while.)

    For a different strand of the same thing, see http://www.applied-epistemology.org  It is a trivial dead end, but under different conditions and with better marketing I could see it taking off.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of Fort, for Halloween I’ve been reading through Mike Dash’s blog, A Fortean in the Archives (“Strange stories. But with sources”).  I guess you could call Dash a debunker more than a Fortean, since his writings almost always conclude that the actual first-hand sources don’t support the wild stories built around them, but he really seems most like a guy interested in weird stories who still sees the need for standards of evidence.  His paper on Spring-heeled Jack is great too.

  • Anonymous

    True enough. One issue though that I wish could be examined more thoroughly is preventing institutional science of discounting a hypothesis or ignoring evidence contrary to prevailing theory especially when it comes from outside of their specific discipline. I’m thinking specifically of the continental drift and impact extinction, which were roundly and nastily criticized in their day despite the prevailing theory having much bigger holes than the alternatives. Or osteopathic medicine, now the “good” alternative medicine (sometimes not even thought of as “alternative”), but was condemned as a “cult” by the AMA into the 1960s.
    It’s not that denialists like you name are right, far from it. They are refusing to accept evidence contrary to their ideology. Just that when prevailing scientific theories are problematic, there is a natural defensiveness in institutional science to alternatives, which isn’t always so much “big changes require big evidence”, but a much less healthy “you’re wrong and a crank because our theory says so.”
     Just writing this makes me feel like I’m going to be lumped with anti-science cranks.

  • Anonymous

    Part of the deconstructionist attack on science in the 1970s and 80s was simply a disgust at how science could be used in the service of oppression. These were people who’d grown up with political science justifying tyrannies (especially in their minds imperialism), sociology and economics justifying exploitation, biology justifying racism, psychology justifying homophobia and abuse, etc. and society being pressed into conformity on the grounds of rationalization. So they started equating science as a part of the system of oppression and went after it.

  • Anonymous

    You know, the whole Sokal Affair bothers me for several reasons. First of all, the fact that someone can write (or generate) a bunch of gibberish dressed up like postmodern philosophy and submit it to a non-peer-reviewed journal doesn’t discredit the real notions and ideas that are present in postmodern philosophy. That’s not to say that A Thousand Plateaus or Anti-Oedipus are easy reads that are crystal clear in their meaning; they aren’t, and they’re like that by design. In fact, the meaning that someone gleans from those texts is really independent from the authors’ intent; again, by design.

    As a student of biology and chemistry, I’m a scientific minded person. But, that doesn’t, to me, discredit the points made by postmodern thinkers. Rather, I think of them as two different ways of looking at the same world, the same way that anaglyph images require two different colored lenses to see the entire 3D composition of their pictures. I’m also only an amateur reader of pomo philosophy, so maybe I’m totally wrong and it’s a bunch of garbage. It’s a fun read either way, though people will tend to think that you’re a “hipster douchebag”, should they see you reading certain texts in public.

    I used to post on a forum that was specifically for leftists (don’t dare call them liberals, liberals cave in to the demands of right-wing fascists), and there was a lot of discussion on the subject. Humorously enough, some of them ended up falling prey to the same phenomenon that Fred speculates on above: they came to the forum as fairly moderate liberals and started trolling as far leftists. But, the more into their trolling that they got, the more they came to internalize the things they were saying, to the point where it became impossible to tell the real postmodernists from the trolls.

    Now THAT is postmodern.

    ***

    More to the point of the OP: I’ve mentioned that, over the years, I’ve engaged with many cdesign proponentsists, and I think they can broadly be put into a few categories.

    The first are people who just believe that the Bible is the word of God, totally literal, and meant to be taken as the unfiltered truth of the history of the world. They don’t care about science, which is a corrupt human institution. Any progress made through scientific discovery is credited, essentially, to “God allowed Humans to have this knowledge, at this point in history, and for a specific reason.” Any science that causes people to question the existence of God isn’t real science, because real science comes from God.

    The second group believes in science, but also thinks that it’s been corrupted and twisted by an elite that dominate the dialog. Many of them are ID proponents who may believe that the God of Abraham is the creator, but they believe that the science of modern biology is vastly overstated in it’s confidence, and that facts that point to a designer are being covered up for political reasons.

