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Saturday 7 August 2010

Fads & Fallacies: a review of the seminal work on modern scepticism

Fads and Fallacies

First published in 1952 as “In the Name of Science”, “Fads and Fallacies” is often cited as the first book written for the scientific or rational sceptical movement. True, as Gardener states in his preface to the first edition, there were prototypical works, but nothing really comprehensively looked at the culture, motivations and nature of pseudoscience, charlatanism and quackery as this book. Most of the major American sceptics see Gardner as the unofficial founder of their movement and he is regularly credited as a huge influence by Michael Shermer and James Randi, who was a good friend of Gardner up until his death in May 2010.

“Fads and Fallacies” is interesting for many different reasons. Firstly I am happy to say that after hearing so much about the book and finally hearing James Randi’s touching tribute to Gardner on a sceptical podcast, that the work more than lives up to its reputation. The background it gives on the individual cases, its thorough research and its often wry humour make for a compulsive read. Like other more recent comprehensive sceptical books, like Shermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things”, “Fads and Fallacies” cuts deep into the various cults and characters that purvey pseudoscience and weird theories, and looks for connections between their philosophies. This helps each chapter lead onto the next one. Gardner’s overall pattern is to start with what he views as the most eccentric theories and to end with examples of pseudoscience that just fall short of credible science. Likewise he views the characters in his early chapters as barely literate cranks and those at the end as what Michael Shermer and Ben Goldacre (“Bad Science”) would term smart people who believe weird and wrong things.

Secondly the time the book was written provides a fascinating insight into what was emerging then and can be compared to what is happening now. Gardner theorizes that the emergence of pseudoscience is a type of by-product of the huge and rapid advances in actual science. As the world moved forward with huge breakthroughs in technology across the scientific and mathematical disciplines, so the layman became more open to new and exciting ideas – including bad ones. Gardner’s book was written during the 1950s, a time of immense social, political, economic and technological change in the developed world. These changes are reflected in the book’s chapters. Scarily despite Gardner’s prophetic warnings of the dangers of pseudoscience, he often woefully underestimates the future impact of some of these “fads” and the gullibility of humans for the next five decades. For example, he predicted that the Dianetics craze would soon burn itself out, especially as its founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard had gone bankrupt in 1952. Today this is the celebrity supported cult known as “The Church of Scientology”, a group that counted among its sometime followers, a one Charles Manson.

True to the rough form I have described, after the introductory chapter Gardner goes straight in for the most ignorant-sounding of the pseudosciences – flat and hollow earth adherents. In this chapter we see the theories that the Earth is either flat, hollow or that we are living on the inside of the Earth. The first of these theories is supported by a zealous and paranoid religious dogma and the others follow similar form. In “Monsters of Doom” Gardner explains four “unorthodox” ideas about astronomy put forward for the reasons behind certain catastrophes and miracles described in the Bible and the Torah. This is an early example of some of the pseudoscience we have seen re-emerge around Creationism in recent years. All of these theories are supported by wild ideas supported by no testable evidence and only legends that flies in face of physics as we have known it for at least half a millennia.

Throughout Gardner’s book lurks the miscreant shadow of Charles Fort. Once we meet this individual in the chapter “The Forteans”, rarely a successive chapter goes by without an opinion given by this wildcard of intellectualism. Gardner is clearly quite puzzled and amused by him. Fort set up an organization for the study and reporting of unusual phenomena. The organization has thrived since his death and “Fortean Times” can still be bought in most high street newsagents and supermarkets. It appears to be the most rational of the weird phenomena magazines and regularly features pieces written by respected historians and scientific sceptics. Fort promoted himself as an equal critic of both “scientists and priests”. He is introduced at this stage in the book, as during his lifetime, Fort seemed to be mainly critical of mainstream astronomers. Gardner quotes him in opposing roles as a witty commentator on the frauds of the day and as a representative of the type of bizarre faddish way thinking his book seeks to discredit. However, in the latter role Gardner appreciates that Fort wasn’t necessarily always being serious – the trouble is only Fort really knew when he was joking.

Gardner remarks that the flying saucer hysteria covered in the next chapter would have much amused the mischievous Fort, especially with all the authorities trying to explain weather balloons and other objects mistaken for alien spaceships.

