23.9.17

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A UFO MAGAZINE

Steve Holland and Roger Perry. The Men Behind The Flying Saucer Review. Bear Alley Books, 2017.

For those of us who entered ufology in the mid 1960s, Flying Saucer Review, or FSR, as it was generally known, was the acme of ufology and if you got an article published in that journal you knew you had arrived. I first read FSR in the Autumn of 1967, almost exactly 50 years ago as I write. The September/October issue included an article on a hole in the ground in France which was assumed to have been produced by a spaceship, a sceptical article on ocean light wheels, an account of a very strange experience of a group of children in mid 1950s California, and a very odd article asking 'Do the cherubim come from Mars?'

That rather set the course for the about the next twelve years or so, a mixture of intriguing and mind boggling articles, along with banal tales of lights in the sky and some utter nonsense. FSR even reproduced an article on Warminster by John Harney and Alan W. Sharp from MUFORG Bulletin, as well as featuring the first two articles written by our late friend Roger Sandell. I can still remember the awe I felt as a teenager on first meeting John Rimmer and John Harney, who had actually met the editor of FSR in the company of the august figure of J. Allen Hynek.

The editor concerned was Charles Arthur Bowen (1918-1987), who's period of editorship (1966-1982) marked the magazine’s golden age. It was interest in Bowen that first drew the authors of this short booklet to interest in Flying Saucer Review, for what linked them, Bowen and several other contributors to FSR together was their involvement with children’s comics. Bowen was a contributor to Boys' World, the Eagle (to which he contributed articles on sport) and a magazine called Countdown, which I confess I had never heard of, the only thing that name conjured up to me was the popular afternoon TV quiz show.

Bowen was not the first editor, for Flying Saucer Review was founded back in 1955. Unlike its early rival Flying Saucer News, the review was not founded out of organised ufology but by people in the publishing industry. The driving force was the rather sinister Ian Waveney Girvan (1908-1964), a man deeply involved in hard right pro-Nazi politics, before and after the war. Girvan was trained as a chartered accountant but by the end of the 1930s had become involved with Westaway books, the co-director of which was the Nazi sympathiser John Beckett. Beckett was interned as a potential traitor during the war, and the company's chief financer was the pro-Nazi Lord Tavistock, later Duke of Bedford. Bedford was in effect Girvan’s employer by the late 1940s. By this time Girvan was fed up with life under the thumb of the Duke and found employment with a firm that shared premises with Westaway Books, Carroll and Nicholson. The authors of this booklet suggest that this was at the instigation of Beckett who wanted to use the firm to produce far-right political material.

However it would appear that Girvan had realised that involvement in neo-Nazi politics was not exactly conducive to a good bank balance in the post-war world, and soon found a new cause, flying saucers. While at Carroll and Nicholson he took the opportunity to commission the mystic and science writer Gerald Heard to write the first commercially published British UFO book The Riddle of the Flying Saucers. This claimed that the flying saucers were piloted by super-intelligent Martian bees.

This was not an idea that generally caught on, though it did inspire Dennis Wheatley’s Star of Ill Omen (1952) which introduced the idea of alien abduction. At about this time Girvan was head-hunted by T. Werner Laurie just in time to get the manuscript of Desmond Leslie’s occult orientated history of flying saucers, a sort of theosophical version of ancient astronauts, not one calculated to gain a great readership. Fortunately Leslie also sent in the manuscript of Adamski’s tale of meeting with the long haired blond Venusian. Girvan merged the two and possibly did some quite substantial editing and even ghost writing. The resulting book, Flying Saucers Have Landed, was a best seller in Britain and as a result supporters of George Adamski were to dominate British ufology for at a couple of decades at least

Perhaps it was that success that led Waveney Girvan to establish Flying Saucer Review along with a group of associates which included the young aviation writer Derek Dempster, the Hon. Brinsley Le Poer Trench, and a young librarian, Dennis Montgomery, who dreamed of a sort of Institute of Flying Saucer Studies, Also involved were the author Oliver Moxon and the managing editor of This Week, Lewis Barton. This was achieved, allegedly, with the support of Peter Horsley, an equerry to Prince Philip. Conspiracy theorists make of this what you will.