    That second group I actually understand and have a lot of compassion for, because they are correct in a way. Unfortunately, the public perception of science DOES tend to be dominated by big personalities who are sometimes so forward and vocal that they tend to get wrapped up in their own hype. Let’s not forget that some of the original ideas of Ecosystems were put forward by Arthur Tansley, who modeled his hypotheses about the functioning of ecosystems on Freud’s theories of neurology, and then shoehorned his observations of nature into that framework. Similarly, while I’m a huge fan of Richard Dawkins, his Selfish Gene hypothesis doesn’t stand up fully in the face of scientific rigor, but he continues to use it as a kind of pop-science way of explaining the behavior of organisms.

    That doesn’t mean that there is any scientific evidence of a creator: there isn’t.

    The third group, of course, are the religious equivalent of 9/11 Truthers: they believe that the evidence IS in, and it all points to a Creator, but the Powers That Be want to bury the truth to advocate materialism and destroy our culture, and so forth. The Birchers and other assorted nutjobs tend towards this group, because it’s allows them to fit their religious and political views together like a little LEGO house of crazy.

    All of which is to say that skeptics do have legitimate reasons to be skeptical, even of science. But, they’re not consistent. Theirs’ is not a healthy skepticism that’s looking for facts, because they lack the skills to find the facts, and in the end, they must either reject science, twist science, or claim that science has been corrupted. In any event, they never get any closer to the truth. They are Achilles, and the truth is the Tortoise. 

  • Richard Hershberger

    Yes, continental drift was criticized in its day, but for good reason:  the totality of the evidence didn’t support it, even though there were a bunch of intriguing bits and pieces pointing toward it.  Then more evidence was uncovered.  (Essentially a better understanding of the earth’s mantle and the technology for deep water oceanographic surveys.)  This new evidence put plate tectonics (which is not quite the same thing) over the top.  This is how science is supposed to work. 

    It is a curious thing that it is so often put forward as if it were an indictment.  I think this is because it is spectacular, and affects a wide range of disciplines.  An evolutionary biologist might now be able to explain two isolated land mammal populations on different continents, where before plate tectonics they would be a mystery.  So the new paradigm got a lot of play, both within the scientific community and in popular science press, with the lazy narrative of how all those old fuddy duddy scientists had been wrongety-wrong.

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    The Skeptic’s Dictionary on Fort:

    He seems to have thought that since science is not infallible, any theory is as good as any other.

    This reminds me of a much more recent crank.  I forget the name, but he was one of the people claiming that “OMG we’re all going to DIE!” as soon as the LHC came on.  When asked about the odds, he said that, because it either would destroy the Earth or it wouldn’t, by definition, the chances were 50/50. *facepalm*

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I don’t mind the Mythos itself. I certainly like reading what other people say about it. I just didn’t like his writing style. I remember reading The Mountains of Madness and just skipping through large parts of it because it was a itinerary of places that had no relevance to the story. Some of his work, such as Pickman’s Model, I did enjoy reading, even if I could see the twist coming about half-way through.

  • Tonio

    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.

    Or put another way: (adopting the self-righteously whiny attitude of a middle-school): “They’re not so smart!” Both Forteanism and creationism don’t just attack science, they resent scientists.

  • Tonio

    I meant “middle-schooler.”

  • Anonymous

    Heh, I thought that Harry and the Hendersons and Predator were the two best anti-hunting movies evah! Harry … had the “do you really want to kill something so like yourself?” factor and Predator had the “how would you like to be on the wrong side of the hunting equation?” factor. They both came out in 1987.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    My main exposure to pomo anything was this person who would never use one word when three would do, and constantly quoted freakin’ Derrida like it was the Holy Writ.

    I know of fanfic writers who fall into the same trap of trying to write with the most “elegant” language, and what ends up happening is that their stories become incomprehensible because the point they’re making or the plot they’re moving along has become lost in the words.

  • Banaka

    Ideas are cancerous, and only correct ones should be allowed to survive.  As long as people have the freedom to believe what they want, they will
    choose the false-yet-more-comforting bedtime story over the
    cold, harsh and true facts.  Any humanists or rationalists who allow the unenlightened space to spread their lies is a traitor to their own cause. 

