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Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: Excerpt

Colorful Pebbles and Darwin’s Dictum:
An Introduction to Skeptic Magazine’s Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience

In 1861, less than two years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, in a session before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a critic claimed that Darwin’s book was too theoretical and that he should have just “put his facts before us and let them rest.” In a letter to his friend Henry Fawcett, who was in attendance in his defense, Darwin explained the proper relationship between facts and theory:

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

There are few thinkers in western history with more profound insights into nature than Charles Darwin, but for my money this is one of the deepest single statements ever made on the nature of science itself, particularly in the understated denouement. If scientific observations are to be of any use, they must be tested against a theory, hypothesis, or model. The facts never just speak for themselves, but must be interpreted through the colored lenses of ideas — percepts need concepts.

When Louis and Mary Leakey went to Africa in search of our hominid ancestors, they did so not based on any existing data, but on Darwin’s theory of human descent and his argument that because we are so obviously closely related to the great apes, and the great apes live in Africa, it is here that the fossil remains of our forebears would most likely be found. In other words, the Leakeys went to Africa because of a concept, not a percept. The data followed and confirmed this theory, the very opposite of the way we usually think of science working. If there is an underlying theme in this encyclopedia — a substrate beneath the surface topography (to continue the geological metaphor) — it is that science is an exquisite blend of data and theory, facts and hypotheses, observations and views. If we think of science as a fluid and dynamic way of thinking instead of a staid and dogmatic body of knowledge, it is clear that the data/theory strata runs throughout the archaeology of human knowledge and is an inexorable part of the scientific process. We can no more expunge ourselves of biases and preferences than we can find a truly objective Archimedean point — a god’s eye view — of the human condition. We are, after all, humans, not gods.

In the first half of the twentieth century philosophers and historians of science (mostly professional scientists doing philosophy and history on the side) presented science as a progressive march toward a complete understanding of Reality — an asymptotic curve to Truth — with each participant adding a few bricks to the edifice of Knowledge. It was only a matter of time before physics (and eventually even the social sciences) would be rounding out their equations to the sixth decimal place. In the second half of the twentieth century professional philosophers and historians took over the profession and, swept up in a paroxysm of postmodern deconstruction, proffered a view of science as a relativistic game played by European white males in a reductionistic frenzy of hermeneutical hegemony, hell bent on suppressing the masses beneath the thumb of dialectical scientism and technocracy.
(Yes, some of them actually talk like that, and one really did call Newton’s Principia a “rape manual.”)

Thankfully, intellectual trends, like social movements, have a tendency to push both ends to the middle, and these two extremist views of science are now largely passé. Physics is nowhere near that noble dream of explaining everything to six decimal places, and as for the social sciences, as a friend from New Jersey says, “fuhgeddaboudit.” Yet there is progress in science, and some views really are superior to others, regardless of the color, gender, or country of origin of the scientist holding that view. Despite the fact that scientific data are “theory laden,” as philosophers like to say, science is truly different than art, music, religion, and other forms of human expression because it has a self-correcting mechanism built into it. If you don’t catch the flaws in your theory, the slant in your bias, or the distortion in your preferences, someone else will. Think of N-Rays and E-Rays, polywater and the polygraph. The history of science is littered with the debris of downed theories. Throughout this encyclopedia we explore these borderlands of science where theory and data intersect. As we do so, let us continue to bear in mind what I call Darwin’s Dictum: all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.

Using the Encyclopedia

One important tool in finding the right balance between theory and data, ideas and facts, is a broad base of knowledge tempered with balanced wisdom in making judgments about knowledge claims. Without the facts you can’t “judge for yourself” (as television documentaries often suggest viewers do) in any objective manner. What we hope to accomplish with this encyclopedia is a thorough, objective, and balanced analysis of the most prominent scientific and pseudoscientific controversies made in the name of science, mixing both facts and theory. The encyclopedia entries are written at a level for high school and college students conducting research in science and pseudoscience, the media looking for a balanced treatment of a subject, and the general public desiring a highly readable yet trustworthy resource to go to for the most reliable assessments of the most controversial and interesting mysteries involving our universe, our world, and ourselves. As the subjects span all manner of claims from around the world, audiences and markets from around the globe will be interested in reading and references these volumes. In addition, the media desperately needs a reference resource in order to quickly get their minds around a subject, book guests on both sides of an issue in order to properly set up a debate, and get “just the facts” needed for a soundbite story often demanded in the hectic world of journalism. Every newspaper, magazine, radio, and television producer and interviewer should have a copy of this encyclopedia on their shelf of reference works, right between the dictionaries and reference works on contacting experts.

