Monday, May 24, 2010

Gardner on Pseudo-scientists

Martin Gardner 1914-2010

Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science was first published in 1952 under the title In the Name of Science. It soon became a classic of skeptic literature and it is easy to understand why. Reading it now, more than fifty years later, it feels just as necessary as it must have been then. Gardner's prediction has come true. We do have a multitude of pseudo-scientists promoting different weird ideas as though they are unquestionable truths. The cranks of the mid 20th century discussed by Gardner has been replaced by new ones, sometimes even weirder. From the traits and characteristics described by Gardner, it is easy to recognize a Rupert Sheldrake or Gary Schwartz, or - if you're involved in debates on paranormal phenomena - the followers of such cranks. Like Torbjörn Sassersson, who are able to forward the arguments of his Masters but lack the intellectual capacity to develop ideas of his own. Interestingly enough, the more devoted the follower, the more personality traits he or she seem to share with the Master. In some cases, the paranoia described by Gardner doesn't seem to be connected to a specific theory or set of theories. As in the case of Rickard Berghorn, former sci-fi publicist turned self-proclaimed genius, the paranoia itself is the main drive - he is just waiting for some lunacy to come along. Anyway, I am sure you won't lack contemporary references to the excerpt from Gardner's introductory chapter quoted below. I hope it will serve as a teaser for the book. It is, as far as I know, still in print and a must in any skeptic's library. Buy it and read it. Gardner comes in handy when taking part in the struggle for skepticism.

"The modern pseudo-scientist - to return to the point from which we have digressed - stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He works in isolation. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals, or if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent. In most cases the crank is not well enough informed to write a paper with even a surface resemblance to a significant study. As a consequence, he finds himself excluded from the journals and societies, and almost universally ignored by the competent workers in his field. In fact, the reputable scientist does not even know of the crank's existence unless his work is given wide-spread publicity through non-academic channels, or unless the scientist makes a hobby of collecting crank literature. The eccentric is forced, therefore, to tread a lonely way. He speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit, and - until recently - publishes books only when his followers can raise sufficient funds to have them printed privately.

A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation, is a tendency toward paranoia. This is a mental condition (to quote a recent textbook) "marked by chronic, systematized, gradually developing delusions, without hallucinations, and with little tendency toward deterioration, remission, or recovery." There is a wide disagreement among psychiatrists about the causes of paranoia. Even if this were not so, it obviously is not within the scope of this book to discuss the possible origins of paranoid traits in individual cases. It is easy to understand, however, that a strong sense of personal greatness must be involved whenever a crank stands in solitary, bitter opposition to every recognized authority in his field.

If the self-styled scientist is rationalizing strong religious convictions, as often is the case, his paranoid drives may be reduced to a minimum. The desire to bolster religious beliefs with science can be a powerful motive. For example, in our examination of George McCready Price, the greatest of modern opponents of evolution, we shall see that his devout faith in Seventh Day Adventism is a sufficient explanation for his curious geological views. But even in such cases, an element of paranoia is nearly always present. Otherwise the pseudo-scientist would lack the stamina to fight a vigorous, single-handed battle against such overwhelming odds. If the crank is insincere - interested only in making money, playing a hoax, or both - then obviously paranoia need not enter his make-up. However, very few cases of this sort will be considered.

There are five ways in which the sincere pseudo-scientist's paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited

(1) He considers himself a genius.

(2) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. Everyone is out of step except himself. Frequently he insults his opponents by accusing them of stupidity, dishonesty, or other base motives. If they ignore him, he takes this to mean his arguments are unanswerable. If they retaliate in kind, this strengthens his delusion that he is battling scoundrels.

Consider the following quotation: "To me truth is precious. ... I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong. ... The holding of the views herein set forth has already won for me the scorn and contempt and ridicule of some of my fellowmen. I am looked upon as being odd, strange, peculiar. ... But truth is truth and though all the world reject it and turn against me, I will cling to truth still."

These sentences are from the preface of a booklet, published in 1931, by Charles Silvester de Ford, of Fairfield, Washington, in which he proves the earth is flat. Sooner or later, almost every pseudo-scientist expresses similar sentiments.

(3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to "enemies" for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work. It springs solely, he is convinced, from blind prejudice on the part of the established hierarchy - the high priests of science who fear to have their orthodoxy overthrown.