If Fort set himself up to be something of a jester in the court of science and speculation, then Alfred Lawson’s had far loftier aspirations. He is introduced in “Zig-Zag-and-Swirl” as the first true egomaniac in the book. Lawson set up his (unaccredited) university based on an all encompassing “science” of physics known as Lawsonomy. It worked on the principles of suction and pressure, opposing Newtonian physics in the process, and grew into a full-on religious cult contained within his university at Iowa. Gardner does not stint on delivering the genuine achievements of this extraordinary individual who not only had a successful career in professional baseball and wrote a philosophical novel, but was a remarkable pioneer in aviation, where he is often credited as being the inventor of the airliner. Lawson ended up creating a movement that had its own strict eating codes, forbade kissing and descended into a weird mishmash of religion, philosophy and counter-scientific principles.

Lawson’s eccentric demise is only just one example Gardner offers of intelligent public figures that went awry with their thinking. I was aware of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism and the way he was hoodwinked by two young girls that they had fairies their back garden – ideas that seem to run contrary to the logical reasoning of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. However, I was not aware of the odd ideas of his contemporary, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, or the writer Aldous Huxley. Both considered intellectuals and great thinkers of their time, bought into some serious pseudoscientific ideas and their public support of these ideas and their originators – comparable in embarrassment stakes with actor George Raft’s support of top mob figures – pepper much of the book.

“Down with Einstein!” is a fascinating study of counter-authority motivated pseudoscience. Gardner shows us that before Einstein Sir Issac Newton was regularly attacked in 18th and 19th century literature. Gardner tells us that even Goethe wrote a two-volume book that aggressively attacked Newton’s theories about light. Unlike Newton, Einstein’s detractors not only included supporters of Newtonian and pre-Einstein theories, but also religious fundamentalists.

The chapter, “Sir Issac Babson”, discusses the creation and continued objectives of the reasonable sounding Gravity Research Foundation. Founded by Roger Babson, another zealous fan of Sir Issac Newton, and a friend of Thomas Edison, the GRF was founded to implement gravitational shielding. This hypothesis is not accepted by mainstream science and generally considered be a fruitless venture. However, to this day, the GRF awards lucrative prize money to winners of their annual essay competition. The essays just have to be gravity related and a means to attract more interest in the Foundation. Babson was not a scientist, but a very successful businessman and invested a fortune in the GRF. Today several college campuses have monuments to the GRF paid for by Babson. No doubt, Gardner couldn’t see the longevity of groups such as this. However, its legacy is perhaps most visible in the perpetual motion machine pseudoscience.

Interestingly Gardner then moves into some daft pre-scientific ideas in his chapter on dowsing rods and doodlebugs. These practices still thrive today despite failing the same double-blind tests it did in Gardner’s day. “Under the Microscope” shows how by not observing strict scientific protocol all sorts of erroneous conclusions can be derived from watching through a microscope, which in turn can lead to some very outlandish theories. “Geology versus Genesis” sees the rise of the New Earth Creationist movement, although it isn’t given that name then. Gardner, a theist himself, makes the strong point that not all Christians were opposed to Darwin’s theory. We also see the foundation of various bizarre ideas about geology and evolution. This latter point explored in a case study through the next chapter on Trofin D. Lysenko, “Lysenkoism”. Lysenko was a Communist party member whose bastardization of 18th century scientist Jean Lamarck’s pre-Darwinian theory of evolution became Stalin’s official view. This was the theory that evolution occurred through the “inheritance of acquired characters” – a species progresses through the efforts of its ancestors. Darwinian scientists were persecuted and disappeared under Lysenko’s influence. Gardner reveals how politics can be married with pseudoscience. The Lysenko theory better aligned itself with the philosophy of Stalinism.

Politically motivated pseudoscience and the distortion of evolutionary theory are never better seen than in “Apologists for Hate”. It is little surprising that Gardner, an American writing during the time of the “Red Scare”, would have a chapter that was critical of the Soviets, however, this chapter shows him to be a true progressive. “Apologists for Hate” shows how the likes of the Nazis and their predecessors used perversions of evolutionary science to prove the genetic superiority of one race over another. Gardner not only exposes the various myths propagated by the Nazis, but shows how the stupidity of these ideas was still influencing the states of his country in those pre-civil rights times. “Atlantis and Lemuria” shows another weird Nazi belief in the existence of Atlantis and that the Arian race originated there. They are, of course, not alone. From the first time Plato mentioned the mythic city that was supposedly submerged thousands of years ago. Not just Atlantis either. Lemuria is another even less well-founded legendary city.