Presumably Girvan’s past made him to be too controversial to be editor, and that job passed to Derek Dempster. However with a little more than a year Dempster found he was losing his battle to keep the Review a sensible publication of record, and the supporters of Adamski, along with a number of people who had a general beef with science and modernity were increasingly dominant. There was also 'Pisces' “a prominent astronomer who does not believe in Flying Saucers” . One wonders if this was Patrick Moore, who had produced his own spoof contactee book along with a friend Robert Davies, under the pseudonym Cedric Allingham and who was to co-author a comic book for children with Desmond Leslie.

Dempster was succeeded as editor by Brinsley Le Poer Trench, the fifth son of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Like many younger sons of the aristocracy he was sent out to 'Trade', and in the 1950s was employed selling advertising copy in a gardening magazine. Trench shared Leslie’s background, though at a less exalted level, and his interest in theosophy and occultism. He also shared Girvan’s involvement in pre-war far right politics, being a member of the pro-German Right Club. Trench would continue to show far right views in later life, during his time in the House of Lords as Lord Clancarty he was a noted supporter of the racist Smith regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

Under Trench’s editorship FSR degenerated into a receptacle for just about any contactee tale going, perhaps the nadir being articles by T Lobsang Rampa an alleged Tibetan lama, who was actually a very British plumber called Cyril Hoskins, who came from the less exotic realm of Thames Ditton.

This, and perhaps Trench’s publication of a book called The Sky People, which had unorthodox and barely comprehensible occult views on the Bible and the origins of humanity, may not have gone down too well with the more conventional Scottish Presbyterianism of Girvan, and the result was that towards the end of 1959 Girvan, now working in some obscure back office job on Girl magazine, took over the editorship himself.

Through a long ufological drought Girvan slowly steered the magazine away from its contactee roots, though continuing to give support to Adamski. By the mid 1960s the magazine was even publishing technical articles on orthoteny, a belief that flying saucer cases could be plotted on straight lines, including some by arch-sceptic Donald Menzel.

When Girvan died FSR faced an existential crisis, for some people including Girvan’s secretary wanted the editorship to go to Reginald 'Rex' Dutta, an occultist of boundless credulity, whose appointment would have terminated it as a serious publication. Instead it went to Charles Bowen, who was in place to ride the ufological tide of 1964-1969. In Bowen’s time FSR published case investigation and a range of more speculative articles by the likes of John Keel, Berthold Eric Schwarz, C Maxwell Cade, Aime Michel etc., as well as introduced tales of the great 1897 airship. In the early 1970s it even produced eighteen issues of a companion magazine FSR Case Histories. It also produced in the 1960s and 1970s several special issues of which the first and best known was The Humanoids, the first global assemblage of non-contactee entity cases.

By the mid 1970s FSR did look like entering the doldrums but was rescued by its involvement with Jenny Randles, especially after the setting up of UFOIN in 1978, which gave the journal a large number of interesting British cases. However by about 1981 things were clearly going downhill and more space was devoted to nonsense about crashed flying saucers. Charles Bowen’s health was in serious decline and the real work was being done by his de-facto deputy Eileen Buckle. However when Bowen finally retired Ms Buckle refused to take on the full job. That sealed the fate of FSR.

On the surface it might appear that the man who took over, regular contributor, diplomat, linguist, intelligence agent and long-time friend of Bowen, Gordon Creighton [left, in Diplomatic Corps livery] would be ideal for the job. There was however a terrible fly in the ointment, Gordon Creighton was paranoid to the point of clinical mental illness. John Harney recalls meeting Bowen at a BUFORA meeting some time in the 1970s, where the FSR editor described Creighton as “awfully nice chap, but nutty as a fruitcake”.

His paranoia was of two parts; the first, probably shared by a number of people of his age, class and background was that anyone whose values, beliefs, outlook on life or lifestyle would not meet the wholehearted approval of the more elderly and conservative members of the Rickmansworth Golf Club were agents of the monolithic global Communist conspiracy - this being particularly true of feminists.