    Now more than ever the supposedly “progressive” ideals of “freedom of speech” and “democracy” need to be dispensed with.  The people need to be educated properly, and to do this, censorship and discipline must be enforced.  False beliefs must not be allowed to prosper.  Correct politics must disavow the enemy any legitimacy or even the space to exist.  

    In a true and just society all other enemies of a rational society would be subject to re-education and failing that, execution. 

  • Erl

    Following Fred’s advice to identify evil where it announces itself:

    FAAAASCIST. Like, really, really fascist. Not the neutral bits of fascism like vegetarianism and the autobahn, but the bad bits, like the execution and brainwashing of all who do not disagree.

  • Banaka

    We are opposed to fascism.

    We praise the machine. We oppose Romanticism and sentimentality. We
    oppose the sanctifying of the organic and of “harmony” with it. We
    oppose the suggestion that we are anything but material beings. We were
    destined to be masters and dominators of the universe. It is there for
    us to remake. Why live in harmony with it? It doesn’t care
    for us, in fact it wants us dead. Life is to be overcome. We are
    opposed to any post-humanist project based on hedonism or pleasure or
    love of life. We oppose individuality and individualism, and any
    political project based on same. We seek a collectivist post-human
    existence, free of pity or sentimentalism. We believe in the
    equality of all humans, but no more or less. We admire the anti-human
    thrust of capitalism, but we detest its individualist atavism and
    limited scope. We do not oppose the enslavement and devouring of
    non-human beings. We do not oppose killing of dissidents or of enemies.
    We oppose all religions and spirituality. We praise bureaucracy, but
    as with capitalism we detest its limited incarnation within the human.
    We oppose democracy. We advocate modification of the human body through
    technology and genetic engineering. Our goal is to transform the human species into a global
    brain, each individual unit a part of the greater whole, able to perform
    its specialized function individually but serving the collective at all
    times. We believe in eradication of the sexes and the elimination of
    all patriarchy or matriarchy. We believe in the eventual replacement of
    the organic with the machine.

    We are banaka.

  • Anonymous

    We are banaka.

    Baka-na!

  • Erl

    Fair enough; banaka, your project is different enough from fascism to deserve a different name for the purposes of cladistics. Banakism will do. 

    However, since it represents all of the truly creepy, evil shit that fascism is rightly condemned for in the present–and some of the stuff fascism didn’t actually do but is accused of–I stand by my original crazy scream.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Y– Y’know — and this only occurs to me because I just wrote a review of it for my blog (follow the link from my name if you like) — your speech here sounds like you’re quoting Lord Dread from the 1988 Post-Apocalyptic Kid’s Show Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. 

    One should probably not base one’s political philosophy on the villains of 1980s children’s television.  (Or on giant flying stone heads that vomit guns, for that matter)

  • rm

    rrhersh, I declare you Wrong On The Internet. At the risk of making a No True Scotsman argument, I will say that the postmodern critique of science was never about denying reality or scientific knowledge, and that if some followers of the academic fad ever made such statements, they were not good representatives of what that whole thing was about. It was about, I think, acknowledging that science is a human institution and that scientific truths are human-generated truths, and that to the extent we get to test them against the Real World they may be reliable, but they are not themselves Reality in a positivist sense. This is an especially important thing to keep in mind with the social sciences.

    Here is a good account of what the Sokal Hoax did and did not reveal. It did not reveal a Humanities establishment that was anti-science or anti-reality, though that’s what the common report tells us. It did reveal that one very trendy journal could screw up in an epically embarrassing fashion so that everyone now thinks that Humanities people are crazy anti-reality fools.

  • rm

    Oh, and, that link is to a Berube essay that ends up being relevant to our conversation (not with weird trolls, but the rest of it), as it discusses the postmodernism of the anti-science-and-reason Right.

  • Banaka

    Science fiction is as valid a tool for developing new ideas as any other method.  If our message has sprung from such humble origins, it is only following precedent.

