|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Saturday, January 09, 2010
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.