Creighton’s additional spin on this trope was that the global Communist conspiracy was behind the scenes being run by the supernatural beings known to the Arabs and the wider Moslem world as djinns and to the rest of us as fairies, boggarts, elves, gnomes, fays, lutins, duendes, etc. etc., such supernatural beings also being responsible for most if not all manifestations that caused UFO reports. Furthermore this gigantic boggart-communist conspiracy already secretly controlled the world and would soon undertake overt world conquest. However this global conspiracy would from time to time divert their attention from world conquest to order the removal of books on UFOs from Britain’s public libraries.

Of course, those of us who argued that the latter was a load of tosh, were automatically assimilated into the conspiracy, AS was virtually every other ufologist in Britain, Jenny Randles and Hilary Evans falling into particular disfavour.

The pages of FSR were filled with doom-laden jeremiads warning that it would not be long now before Soviet tanks would roll through Europe, no doubt accompanied by the elfin hosts in their flying saucers. How unfortunate then that the monstrous evil empire, crumbled like a house of cards from 1989-1991. Soon it seemed the djinns would have to start selling their flying saucers on the street corners of Moscow at a knock down price. Not a bit of it, argued Creighton who like many of the other madder members of the secret services, came to the conclusion that the evil empire had not fallen, how could the empire of the djinns fall? it had only pretended to have fallen so that the West would be lulled into a false sense of security. 

Thus perished FSR, though it is said to have had some sort of barely-read ghostly afterlife somewhere. It belonged to the age that spawned it, that of the Eagle, Dan Dare and boys’ comics, of hobby magazines and aircraft spotting.

Another person who linked FSR to the world of comics, was the former deputy editor, T. Dan Lloyd who had been a writer on the Eagle. Lloyd was also a follower of Rudolph Steiner and his doctrine of anthroposophy. These connections presumably explain why my early teenage copies of the Eagle Annual featured articles by Girvan and another Werner Laurie author, Leonard Cramp.

This booklet opens up a door that it would be interesting to see others follow with fuller, more scholarly biographies and studies of the connections between 1950s/60s comics, occultism, far Right politics and evangelical Christianity. -- Peter Rogerson

21.9.17

DEVIL OF A TALE

Ruben van Luijk. Children of Lucifer: The Origins of Modern Religious Satanism. Oxford University Press, 2016.

This book begins where some people would suppose that a history of Satan worship might end, that is, the decline of witch-hunting in Europe. “Initial criticism of the witchcraft trials, most [historians] assert, was not motivated by a stance of rational criticism vis-à-vis the reality of the supernatural. Rather, most authors objecting to the persecution of witches criticized the faulty judicial procedure involved or argued for the non-existence of diabolical witchcraft with recourse to older theological notions that denied Satan as a spiritual being, the ability to exert direct influence on physical reality.” 

 If people had really been concerned about the fairness of witch trials, then polemical writing would have argued, on the one side, that there were miscarriages of justice, and on the other, for the need to stamp out evil. But, in fact, writing on the subject from the second half of the seventeenth century was almost entirely concerned with the reality, or lack of it, of the supernatural.

Van Luijk himself gives the example of Balthasar Bekker’s The Enchanted World, 1691, which argued “that it was logically impossible for a spiritual entity like the angel of evil to exert any tangible influence on the kingdom of this world.” A work that is often cited as upholding witch persecution is Joseph Glanvil, Sadducismus Triumphatus, 1681: by the ‘reality of witchcraft’ he meant the existence of occult forces; he did give some examples from witch trials, but most of his evidence was in the form of ghost stories. In the eighteenth century, not only did books on witchcraft cease to appear, but also those on other occult subjects such as astrology, as can be confirmed by consulting any good bibliography of the subject.

Though the witch-craze is often regarded as having ended with the execution of the last witch in Scotland in 1727, as late as the final decades of the eighteenth century “hundreds of people died at the stake and the scaffold” in the Dutch and Belgian Limburg, because they were believed to be Bockerijders (‘Riders of the Goat’), who were still supposed to do the things elsewhere relegated to the past, swearing loyalty to Satan and working for the overthrow of church and state, and “only the arrival of the French revolutionary forces put an end to the executions.” Though it is not relevant to his main theme, I wish he had said more about this, as it is so little known: the primary sources are all in Dutch, and even these are unobtainable in Britain.