This two-volume encyclopedia encompasses claims from all fields of science, pseudoscience, and the paranormal, and includes both classic historical works and modern analyses by the leading experts in the world who specialize in pseudoscience and the paranormal. The encyclopedia is heavily illustrated (and these subjects lend themselves to both historical and contemporary images) and each entry includes a respectable bibliography of the best books on that subject from both the skeptics’ and the believers’ perspective, allowing readers to conduct additional research on their own after reading what the encyclopedia’s expert author has had to say on the subject.
So as you work your way through this encyclopedia, either start to finish or, more appropriately for this genre, skimming and scanning and plucking out what is needed or wanted, remember Darwin’s Dictum that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service, as well as the words of wisdom from the Harvard paleontologist who has inherited Darwin’s mantle, Stephen Jay Gould, from a 1998 essay entitled “The Sharp-Eyed Lynx, Outfoxed by Nature”:

The idea that observation can be pure and unsullied (and therefore beyond dispute) — and that great scientists are, by implication, people who can free their minds from the constraints of surrounding culture and reach conclusions strictly by untrammeled experiment and observation, joined with clear and universal logical reasoning — has often harmed science by turning the empiricist method into a shibboleth. The irony of this situation fills me with a mixture of pain for a derailed (if impossible) ideal and amusement for human foibles — as a method devised to undermine proof by authority becomes, in its turn, a species of dogma itself. Thus, if only to honor the truism that liberty requires eternal vigilance, we must also act as watchdogs to debunk the authoritarian form of the empiricist myth — and to reassert the quintessentially human theme that scientists can work only within their social and psychological contexts. Such an assertion does not debase the institution of science, but rather enriches our view of the greatest dialectic in human history: the transformation of society by scientific progress, which can only arise within a matrix set, constrained, and facilitated by society.

It is my fondest desire that this encyclopedia will facilitate a deeper understanding of pseudoscience, and in the process illuminate the process of science itself.

—Michael Shermer

Bermuda Triangle
by Maarten Brys

The Devil’s Triangle, better known as the Bermuda Triangle, is the triangular area in the Atlantic Ocean between the Bahamas, Bermuda and the east coast of the United States in which ships and airplanes are said to mysteriously disappear. The absolute peak in cultural interest in the Bermuda Triangle followed the bestselling 1974 book, The Bermuda Triangle, by Charles Berlitz and J. Manson Valentine, of which millions of copies were sold.

Some of the more imaginative explanations for the disappearances are kidnappings by UFOs and dangerous force fields originating in the lost continent of Atlantis below. The truth is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that area. The exact position and size of this devil’s triangle is somewhat disputed: certain authors say that it has a surface of five hundred thousand square kilometres, others mention figures three times as high and also consider the Azores and parts of West India as being part of the triangle. The rumours about mysterious disappearances in that part of the Atlantic Ocean already existed in the era of Columbus, but the craze reached its peak in the 1970s.

What were the claims? All stories about the Bermuda Triangle contain certain similarities: it is always about ships or airplanes that, although in the hands of experienced pilots or sailors, mysteriously disappear in a calm sea and in bright weather conditions. Usually, strange radio messages are mentioned to liven the story up.

But those who truly investigate the facts will find out that often these stories are transferred from one book to another, and each author adds a number of juicy details. As such, an unseaworthy ship that sank during a heavy storm is slowly turned into an unsinkable ship that mysteriously disappears in a calm sea.

The most famous example is the story of ‘Flight 19′, the crew of which is brought home by a UFO in Spielberg’s 1977 box-office hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The Bermuda Triangle books tell the story of experienced pilots flying out to see, sending mysterious radio messages just before disappearing. The facts about this case, however, make an explanation rather mundane: inexperienced pilots, inaccurate navigation, broken compasses, bad weather conditions, and poor radio connections. The pilots got lost, ran out of fuel, and crash landed in the sea. The heavy airplanes sank to the bottom within minutes.

A year after the book by Berlitz and Valentine was published, the complete and partial lies that had been copied from book to book during the years (until they ended up in Berlitz’ publication) were finally exposed in The Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved (1975) by Lawrence Kusche. He demonstrated that there is nothing wrong with that part of the sea. He indicated that there are no more accidents there than in other heavily used sea routes and that all these exaggerated stories about mysterious disappearances were just the product of the imagination of a number of writers. Kusche’s book is still held up as a classic in skeptical research.

Slowly, the subject was forgotten. Only occasionally does one hear about the Bermuda Triangle, even though ships and planes still encounter disasters in the normal course of traversing the storming Atlantic. In 1980, Berlitz presented a couple of new “unexplainable” accidents, which turned out to be not so unexplainable at all, and only three of them occurred in the famous triangle. In 1991 there was a stir when one of the hundred airplane wrecks near Fort Lauderdale was thought to be the infamous 1945 Flight 19, but that turned out not to be the case.

References

  • Kushe, Larry. 1975. Bermuda Triangle Mystery — Solved. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books (reprint of the Warner Books 1975 edition).
  • Randi, James. 1982. Flim-Flam! Psychics, Esp, Unicorns, and Other Delusions. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, ch. 3.
  • Dennett M.R. 1981. “Bermuda Triangle, 1981 Model.” Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 6(1), pp.42–52.
  • Stein, G. (ed.) 1996. The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
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