    In the history of the cosmos, the development of life was the first
    step towards an undoing of the natural order.  What we are against IS
    the natural order.  What we wish to undo is organic life’s tendency
    toward self-destruction. invariably any unit of life, be it a cancer
    cell or a population of organisms, if left unchecked tends towards
    mindlessly perpetuating itself, at the expense of all in its path. in
    nature there are many examples of co-operation and mutually beneficial
    adaptations between organisms that keep these processes in check.  However, these are still blind natural processes, subject to decay. But
    there is a twist in this story.  We believe that with the evolution of
    consciousness, a tear in the sleeping cosmos was created, so to speak.
    out of the darkness came a burning light.

    For the first time,
    organic matter could *intentionally* manipulate and and dominate its
    environment. tool use, language, agriculture, society.

    The MACHINE is the ultimate example of this process.

    We aim to complete the process. To master nature, merge with the machine and discover immortality.  We believe that in order to do this, we must:
    *replace
    outmoded societal conventions that while useful in previous eras are
    completely unnecessary for our new society. these include nuclear
    families, gender, capitalism, and all previous forms of government.
    *cultivate
    the mental art of repression. conscious suppression of undesirable
    emotions and thoughts and the promotion of desirable emotions and
    thoughts is crucial to achieve the proper mindset. in the future, this
    won’t be necessary because of mental implants and conditioning.
    *embrace technology and science to their fullest.
    *alter
    and augment the human body. to a degree this has already started.
    there are more people with modified bodies than ever before, albeit
    mostly for cosmetic reasons. but it is a step.
    *have patience, and lay the groundwork.

  • Matri

    “We are the Borg. Existence, as you know it, is over. We will add your
    biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is
    futile.”

      – The Borg

  • Noel Sefton

    Charles Fort fan over here charging in to his rescue.. be warned!

    Fort rejected science to gather evidence because he was attempting to find patterns, and the scientific method of rejecting that which is outside the current understanding of science by finding and rejecting any story on the slightest detail (like a ‘technicality’ in a court of law), whole areas of reality are ignored.

    For instance…

    I bet every other household has stories of paranormal phenomeon in some manner, but I scientist walking from one end of the street to the other, talking to every member of every household as he does, will find ‘no evidence’ of the paranormal by the end of his journey, rather than coming to the conclusion that ‘something funny is going on’, he’ll just ‘believe’ his own excuses for the rejection of reality. And while the scientist’s ‘excuse’ is VERY BELIEVABLE, he is rejecting a huge area of study without any consideration.

    Charles Fort gave things that consideration :-P

  • Tonio

    will find ‘no evidence’ of the paranormal by the end of his journey,
    rather than coming to the conclusion that ‘something funny is going on’

    The latter is not a scientific conclusion. The scientist in your example sounds like a straw man. Science doesn’t reject the possibility of the paranormal or the supernatural. Instead, it questions the assumptions behind those concepts, which is that the alleged phenomena exist in a realm separate from physical reality. Those assumptions don’t recognize the possibility that no such divide exists, that those phenomena exist in the same realm as ours and we haven’t discovered their causes.

    First-person accounts of the paranormal or supernatural don’t qualify as evidence. They may suggest that evidence exists, but the incidents described are not testable or repeatable. Your defense of Fort sounds very much like Michael Behe’s claim that science won’t suspend its principles to allow “intelligent design,” when that idea is simply an assumption that complexity requires a creating intelligence (as well as being a Trojan horse for creationism).

  • Anonymous

    Well, the big problem is that we as a society has outgrown the type of horror that Lovecraft specialized in.  The notion that humanity is an insignificant speck being slowly digested by an amoral universe was a novel concept in 1920, but we’ve all become a lot more jaded since then.  So without the novelty, all you’re left with is the impenetrable prose.

  • Kukulkan

    LoneWolf343 write:

    I remember reading The Mountains of Madness and just skipping through large parts of it because it was a itinerary of places that had no relevance to the story.

    You do know that writing style was deliberate. The idea was: if the events of the story were real, how would that information be conveyed to the world? Lovecraft’s answer was that it would appear in the form of a scientific report prepared by the one or more members of the expedition. Thus, the story had to look like a scientific report. And, to do that, it had to be full of the sorts of detail expedition members would record — including itineraries of places that they had visited.

