From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: Charles Fort and the Forteans
21 Mar 2000
Hi... Thanks for your website--it's comprehensive and quite professional.
Just in passing, I noticed your entries on Charles Fort, whose body
of work I read and enjoyed many years ago. I was surprised, actually, that
the Skeptic's Dictionary entry seemed so critical of Fort, with a few SD
comments bordering on the defensive. If there was anything I gleaned from
Fort's writing, it's that he took himself and his own "notions"
even less seriously than he took the Scientific Method. An attentive
reading of the "Complete Books of Charles Fort," for example,
finds the author chuckling AT himself and the absurdity of his own
theories more often than not. There are some hearty laughs in those pages,
as Fort spoofs the Scientific Method at length before drawing his final,
preposterous conclusions. If you're bogged down in questioning the
reliability of Fort's "sources," you've missed the point of his
writing altogether: Fort was guiding us through a stream-of-consciousness
amusement park, bounding merrily along at a pace that blurred the temporal
distinction between fact and fantasy. That's Charles Fort in a nutshell,
and it's not rocket science---he wrote for the sheer fun of it.
8 Jun 1997
I read your article in The Skeptics Dictionary on the Forteans. Back in the 1960's I read Lo!, by Charles Fort. Yes, I know, I'm dating myself. I found many of his theories patently absurd. Even a teenager (as I was at the time) knows we do not live on the inner surface of a hollow sphere! However, I was left with one burning question which I still have to this day. When a verifiable fact does not mesh with the commonly accepted scientific theories, why do scientists all too often brush it aside rather than examine it and re-evaluate their theories. For instance, though I have found theories as to how fish can be caught up in a water spout and later dumped in a storm well inland, I have heard no theory as to how grapefruit size rocks (of non meteorite origin) can rain out of a clear sky. It would seem no scientist is interested in such intriguing phenomenon.
Perhaps it is ego. If I had been working for 20 years developing one theory, I don't know how much I would like any data to come along that would challenge my theory. Perhaps it is dogmatism. Just as religion resisted having its dogma challenged by men like Galileo, scientists, too, seem on occasion to resent having their dogma challenged (except, perhaps by a Ph.D. in an appropriate scientific field).
reply: I have never been caught in a stonestorm on a clear day, so I can't speak for those who have, but I am sure there are NASA scientists working on this problem as I type. Seriously, where is the issue here? Are you suggesting that if non-meteoric rocks fall from the sky, scientists everywhere head for cover to protect their theories? Theories of what? Gravity? If a rockstorm occurred, I don't see why any scientist would go back to the drawing board. The rocks could fall from airplanes. They could be of volcanic origin. Tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones or gale force winds could have brought them there. On the Orkney Islands when a cow flies by the window, the islanders don't wonder how scientists are going to explain it. They marvel at the power of the wind.
You might have picked a better example, say, Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift which was ridiculed by scientists when it was first proposed. I have already written on this subject (in Becoming a Critical Thinker) so I will just insert the relevant material here:
Wegener's idea that continents move was rejected by most scientists when it was first proposed. Stephen Jay Gould notes that when the only American paleontologist defending the new theory spoke at Antioch college (where Gould was an undergraduate at the time), most of the audience dismissed the speaker's views as "just this side of sane." [Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1979), p.160.] A few years later, all the early deriders of the new theory would accept it as true. Why? Was it simply a matter of Wegener and a few others jumping the gun by accepting a new theory before the evidence was sufficient to warrant assent to it? Were the latecomers `good' scientists, waiting for more facts to confirm the theory? Gould's view is that dogmatic adherence to the view that the ocean floor is solid and unchanging was the main stumbling block to acceptance of the new theory. Most scientists rejected continental drift because it did not fit with their preconceived ideas about the nature of the earth's crust. They assumed that if continents did drift they would leave gaping holes in the earth. Since there were no gaping holes in the earth, it seemed unreasonable to believe that continents move. The theory of continental drift, says Gould, "was dismissed because no one had devised a physical mechanism that would permit continents to plow through an apparently solid oceanic floor." Yet, "during the period of nearly universal rejection, direct evidence for continental drift--that is, the data gathered from rocks exposed on our continents--was every bit as good as it is today."
Continental drift was considered theoretically impossible by some, even if it were physically possible for continents to move. The new theory could not be made to fit the theoretical model of the earth then universally accepted. The theory of plate tectonics was then proposed--the idea that the continents ride on plates which are bounded by areas where new crust is being created from within the planet and old crust is falling into trenches. This provided a mechanism for explaining how continents could drift. Continental drift, according to Gould, came to be accepted not because more facts had been piled up, but because it was a necessary consequence of the new theory of plate tectonics.