We move into what we would call numerology as Gardner explores the weirdness of modern day pyramid worship in the next chapter. This is an experience in confirmation bias, as facts and figures are distorted and passages from the Bible brought out of context. “Medical Cults”, “Medical Quacks” and “Food Faddists” are Gardner’s trilogy on subjects that we see have a very direct and harmful effect on people. As Gardner and today’s sceptics argue these various remedies may not be harmful in their application, but their use instead of sound medical practices can end up in avoidable tragedies. It also reveals some of George Bernard Shaw’s weird ideas about science. Shaw didn’t support Darwinian evolution and he also supported the idea that germs came from symptoms and not the other way around. Homeopaths, naturopathy osteopaths and chiropractors are all discussed in the first of these three chapters. The radio waves quackery that I first heard brilliantly sent up in the Tony Hancock episode “Sunday Afternoon at Home” is discussed in the second chapter of the trilogy, examining the individual quacks who purvey cancer cures and the like. Food fads are perhaps even more popular now than they were then. The raw food diet has seen resurgence in recent years and its roots can be seen here. Fasting is also covered a lot too.

“Throw Away your Glasses” reveals a view I have seen propagated in a variety of places - even once by an optician! - that a series of exercises can cure bad eyesight and that glasses cause the eyes to deteriorate. Dr William Bates put forward a theory that wrong thinking was more the cause of bad eyesight than anything to do with the physical eye. Aldous Huxley is the celebrity that embarrassed himself over his regular public support of these crank theories.

In “Eccentric Sexual Theories” we begin bizarre ideas about the different sexes followed by weird ideas about homosexuality – many of which persist today – and then some truly cultish dogma relating to sexual practices. Wilhelm Reich and his ideas about orgone energy are discussed in “Orgonomy”. This links in with peculiar sexual practices chapter, as Reich placed a lot of importance on the orgasm. This leads us onto the chapter on Dianetics and the rise of L. Ron Hubbard, which I have discussed earlier. Suffice to say that both Reich and Hubbard grew their strange belief systems out of psychiatry. “General Semantics Etc.” is a lesser known cult that propagates Count Alfred Korzybski’s confusing “anti-Aristotlean” philosophy of language. Korzybski considered himself to be a genius and believed others could reach his level once they were made “sane” through expressing themselves using his linguistic methods (he believed most people to be either “insane” or “unsane”).

“From Bumps to Handwriting” starts with the head-reading practices that had their heyday in the Victorian era – see Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” for a unscientific deduction made regarding belief in the relationship of skull size and intelligence. It ends in graphology that Gardner admits is on the borderline of experimental science rather than pseudoscience.

“ESP and PK” is a chapter that I feel Gardner is actually a little generous with his subject. Despite frank comments throughout and the odd bit of critical humour, Gardner never stoops to the level of insulting his subjects. He always gives them their deserved credit and explains why certain theories might be believed or once were believed by intelligent people. He is not timid to explain the dangers in certain beliefs, but there is a genuine feel of respect for certain individuals, especially if he felt they were wasted talents. Dr Joseph Rhine, Gardner argues, should not be mentioned in the same grouping as the likes of the flat and hollow Earth proponents. Rhine has a very commendable background in science. However, he sent astray with his studies in ESP (Extrasensory Perception), telekinesis and the like. I think, at the time, his studies seemed to be plausible unorthodox science, but today we look at it in a very different light.

The book finishes with Bridey Murphy reincarnation debacle. It is something of a light story, where a hugely publicized story about a woman who recounted her supposed past life as “Bridey Murphy” living in Ireland set off a storm of books and articles. The whole story was eventually properly researched and thoroughly debunked. It fits into this part of the book as it deals with the fringe side of psychiatry again, but seems a little anticlimactic.

The book has endnotes, much of which is written in prose. Gardner also corrects the faults he found in some of the other sceptical books he researched in that he gives all his references.

“Fads and Fallacies” is a must read for anyone interested in the history of pop phenomena and the nature of fads as well as the beginnings of the modern sceptical movement. The edition available to buy is printed by Dover who has gone to great pains to give the feel that the book is the actual 1957 second edition, despite Dover’s website address at the bottom. All the over-descriptive promotional text is on the front cover – “The curious theories of modern pseudoscientists and the strange amusing and alarming cults that surround them. A study in human gullibility”. There is also a fair point made about the way book is published. It may be a paperback, but its spine is made not to crease or crack and the book opens flat for ease of reference.

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