    If you were to read actual scientific reports from expeditions to Antarctica (or, indeed, anywhere) you would find that (i) they are a lot duller than anything Lovecraft wrote, and (ii) Lovecraft actually caught the style quite well.

    Most of Lovecraft’s later stories — from about “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) on — were done in this style. They’re full of quotes from letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, even a transcript of wax cylinder recording.

    If you want a different style, try reading his dreamlands stuff. That’s much more poetic.

    Turcano wrote:

    So without the novelty, all you’re left with is the impenetrable prose.

    “Impenetrable prose”?
    I’m going to stop now, before I start muttering about “Kids these days…”

    Seriously? Impenetrable?

  • Kukulkan

    On this general subject, I’ll mention that I’m currently reading The Master Plan by Heather Pringle. It’s about the Ahnenerbe, the German Heritage organisation set up the SS during the Third Reich. It’s probably best known for sending an expedition to Tibet in 1938, but they also sponsored expeditions to Iraq and Finland and did all sorts of other scholarly work.

    Pringle is a science writer, rather than a historian, so her focus is on the scientific and scholarly work — and how that was used by Himmler and others to justify the policies of the Third Reich.

    It’s a very interesting study of how science and scholarship can go very wrong. Or, rather, of how people with other agendas can use science and scholarship to support those agendas. While a bunch of the stuff done by Ahnenerbe was fringe science — when it didn’t cross over into outright crackpottery — even in the 1930s, not all of it was. However, all of it was used by Himmler and others to support their racist ideology.

    In my experience, most people don’t remember science, what they remember is the stories that come out of it. That is, they don’t remember the phenomenon, they remember the theory that explains the phenomenon. I was once telling an acquaintance that, following the Black Death, the wages of various craftsmen rose, leading to an economic revolution as craftsmen started becoming a sort of middle class. The acquaintance refused to accept this and kept asking “why?” Eventually I speculated that the Black Death probably caused a greater death toll in crowded cities than in more sparsely populated rural communities, so once the plague had passed, there were more rural craftsmen left alive than urban ones. This led to a bidding war for the services of the surviving craftsmen, which led to rise in wages. It also started a pattern of craftsmen relocating to get better wages, which would have kept the bidding war going over the following generations. The acquaintance accepted this.

    The thing is, the rising wages were data, the whole idea of bidding wars to get the surviving craftsmen was just speculation on my part. However, the speculation made for a better story than the raw data. And, I’m pretty sure that my acquaintance remembers the story, not the data.

    The problem is that the story has implications other than the data and those implications may or may not be valid. However, if those implications support someone’s point of view, they may well argue that their views are based on History and Economics (note the capital letters). But they’re not. They’re based on some speculation I engaged in to try and account for some data.

    While I think most scientists and scholars are aware of the difference between data and the theories used to explain and account for that data, that distinction gets lost very quickly and what you get is, for lack of a better term, scientism. Social, economic, political and cultural policies are justified by appeal to popular versions of scientific theories. And those who oppose such policies get branded as being scientifically/economically/historically illiterate. Things are presented as being the only valid way of doing things and those who oppose them are branded as anti-reason.

    When an old guy justifies ditching his long-time wife for a young model by invoking evolution and the notion of the selfish gene, he’s not really talking about evolution and the selfish gene. But those on the receiving end of the behaviour may not appreciate that and can, quite reasonably conclude, that if science leads to these sort of unacceptable outcomes, there must be something wrong with the science.

    The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) prepared by the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder in its first two editions. For the last two editions, it hasn’t. However, at one time, those who wanted to condemn homosexuality had scientific support for their position. Currently they don’t — though may of them of them still cite the older editions of the DSM and argue that the removal of the diagnosis wasn’t because the science changed, but was due to political pressure.

    If you happened to be attracted to individuals of the same sex and people kept telling you that was because science had shown that was only because you were mentally ill, you could either (i) take that on board and decide that, yes, you were mentally ill, or (ii) decide that maybe the science was a load of crap.

    I think it was this sort of scientism that people like Fort were responding to, only rather than targeting the scientism, they went after the science. The idea being that if you undermine the science, then those using it to justify their policies will also be undermined and will have to stop pushing those policies. This rarely works, since those pushing nasty policies just find other ways of rationalising them.