More facts were piled up, though--facts for the new theory of plate tectonics, of which the theory of continental drift is an essential element. Now it is taken as a fact that continents move. Yet, the exact mechanism by which plates are moved is still incompletely understood. This area of science will no doubt generate much debate and theorizing, testing of hypotheses, rejection and/or refinement of ideas. It is, as Gould says, a good example of how science works. To someone who does not understand the nature of science, the early rejection of the idea of continental drift might appear to show how dogmatic scientists are about their pet theories. If scientists had not been so devoted to their belief that the earth's crust is solid and immovable, they would have seen that continents can move. That is true. But the fact that Wegener's theory turned out to be correct does not mean that he and his few early followers were more reasonable than the rest of the scientific community. After all, Wegener did not know about plate tectonics and he had not provided an acceptable explanation as to how continents might move. [Wegener argued that gravity alone could move the continents. Gould notes: "Physicists responded with derision and showed mathematically that gravitational forces are far too weak to power such monumental peregrination." Alexis du Toit, a defender of Wegener's theory, argued for radioactive melting of the ocean floor at continental borders as the mechanism by which continents might move. "This ad hoc hypothesis added no increment of plausibility to Wegener's speculation," says Gould. ibid., p. 163.] It is true that the idea that the earth's crust is solid and immovable has been proved wrong, but Wegener didn't prove that. What the new theory could explain (about rocks and fossils, etc.) other theories could explain equally well.
But, in the end, the idea of continental drift prevails. It prevails because the dogmatism of science--the tendency to interpret facts in light of theories--is not absolute but relative. What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is not that scientists are not dogmatic while pseudoscientists are. It is that scientists stand ready to give up one dogma for another should the evidence warrant it. Pseudoscientists refuse to give up their dogmas regardless of the evidence against them. [Gould notes with obvious admiration that a distinguished stratigraphy professor at Columbia University (where Gould did graduate work) who had initially ridiculed the theory of drifting continents "spent his last years joyously redoing his life's work." ibid., p. 160. It is hard to imagine a comparable scene involving a pseudoscientist.]
The Wegener episode in the history of science demonstrates an essential difference between science and pseudoscience. That difference is to be found not in the correctness or incorrectness of proposed ideas, but in the method used to gain acceptance for the ideas. It is to be found only over time. It is not to be found in the personality of the theorizer nor in his dogmatic adherence to an idea. It is to be found in the pseudoscientist's dogmatic adherence to an idea for which there is contrary evidence or for which there is not, nor ever could be, any test in experience.
[from Chapter 9, "Science and Pseudoscience," in Becoming a Critical Thinker by Robert T. Carroll]
However, in spite of some of their nutty theories, Forteans, Scientific Creationists and other crackpots can serve a useful purpose. They can act as gadflies pointing out the inconsistencies in scientific theories and the areas where observed phenomena conflict with or are unexplainable by current theories. Of course, that would require enough intellectual honesty from the scientists to admit to the limitations of their theory, the willingness to explore the implications of those observed phenomena and the humility to accept criticism from non-scientist sources. Unfortunately, it would seem all three qualities are all too often lacking.
reply: a truly useful gadfly should be knowledgeable in the field he buzzes. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with non-scientists who criticize scientific theories. Most of the criticisms of crackpots will turn out to be useless. It would be unreasonable to expect scientists to take seriously every crackpot idea thrown at science. Progress is more likely if criticisms are made by people who have some understanding of what they are talking about.
It would seem that some scientists have made almost a 'religion' out of
science, just as some skeptics have made almost a 'religion' out of
skepticism. An agnostic, for instance, is a truer skeptic than is an
atheist or a Christian. An agnostic says maybe there is a god, maybe
not. Convince me. An atheist or a Christian makes an a priori
assumption and closes his mind to anything that conflicts with that
assumption -- he is therefore not a skeptic (at least on that topic). A
true skeptic has an open mind. A true skeptic would question Einstein
as much as he would question Charles Fort or Billy Graham. But I assume
you know that.
reply: I can't speak for all skeptics and atheists, but my skepticism regarding occult, paranormal and supernatural phenomena is based on experience, study, observation, argument, analysis and evaluation of evidence. My atheism is not an a priori belief nor a matter of faith, but is a reasonable belief given the evidence before me. There term 'skepticism', of course, has several uses. As an epistemological skeptic, I would agree that no one can know with absolute certainty whether God exists. I would also maintain that it is more probable that God does not exist than that God does exist. I guess I am not a "true skeptic." Being open-minded means being willing to examine issues from as many sides as possible, looking for the good and bad points of the various sides examined. Being open-minded does not mean that once one has studied an issue one is not to come to a conclusion about it. I'll conclude with another passage from Becoming a Critical Thinker.