This is all a preliminary to his main theme, which begins with the partial rehabilitation of Satan by poets and artists, at the start of the nineteenth century, for instance by Shelley, Byron and Blake. In ‘counterculture’, Satan could represent any deviation from the accepted order, and was taken among other things as a political metaphor; for Proudhon, Satan was “nothing more or less than Liberty.” Jules Michelet was a historian, but the account of the Witches’ Sabbath in his La Sorcière was a fantasy loosely based upon the ravings of the witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, depicted as a kind of feminist peasant revolt against the establishment.

The romantic pinnacle came with Huysmans’ novel Là-Bas, ‘Down There’. Since this was obviously part-autobiographical, people wondered if he had really attended a Black Mass like the one in the book. Van Luijk effectively answers this question with the observation that, whilst writing the book, Huysmans kept several correspondents informed about what he was doing: “Yet to no one did he send any enthusiastic reports of a visit to a Satanist congregation. Even to Arij Prins he did not utter one word about this, although Huysmans kept his Dutch friend informed about every stage of the composition of Là-Bas and wrote to him about virtually every occurrence in his life, including venereal disease and brothel adventures. It is unlikely that Huysmans would not have told Prins immediately if he had actually witnessed a Black Mass.”

Around this time there was widespread, even international, concern about a Satanist-Masonic conspiracy exposed by Léo Taxil and others. This was actually an elaborate hoax, carried on over a period of a dozen years, that was ultimately intended to show how gullible the Catholic Church could be. Rather cleverly, he mixed up genuine facts with his spurious inventions. His Are There Women in Freemasonry?, gave details about a number of real and basically innocuous Lodges of Adoption, that is, lodges for the wives of Freemasons who carried on similar rites without their menfolk, and included engraved portraits of their leaders. These were followed by a completely fictional description of the ‘Palladium’, and a ritual where among other things a ‘Templar Mistress’ pierced a consecrated host with a ceremonial dagger, crying “Nekam, Adonai, Nekam” – “Vengeance, Adonai, Vengeance”. Though he eventually boasted that all this was made up, it has proved long-lived: Aleister Crowley wrote a poem entitled ‘Nekam Adonai’ which may have been inspired by this, and a completely false document on the worship of Lucifer, attributed to the American Masonic writer Albert Pike, is still quoted by Christian opponents of Freemasonry.

MARIA DE NAGLOWSKA
It is not until the twentieth century that we find genuine examples of Devil-worship. In 1930 Maria de Naglowska, a Russian noblewoman, founded in Paris a feminist ‘Order of the Knights of the Golden Arrow’ in which she herself was ‘Priestess of Satan’. Nevertheless “Satanism was only one component of her religious system”, that particularly focused on sex magic, which “involved the banishment of Satan to the underworld (i.e. the male genitals)”. In 1936 she abruptly left Paris, and there were wild rumours about her fate, but van Luijk is able to report that in fact she died peacefully in Zurich.

In the writings of Aleister Crowley, “Satanist elements are far from striking”. Instead, one has a “multifaceted and at times seemingly contradicting system of religious thought”. The foundations of his creed were the Golden Dawn, which was Judaeo-Christian, and Buddhism (he had spent some time in a monastery in Ceylon). In a syncretistic system there was room for some Satanism, as evidenced by a footnote to

“Satan is described as the great initiator who stands for life, love and liberty” and similar ideas were expressed in his “Hymn to Lucifer” and “Hymn to Satan”. He seems also to have originated the bad etymology that linked the name of Satan to those of the Egyptian Set and the Roman Saturn. But “Labelling this system Satanism would be as appropriate as calling it Buddhism or Jewish mysticism.”

In addition to the syncretists – The Process is another example – there seem to be people who often change their religion, being Satanists only at a certain point in their lives. Some years ago, a (Thelemite) woman mentioned to me that her husband was a Christian. When I objected that she had previously described him as a Muslim, she explained that he regularly switched faiths, because he wanted to try out different ‘paradigms’. Before being a Muslim he had been a Satanist. In a similar way, I once knew a theology student who had a tattoo of 666 between her breasts. She was not ashamed of it, and showed it to me, describing it as ‘A previous path’.