    Science doesn’t say what we should or shouldn’t do, it just describes how things work. Even something like climate change doesn’t say we should do something about it. All it does is describe how the earth is warming, what factors lead to that and extrapolates what things are likely to be like if we don’t do anything. The reason we should act is not because the science says we should act, but because we don’t like the probable outcome of not acting.

    However, many people advocating action on climate change will say that science says we need to act, so science gets the credit/blame for whatever policy is being advocated.

    The key is to distinguish between science and policy and, if there’s a policy you don’t agree with, to target that, not the scientism used to support it.
     

  • Anonymous

    The evidence of continental drift in its day was suggestive rather than conclusive yes.  But the prevailing theory of land bridges zig-zagging all over the Atlantic in particular was rather more far-fetched. Especially since the main problem with the drift theory is that no hypothesis at the time could explain moving continents. But equally no principle could explain why all these specific land bridges and lost continents were popping up and sinking.
    Yes I am aware that there are legit land bridges (Beringia and Arhemland) but land bridges were a unifying theory and drift theory was absolutely discounted by geophysicists for almost 4 decades. It was nearly the equivalent of an astronomer doing work on UFOs. Probably didn’t help that the initial proposer of the theory was a meterologist not a geophysicist.
    The continental drift story gets more play because it gets more play because:
    a. It’s a natural science, which are usually the most reliable.
    b. It was entirely dismissed in favor of a much more problematic hypothesis. This isn’t like 19th century physics where the data was confusing or Pasteur and the abiogenesis advocates were the hypotheses were being tested and data explained in light of each new result.
    c. It’s pretty harmless so it can amuse and instruct without fear of really offending people, unlike say a lot of the wrong turns in psychology or medicine. No one was drugged or institutionalized for continental drift.
    d. The fact that one of the last writings of Einstein was an introduction to a geophysics book which dismissed continental drift as crackpot. Admittedly this is a bit schadenfreude, but it does show the power of prevailing wisdom.

    It’s not an indictment of science though. It’s about how open scientists are to new ideas.

  • Apocalypse Review

    Isaac Asimov captured the flavor of bureaucratese quite well in some of his short stories in which his characters had to actually send the reports around. One memorable one is “Blind Alley”.

  • Anonymous

    One thing about paranormal and supernatural “events” that makes them difficult or if not impossible for science is that one-time only, unrepeatable events would be impossible to draw conclusions from. Something like the Wow! signal in SETI research is fascinating, but not conclusive. So it gets pushed off to the side to only be talked about by cranks or as a curiosity. 
    P.Z. Myers mentioned some years ago that scientists just don’t have the tool kit to examine things like that.

  • Noel Sefton

    Well I know it’s not a scientific explanation for sure, I agree with that, but unfortunately, I think it is also unscientific in that instance to conclude ‘NOTHING funny is going on’.

    I like fort cause, as far as I can translate, he thought ‘Reality is larger than science can measure’. While the statement appears frivolously true, “of course!” one may say… but  then Steven Hawkins gets TV time to say ‘science disproves god’ (no joke on that one).

    @Histogeek:disqus said “One thing about paranormal and supernatural “events” that makes them
    difficult or if not impossible for science is that one-time only,
    unrepeatable events would be impossible to draw conclusions from.
    Something like the Wow! signal in SETI research is fascinating, but not
    conclusive. So it gets pushed off to the side to only be talked about by
    cranks or as a curiosity. 
    P.Z. Myers mentioned some years ago that scientists just don’t have the tool kit to examine things like that.”

    yay! I like your comment, it fits what I’m trying to say.

  • ako

    I bet every other household has stories of paranormal phenomeon
    in some manner, but I scientist walking from one end of the street to
    the other, talking to every member of every household as he does, will
    find ‘no evidence’ of the paranormal by the end of his journey, rather
    than coming to the conclusion that ‘something funny is going on’, he’ll
    just ‘believe’ his own excuses for the rejection of reality.

    I don’t know what kind of scientists you’ve been talking to, but most of the ones I’ve heard from would be perfectly willing to check the available evidence, and if there was enough of it to be testable, try to come to scientific conclusions.  (For instance, I’ve heard of a lot of interesting hypotheses trying to connect alien abduction reports with sleep paralysis, magnetic fields, and other physical phenomenon.) They wouldn’t resort to “Stuff outside the bounds of current scientific knowledge” as an explanation until they’d ruled out stuff inside the bounds of current scientific knowledge, but that’s different from utterly dismissing everything people say. 