Being open-minded does not mean that one has an obligation to examine every crackpot idea or claim made. I have spent years examining occult and supernatural claims. When someone says they've been abducted by aliens, but they have no physical evidence of their abduction, I feel no need to investigate the issue further. If their only proof is that they can't remember what happened to them for a few hours or days--a common claim by alleged abductees--then my hunch is that there is a natural explanation for their memory loss. For example, they're lying because they don't want anyone to know where they really were, or they passed out from natural or self-induced causes; they then dreamt or hallucinated. When someone claims to be God or to hear voices he says come from God, I assume he is mistaken or a fraud. Am I closed-minded? I don't think so. However, many years ago, when I heard for the first time about UFOs and alien abductions, I would have been closed- minded had I not investigated the matters. I have also studied many cases of people who claimed to be divine or reincarnations of dead persons. So, when a young man in Texas who thinks he's a god shoots at federal agents, it neither surprises me nor does it instill in me any urge to investigate the man's divinity claim. Am I closed-minded? Again, I don't think so. Once a person has studied an issue in depth, to be open-minded does not mean you must leave the door open and let in any harebrained idea that blows your way. Your only obligation is to not lock the door behind you. If someone claims to have alien body parts or vehicle parts, by all means let's examine the stuff. If someone is turning water into wine or raising the dead by an act of will, I'll be the first to reconsider my opinion about human divinities.
An open-minded person who is inexperienced and uninformed will need to be willing to investigate issues that an experienced and informed person need not pursue. A critical thinker must find things out for herself, but once she has found them out she does not become closed- minded simply because her opinion is now informed! So, the next time you hear some defender of astral projection, past-life regression or alien abductions accuse a skeptic of being "closed- minded," give thought to the possibility that the skeptic isn't closed-minded. Perhaps she has arrived at an informed belief. It is also possible that the accuser is a con artist who knows that charging opponents with being closed-minded is often a successful tactic in the never-ending quest to separate a fool from her money. It is more likely, though, that the accuser is simply gullible and that his or her belief is based on wishful thinking rather than on a thorough examination of all the evidence.
[from Chapter 1, "Critical Thinking," in Becoming a Critical Thinker by Robert T. Carroll]
08 Sep 1997
I've been reading the Skeptic's Dictionary and found it to be pretty good so far - enlightening and entertaining.
Just one teeny weenie criticism - I thought you were a little harsh on Charles Fort and the Forteans. While I respect what you say about Fort's personal theories, his problem with "standard" scientists was they way they are so ready to discard data that does not fit their expectations. Just because something does not look right does not mean it should be discarded out of hand. (Obviously, you have to draw the line somewhere, if scientists chased up *every* spike in their data they'd never get anything done).
I'm an atheist, an consider myself to be an open-minded skeptic - that is, I'm happy to listen to anyone's point of view, but I won't accept it at face value. Having been a regular reader of the Fortean Times has actually strengthened this - the magazine celebrates the weird and wonderful, but doesn't expect you to believe any of it. The reader is left to make up their own mind. It encourages critical thinking by presenting the different viewpoints for a particular subject, from the rational to the absurd. Naturally, many people will go for the absurd explanation, but I think the majority will recognise the rational, or at least recognise the absurd for what it is (which is a good start, anyway). It's also extremely amusing to read what bizarre stuff people will believe, or will get up to because of their beliefs.
I feel that Forteanism (when combined with critical thinking) is a very healthy attitude. You learn that there are more than two sides to a story, it helps you recognise dogmatism and it trains you to look for alternative explanations (preferably the rational ones).
But apart from that, I love the dictionary! (well, love might be too strong a word. Like, maybe.)
You might like to cast a skeptical eye over my own scientific theories (though you'll need a /really/ open mind to take them seriously!). http://www.abarnett.demon.co.uk/theories.html
And my atheism page at http://www.abarnett.demon.co.uk/atheism/index.html
(I'd just started my own Fundy/Creationist Dictionary when I came
across your Skeptic Dictionary. You beat me to it! Ah, well...)
reply: I've checked out Mr. Barnett's pages and recommend them, especially his page on the Tooth Fairy.