Montague Summers was one of those who wrote on such subjects with an air of disgust which barely masked an underlying fascination. Van Luijk comments that “when the Reverend referred to the “lewd pages” and “revolting pictures” of the Marquis de Sade, he did not fail to supply detailed bibliophilic advice on said works in an accompanying note.” One may add to this that in The Restoration Theatre Summers began a sentence with the words “It may be remembered that in Justine …” apparently assuming that anyone interested in the Restoration theatre would necessarily be familiar with the works of de Sade.

All of this is, inevitably, a build-up to Anton LaVey with his Church of Satan and Satanic Bible, which now seem distinctive of the Sixties. Though it was of course easy for it to get publicity, there never seems to have been all that much substance to it. “LaVey was in many ways indebted to Crowley’s theories”, though he was disparaging about the man personally.

It is hardly surprising that it spawned breakaway movements, which in any case happens to most religious movements. Thee Satanic Orthodox Church of Nethilum Rite was “one of the earlier schismatic split-offs”. The best-known was Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set, which I believe is still active.

The end was a whimper. “After LaVey’s death, the Church of Satan became a marginal organization, even in the already marginal milieu of Satanism. Squabbling arose almost immediately over who would succeed him as High Priest. Karla LaVey, who had remained aloof from the Church for years and had spent much of her time undergoing plastic surgery in Brazil, presented herself as her father’s lawful heir and let herself be photographed in a somewhat awkward pose with a statue of LaVey borrowed from a waxwork museum. When she lost the battle for the throne to Blanche Barton, she founded the First Satanic Church, a Satanist organization that seems to exist mainly as a web page.” 

The Black House, which was never very impressive, had already fallen into disrepair, and was torn down by a real estate investor in 2001 to make way for a ‘rather bland’ condominium. “Thus the birthplace of one of the world’s most remarkable religions disappeared under the gray concrete of mass-produced conformism.” – Gareth J. Medway



29.8.17

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

David Booher.  No Return: The Gerry Irwin Story, UFO Abduction or Covert Operation Anomalist Books, 2017.


The story of Gerry Irwin is one of the spookiest in UFOlogy, at least as presented as the opening sequence of chapter 4 of Jacques Vallee’s “Passport to Magonia”.

Private First Class Gerry Irwin was travelling south-east on Highway 14 out of Cedar City Iowa on 28th February 1959 when he saw what he thought might be a plane in trouble. He left a hurried note and a message by his car and set out on foot to see what he could do. He was found some 90 minutes later by a rescue party but there was no sign of an air crash. He remained unconscious for the best part of a day, and woke up worried as to what happened to his jacket. He was taken to Fort Bliss but fainted while out walking in El Paso. 

He was taken back to hospital but discharged on April 17th, only the next day to go AWOL and take a bus to Cedar City and go out into the scrub, find his jacket and a message attached to it, which he burnt. He then woke as if from a trance and handed himself in. He wens back to hospital and then on August 1 he failed to report for duty and was never seen again. The implication is that he had been taken to Magonia, never to return.

However, as David Booher found out, Gerry Irwin is (or was at time of writing) alive and well at the age of 78 in 2014 and living in Idaho. He confirms some of the basic story but his memory of that time is still severely compromised so Booher has to try and reconstruct what happened from newspaper reports, articles by Jim and Coral Lorenzen, a sheriff’s report, reports of Irwin’s court martial and so on. As he does so the already blurry picture becomes ever more confused.

What seemed like a simple story at first, Irwin sees a bright fireball, fears it might be a crashed plane and risks his life to try and help, falls and suffers significant brain damage and is scandalously maltreated, seems to dissolve in a hall of mirrors.

It turns out that the event actually happened in Friday 20th February not the 28th as stated by Vallee, or the 22nd by the Lorenzens and the site of the incident was off Highway 20 way to the north of Highway 14 , though it was pretty clear that it was off Highway 14 that the jacket was found.

The case of the two locations is clearly one for Sherlock Holmes, and Booher is no Holmes as he becomes bogged down as to how the jacket had moved, that it must have been moved by air (?spaceship) etc. Holmes’ precept was “once you have eliminated the impossible what is left, however improbable, must be the truth". The truth here is surely blindingly obvious; Irwin must have left his jacket at the Highway 14 location before he moved on to Highway 10!