    Of course, the problem of “Is this testable?” is where it gets tricky.  There needs to be enough evidence to support a scientific conclusion, and if there’s no evidence, there’s no way to come to a scientific conclusion.  If I told you I saw a goblin dancing on the railing of my balcony, and you had no further evidence to go by, you wouldn’t know whether I was lying, hallucinating, being sarcastic over the internet, seeing something real and misinterpreting it, using a metaphor, being tricked in some way, seeing some sort of non-goblin known phenomenon, or seeing an actual goblin dance on the rails.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable ideological rigidity to go “I don’t know what’s going on there, but actual goblins seem like the least probable explanation.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cory-Panshin/100000571986901 Cory Panshin

    Since H.P. Lovecraft keeps coming into this discussion, it may be worth pointing out that he didn’t take Fort seriously either.  According to something Fritz Leiber wrote about his correspondence with Lovecraft, “When I praised Charles Fort for poking holes in scientific theories, he
    replied at once with a carefully reasoned, convincing defense of the
    dogmatism of the professional scientist. Fort’s books, he said, were not
    to be taken seriously, though amusing enough and a great source of
    material for the writer of fantasy and science fiction.”

    But then, Fort didn’t take himself particularly seriously, either.  As nearly as I can tell, his main purpose was to express a philosophical position that the world is, if not exactly an illusion, as least something less than fully real — a tissue of anomalies and improbabilities — and that holding onto a recognition of those anomalies is the best way to keep from being swept up in the illusion.  In that sense, The Matrix is far more genuinely Fortean than, say, Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind.

  • Apocalypse Review

    Phlogiston is another example of an initial hypothesis and model that became disproven by succeeding evidence. Science is like that; we find new evidence that is explained by one model and not another, or we find we need extensions to an existing model.

    Thus was born the ignominious disappearance of phlogiston and the appearance of general relativity, respective examples thereof. :)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Of course, the problem with mandating Groupthink is that when the Collective Dogma goes in the wrong direction, there won’t be anyone who can perceive the problem until after it’s impossible to fix, let alone offer any possible solutions.  (See:  the American economy.)

  • Anonymous

    I do understand that. Pasteur, as an example, disproved abiogenesis while being the director of ENS, even though he was running counter to accepted theory. That’s how science should be (not everyone needs THAT cushy a gig mind you), checking theory without being dismissed or labeled a crackpot. But it is possible that productive research can be cut short because the hypothesis is considered impossible by current understanding. If no
    research is done, or is not published in peer reviewed journals, it’s a
    problem at least in the short and medium term.
    My point is that sometimes disciplines get stuck in a rut and is there a way to prevent that? To me at least that would also help distinguish crackpots (producing wild hypotheses based on fantasy) from frauds (continuing to push ideas disproven) from unorthodox (producing wild hypotheses based on something real). There are cases where there are more direct, real-world consequences to incorrect hypotheses than continental drift, impact extinction, or luminiferous ether.
    I started commenting on this topic with the question of whether there was anyway to discuss this historical, possibly contemporary, problem (with only a layman’s knowledge of science I wouldn’t know if it is a problem today) without being tossed in with denialists. Still not sure.

  • Banaka

    We are prepared to make mistakes to achieve our goals.  Yet certainly billions (or more) of an organized like-minded collective would act more reasonably than a frightened mob?

    However, our model does not preclude the need for specialization and modularity.  Not all corners of the universe are alike and the need for innovation and adaptation to specific circumstances is recognized by us.  However, all innovation would be in the service of the collective.

  • eyelessgame

    It’s important to distinguish (and many scientists do fail to distinguish) between saying “What these people think is going on is exceedingly unlikely to be really going on” and “Nothing funny is going on”. I find reports of “paranormality” fascinating, even though I consider ghosts/miracles/etc exceedingly unlikely: but the fact that humans experience these things, or experience phenomena that they interpret in this way, fascinates me; there is a lot of mystery in the fields of human cognition and perception that can be fruitfully explored.  That so many people have similar sorts of “out of body”, “abduction”, “ethereal ghost”, etc. experiences is fascinating, even if evidence suggests these are constructions of the mind, not unknown forces external to it (and somehow detectable only by it).

