This reminds me why I stopped doing pieces debunking pseudo-science in that the journalism exposes aren’t going to change anybody’s mind. The believers take such comfort and identity from their convictions that they are immune to persuasion. But I do think a vehement “What the fuck color is your car?!?” is a good tactic to shake up the faithful.
I’m reposting this five-year-old entry because I happened to see that the complete works of Charles Fort are now available online (see link at end of post).
Just to prove I’m more than a big, steaming plate of obnoxious noodles, here’s a quick rundown of what I would consider a basic (if now rather dated) library of pseudoscience/paranormal phenomena overviews — with a strong slant toward the skeptical. (I’m probably missing a couple of key titles in my haste.)
Charles Fort, The Complete Books of Charles Fort
From 1919 to the early ’30s, British Museum and NY Public Library gnome Charles Fort invented the modern concept of the uncanny/unexplained event. In a dry, wry, sprightly newspaperish style he chronicles rains of fishes, rains of blood, weird noises from the earth, secret passages beneath continents, odd giant patterns in the sea and so forth and so forth. His tone is tongue-in-cheeky most of the time, with the occasion flash of “who knows — maybe so.” Sample a few passages in a store or online. If you like him, you’ll really like him.
Jerome Clark, Unexplained!
Clark is the great modernized, popularizer of Fort principles. Too credulous and gee-whiz, he nevertheless knows all parts of the field and is well worth reading as a survey.
The Fringes of Reason — A Whole Earth Catalog.
This thing is dedicated to fun and you can get it for peanuts on line. Lot of kicky writers and the subtitle says it all: “A Field Guide to New Age Frontiers, Unusual Beliefs & Eccentric Sciences” Includes guides to much other lit and sly essays about, for example, how meteors were once considered utterly impossible …. scientifically.
Various, Science and the Paranormal
Wide-ranging and nicely organized collection of essays from the usual hard-asses like Martin Gardner, Issac Asimov, Carl Sagan, James Randi, etc.
speaking of which —
Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science
The grandaddy of debunking books. Again, reading a couple pages will tell you if you need this on the shelf or not. If you find Gardner too stuck in the mundane mud —
Terence McKenna, The Archaic Revival
Ol’ dead ‘n’ gone Terry McKenna certainly is not. This is a loopy ramble-tamble of all the connections between psychedelics and the unseen world and the unknown mind that processes them both. You’ve never read anything like. On the other hand, the foreword is by Tom Robbins and that may tell you you don’t want to read anything like it.
Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things
Probably more relevant than when I read it almost 10 years ago. This is, at bottom, a book about the pervasive appeal of the irrational (to fear, to ego, to career advancement) in the modern world. Very sharp on Holocaust Denial, Creationists, and the limits of intellectuals (hey, just because you’re certifiably smart doesn’t mean you’re smart about everything).
Robert Park, Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud
This overlooked book details how honest intentions in research and curiosity can become twisted into anxiety- and venality-driven BS. Especially important in this science-uncertain time.
If you find a way to dress them up in new terms and spins.
- There’s a way to eat and eat and eat and not get fat.
- Big organizations and institutions can’t be understood by anybody.
- Gender roles are really in the genes and can’t be fundamentally changed, ever.
- The government is hiding some big secret about (pick one): UFOs and aliens; paranormal mind powers; why gun violence really happens.
- Being an asshole isn’t really being an asshole.
I read The Mind of a Mnemonist when it was new — must have run across it in a Bozeman bookstore — and, though I had not read Borges yet, it was indeed like one of his fables was declared true. I was too inexperienced to realize the book was a bit slippery and evasive to be trusted as straight science or even faithful reporting — in retrospect, very similar to the shadow play of Carlos Castaneda. Two points continue unchanged: you really, really wanted the story to be true because S. was a sort of magic man; it was gratifying to see the book become such a hit — was as captivating as I thought it was.
Place is in a real pickle now. I suspect they will get the donations to survive for the nonce, but such a shaky foundation is not good. I’m not as upset as I once would have been, not least because I thought the elan never came back after Barbara Mikkelson departed. Now we find out her ex, Dave M., got his start spreading false information as well as debunking it. Yich.
Those with less faith in God tend to have more in Aliens. I came to the conclusion, back when I was regularly writing about pseudo-science, particularly extraterrestrial encounters, that the believers were more alt-religious than anything else. Which meant it was a topic where you weren’t going to change very many minds.
But something seems a bit off about this essay. As I noted yesterday talking about the story of Gef!, there was obviously a lot of superstitious belief when people were plenty more religious. I will agree that there’s clearly been a rise in superstitions with scientific veneers in the last century. (I like to say that the three great myths of our time are “U.F.O., E.S.P. and W.M.D.” — hawhaw.) And all are clearly intertwined in a search for meaning beyond the mundane.
I’ve been fascinated by the manuscript ever since I heard about it as a romantic book-boy out in the sticks. I mentioned it early on in this blog. But I looked at my reproduction around the time I did that post and was disillusioned — how could I have thought the text was a made-up language? It’s merely decorative script-babble. Plus, the mysterious, secret-knowledge manuscript was a lot more common fantasy back in the ’60s and ’70s. I’m almost cynical enough now to put down the Voynich as being too famous for being famous.