Vicious slanders and unprovoked attacks, he usually insists, are constantly being made against him. He likens himself to Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, and other great men who were unjustly persecuted for their heresies. If he has had no formal training in the field in which he works, he will attribute this persecution to a scientific masonry, unwilling to admit into its inner sanctums anyone who has not gone through the proper initiation rituals. He repeatedly calls your attention to important scientific discoveries made by laymen.

(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein in the name of Newton. This same defiance can be seen in a tendency to assert the diametrical opposite of well-established beliefs. Mathematicians prove the angle cannot be trisected. So the crank trisects it. A perpetual motion machine cannot be built. He builds one. There are many eccentric theories in which the "pull" of gravity is replaced by a "push." Germs do not cause disease, some modern cranks insist. Disease produces the germs. Glasses do not help the eyes, said Dr. Bates. They make them worse. In our next chapter we shall learn how Cyrus Teed literally turned the entire cosmos inside-out, compressing it within the confines of a hollow earth, inhabited only on the inside.

(5) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined. Schizophrenics sometimes talk in what psychiatrists call "neologisms" - words which have meaning to the patient, but sound like Jabberwocky to everyone else. Many of the classics of crackpot science exhibit a neologistic tendency.

When the crank's IQ is low, as in the case of the late Wilbur Glenn Voliva who thought the earth shaped like a pancake, he rarely achieves much of a following. But if he is a brilliant thinker, he is capable of developing incredibly complex theories. He will be able to defend them in books of vast erudition, with profound observations, and often liberal portions of sound science. His rhetoric may be enormously persuasive. All the parts of his world usually fit together beautifully, like a jig-saw puzzle. It is impossible to get the best of him in any type of argument. He has anticipated all your objections. He counters them with unexpected answers of great ingenuity. Even on the subject of the shape of the earth, a layman may find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. "Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him"; writes Shaw, "and he, having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered unanswerable."

In the chapters to follow, we shall take a close look at the leading pseudo-scientists of recent years, with special attention to native specimens. Some British books will be discussed, and a few Continental eccentric ones, but the bulk of crank literature in foreign tongues will not be touched upon. Very little of it has been translated into English, and it is extremely difficult to get access to the original works. In addition, it is usually so unrelated to the American scene that it loses interest in comparison with the work of cranks closer home.

With few exceptions, little time will be spent on theories which come under the broad heading of "occult." Astrology, for example, still has millions of contemporary followers, but is so far removed from anything resembling science that it does not seem worth while to discuss it. The theory that sunspots cause depressions (popular among conservative businessmen who like to think of booms and busts as natural phenomena to be blamed on something remote) is the last respectable survival of the ancient view that human affairs are linked with astronomical phenomena. This literature, however, belongs more properly to economics than to astronomy. The social sciences have, of course, their share of eccentric works, but for many reasons they form a separate subject for study.

Our survey will begin with curious theories of astronomy, the science most removed from the human landscape. It will proceed through physics and geology to the biological sciences, then into human affairs by way of anthropology and archeology. Four chapters will be devoted to medical quasi-science, followed by discussions of sexual theories, psychiatric cults, and methods of reading character. Finally, we shall make a serious appraisal of the reputable work of Dr. Rhine, with quick and not so serious glances at a few other venturers into the psychic fields.

The amount of intellectual energy that has been wasted on these lost causes is almost unbelievable. It will be amusing - at times frightening - to witness the grotesque extremes to which deluded scientists can be misled, and the extremes to which they in turn can mislead others. As we shall see, their disciples are often intelligent and sometimes eminent men - men not well enough informed on the subject in question to penetrate the Master's counterfeit trappings, and who frequently find in their devotion an outlet for their own neurotic rebellions. More important, we shall have impressed upon us the traits which these "scientists" hold in common. The atmosphere in which they move will become familiar to us as we begin to breathe the air of their fantastic worlds.

Just as an experienced doctor is able to diagnose certain ailments the instant a new patient walks into his office, or a police officer learns to recognize criminal types from subtle behavior clues which escape the untrained eye, so we, perhaps, may learn to recognize the future scientific crank when we first encounter him.

And encounter him we shall. If the present trend continues, we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. The may achieve a following of one - or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them."

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