  • ako

    In my experience, most people don’t remember science, what they remember
    is the stories that come out of it. That is, they don’t remember the
    phenomenon, they remember the theory that explains the phenomenon.

    There seems to be a widespread human tendency to think in terms of stories, and try to turn things into stories.  That can definitely create distortions, because the universe isn’t made of narrative, and even people who know this often have to struggle with the subconscious tendency to think that way. 

    I think we’d be a very different species if there was a default tendency to categorize information according to the scientific method, and creating a story was a skill invented recently enough that we actually had the recorded history of the specific people who came up with the idea.  (Actually, that would be quite a good alien species for a sci-fi novel.)

  • eyelessgame

    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.

    That speaks to me more of a discomfort with induction. A talking dog is only more unlikely than a black swan because we induce certain things about speech: that our familiarity with how complex speech is, how it requires cultural immersion, a brain with a certain level of complexity, and a larynx, and how those things are all so very unlikely to be present in a dog — we induce all of this because we are biased by our exposure to … to reality, really.

    It is, oddly, in some ways, a rejection of simplicity: because induction relies on fundamental assumption of simplicity. Two different phenomena governed by a common underlying principle: that is what simplicity is.   Occam’s Razor, without which it is impossible to do science. Many philosophers hate the Razor, because there is no underlying logical reason why it should have to be so (or none they accept, in any case), yet it keeps being right (which of itself is circular, yet still somehow valid: just because induction has been right in the past, why should it continue to be right in the future? Win money off any philosopher who thinks it won’t!)

  • Anonymous

    The idea of human insignificance has been around as long as King David. Hardly novel.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    The idea of human insignificance has been around as long as King David. Hardly novel.

    True, but consider that in Lovecraft’s era, the issue was becoming much less abstract.  It was a time when astronomers were just discovering and making generally known that those large, cloud-like shapes visible on a clear night were not simply big distant clouds of extra-solar light, they were actually other galaxies, each one comparable in size to our own.  Sure, humans were already small things in the context of the wider universe, but the universe itself was turning out to be even wider than those conceptions, and humans even more insignificant by orders of magnitude.  

    The idea of lifting the veil that we cast about ourselves to let us think we are important, and revealing just how utterly tiny, insignificant, and meaningless we actually are, was something that was happening in that era, and it is something Lovecraft tapped into in his writings.  

  • Anonymous

    I tried reading Call of Cthulhu once, and every part of my brain resisted the effort violently.  Usually this only happens when I try to read Mein Kampf or the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

  • Tonio

    I think it is also unscientific in that instance to conclude ‘NOTHING funny is going on’.

    But science doesn’t make or advocate that conclusion. That’s the whole issue. And from what I’ve read, Hawkins did NOT claim that science disproves god, but instead stated that he doesn’t believe in a personal god. Huge difference.

    P.Z. Myers mentioned some years ago that scientists just don’t have the tool kit to examine things like that.

    That’s technically true but it misses the point. Humans don’t have the tool kit to examine things like that. We have no way of making any conclusion either way about one-time only, unrepeatable events, and it’s irresponsible to do so. The point that Myers made shouldn’t be spun into a flaw with science. That’s like offering someone LSD and then calling the person a coward if he or she refuses.

  • Kukulkan

    ako wrote:

    There seems to be a widespread human tendency to think in terms of stories, and try to turn things into stories.  That can definitely create distortions, because the universe isn’t made of narrative, and even people who know this often have to struggle with the subconscious tendency to think that way.

    I agree. I also think it manifests itself in the opposite direction. People don’t like things if there’s not a good story attached.

    Take dark matter. The evidence for it is quite extensive and pretty solid, but it’s not a good story. Basically: the universe is full of this mysterious stuff that we don’t know anything about — we don’t even know what it is — which interacts with regular matter only gravitationally. That makes for a very unsatisfying story and, as a consequence, lots of people really, really don’t like the idea of dark matter.
     


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