The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bogus Science: or, some People Really Believe These Things by John Grant

I first came across the name and ideas of Charles Fort in the SF stories and novels of Eric Frank Russell - most likely in Sinister Barrier. A little later in my teens I read Damon Knight's biography Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained, and was inspired to write the following teenage poem:


Skulls fossilised in coal, Sargasso seas,
frog-showers, flying lights, and coloured rain,
writing engraved on meteorites - all these
and more he could record, but not explain.
Aristotle called theories 'likely stories',
and this man, also, was not deceived:
all his deductions and hypotheses
were tales he went on telling, but no more believed
than he believed that two plus two make four -
an abnormal attitude that was completely sane.
Gripped by such facts, how could he set much store
in the fragile constructions of the brain?

In more recent years I read Fortean Times fairly regularly - I may even have subscribed - and although my reading became intermittent, the magazine came to occupy many a long railway journey home from Inverness. And then, quite suddenly a couple of years ago, I read an article in the October 2007 issue on the life of the psychic investigator Harry Price - an article that made pretty clear that he was a hoaxer and chancer, astonishing only for his brass neck - and I thought, well, there are better things to do with one's time. I began to suspect that by taking seriously - even if sceptically - an endless parade of tosh, the magazine was not as harmless a diversion as it had seemed. Because its abiding impression is that, while this or that claim might be false, this or that guru a charlatan, there might, you know, after all be something spooky lurking in some yet uninvestigated thicket ...

John Grant's Bogus Science gives much of the genuine pleasure I used to get from Fortean Times, with a far more bracing scepticism, and a harder line on the damage done by indulging credulity. Fort himself, Grant points out, trawled most of his anomalies - the frog-showers, flying lights, and coloured rain - from assiduous research in files of American local newspapers whose editors and reporters were, if a quiet day left them with space to fill, quite happy to fill it with bunkum. They just made the stuff up.

Grant's book ranges widely, from ancient and modern geocentrists and flat-earthers to inventors of perpetual motion machines, promoters of zero point energy, discoverers of Atlantis (my favourite is the Swedish polymath Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702) who found it a few miles from his own university, and proved to the satisfaction of many that the pyramids of Egypt were mere imperfect copies of the mounds of Gamla Uppsala) and hunters of Bigfoot (for whom Grant allows more latitude than most sceptics), taking in a lot more along the way. There's something very satisfying in seeing that every design for a perpetual motion machine (weights! magnets! no, wait, water ...) that I ever scribbled on the back of a physics jotter in high school was anticipated centuries earlier by people much cleverer than myself.

Bogus Science is a kind of rubble skip of what the author had left after taking a hammer to Discarded Science and Corrupted Science, and none the worse for that. Beautifully produced, endlessly entertaining and highly recommended.

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This fine post both brings back some great memories and is goosing my curiosity about a first name.
Throughout my youth and overprolonged adolescence there were several constants. One was only a relative constant: the various editions of Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, a book I never read from cover to cover. Somehow it was always around, even though I never owned a copy. It did a good job of exposing cranks like Velikovski and Hubbard. I guess Bogus Science is a worthy supplement to and update of Gardner's fine book.
There's a garden here in Uppsala that I walk past very often. Placed therein so that no passer-by can miss it is a large bust of some long-dead professor of this city's world-class university. It bears the name of somebody Rudbeck, who was a professor of something-or-other. When I walk past that garden I have more important things on my mind than the man behind the bust. I never even took the trouble to look at his first name. So goaded on by your post I just looked up Olof Rudbeck in Wikipedia. I learned that there was an O.R. The Elder and an O.R. The Younger, both of whom taught here. Grant discusses the older Rudbek, who was quite cranky. I shall take a close look at the bust next week. If it's a bust of the crank I'll write a funny piece about it (or him, or both) in one of the university's publications.

Thanks George. My own memories of a pleasant few days in Uppsala are here. If you haven't visited Gamla Uppsala yet, give it a go.

Ken, That article of yours--in its original location--was almost instrumental in convincing me that I ought to be right here, however cranky O.R. the Elder was. I read it in 03 and it stuck with me. The day after I got here I headed straight for the Uppsala English Bookshop, where you and Alastair were! I liked that place so much that I plugged it on the BSFA Forum almost 2 years ago. The knowledge that a fine bookshop was right here motivated me even more. Now I tell many people about the place. Your article was also the first place where I saw Johan's name, so I knew who to contact. Finally, I have shown the article, in its present form, to much of Upsalafandom (spelling is optional). And really finally, Gamla Uppsala was the first touristy place I visited here---way back in 82 during my first visit. When I say I love this town I'm not enthusing for mere effect: I have these and other good reasons for coming here. Tack så mycket = Thanks so much.


Yes but.

I still read Fortean Times, and I am a massive sceptic.

Cannot remember who said it, but 99% of everything is rubbish.

Hi Mr Clark---It was Pohl or Sturgeon and is called ".......'s law." Fill in blank with the correct name. Well, for safety let me add that I'm pretty sure it was one of the two.

Yes but, indeed. I don't want to put anyone off reading Fortean Times, which is in many ways a fine publication. I just lost the taste for it.

George, it's Sturgeon's Law.

Thanks Ken. I was almost certain that it was Sturgeon's.

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Old Coot, my blog comments are not the place to make serious and potentially libellous allegations.

Okay, the Fortean Times is objectively the Enemy of Reason. Right, got it.

Glad you were able to unmask this supposedly "harmless diversion."

'Objectively the Enemy of Reason', 'unmask' - nah. It's just that when an apparently harmless diversion begins to nauseate you, it's probably a sign that you're indulging too much and it's not doing you much good. Purely subjective and personal, old chap. Others may have different tastes, or stronger stomachs, and good luck to them I say.

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