That jacket, or the message that he left with it is clearly the first thing on his mind, so much so he goes AWOL to go and (at least according to his account) go and get the jacket and burn the message. That must have been a very important and sensitive message.

There are some clues as to what all this might be really about. Irwin in his first assignment in the Air Force, which he first joined under age was on the front line of the cold war on the Distant Early Warning Line in the north of Alaska, where he would see on the radar planes coming from Canada and flying over Russia, planes they were careful not to log. When he went into civvie street he found himself promoted over much more experienced members of staff in a job which opened up unexpected prospects.

He then worked for the forestry service crop spraying, and then went back into the army. Later, despite the apparent doubts about his mental health and being sent to Leavenworth for a year for being AWOL he was sent to Germany and promoted to Sergeant before being given a top secret assignment in neutral Austria. Booher is rather annoyed that Irwin keeps wanting to talk about that latter period and not about the “crash”. Perhaps he just can’t take a hint, even when Irwin talks about a 'special intelligence' that has directed him not to tell what happened, and that it began at what the investigator thought was meant to be “the age of three years." I suspect was something “from 3 onwards”, meaning 1953, when he was on that defence front line. You might think that Gerry Irwin was a CIA agent or asset but I couldn’t possibly comment.

Here’s a hypothetical possibility of what really happened. On his way back to base along Hw14 Gerry Irwin saw something that he thoight might be the crash of a secret plane, not one you want all and sundry to find. He left some details with his jacket at the scene and then raced back into Cedar City to phone the appropriate people. They agreed that this is something to be kept secret and ask him to create a diversion, so he headed up north to Hw10 and created a fake crash scene to direct attention away from the real crash site (if there was one). 

Whether he then fell and hit his head and suffered amnesia and some continuing brain damage, or perhaps this was all part of the cover-up is conjectural. Nevertheless he was concerned that his jacket had not been picked up and at earliest opportunity went to retrieve the note which gave the real crash site. It’s even possible that all his problems with psychiatric treatment and truth drugs etc. were both a training exercise and the build-up of a false story for the possible role as a fake defector. Perhaps this starts to remind you of one Lee Harvey Oswald. I suspect that the secrets he knew were not for uninitiated army ears.

The second story behind the Irwin affair is how it became assimilated into UFO lore. The answer seems to lie with the Lorenzens and their friend Olavo Fontes who were starting to construct the narrative of UFO hostility. For example the January-February 1959 issue of APRO Bulletin featured the Gustavsson/Rydberg alleged attempted kidnapping, by things that looked like skittles (now known to be a hoax) and a headline saying “Family Disappears-Saucer Seen” (much less dramatic in plain text). 

The March-April 1959 issue that featured the Irwin story also included an article entitled 'Strange Disappearances and Pursuing Saucers' and an article on car chases by Olavo Fontes. The former seemed to entirely anticipate the Hill case. These developments may have been influenced, as Booher, suggests, by underground knowledge of the Antonio Villas Boas case, but that story itself, along with the hostility stories, seem to have been promoted as secular alternatives to the contactee tales.

Booher himself clearly to a large degree buys into the UFO mythos and hints that the story is an alien abduction, or alternatively that Irwin was the victim of various kinds of mind control experiment such as those associated with MKultra and does consider the possibility that the Hills also were pushed over the edge by people out to discredit them.

I don’t believe in alien abductors but for the rest I suspect Gerry Irwin will take the truth, if he really knows it, to the grave. As it is we are left with is that hall of mirrors. -- Peter Rogerson

19.8.17

BRIEF LIVES

Derek Wilson. Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans. Robinson, 2017.

It is hard to summarise the purport of this book, since no single thread appears to link the parts of it together. The author admits as much in his introduction, when he writes that “I shall be attempting in the following pages to…record the activities and opinions of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the debate about ‘life, the universe and everything’”.

Quite what this is supposed to mean is anyone’s guess, and inevitably the scope of the book becomes so enormous that it is impossible to define its argument and what one ends up with is a kind of dictionary of the lives of individuals whom he admires. The title of the book suggests that it ought to be about the conflict between science and superstition, and it is true that the book contains some accounts, such as those of the travails of Giordano Bruno and Galileo at the hands of the Catholic Church; but the book is not really about the conflict between science and superstition, and at no point does the author attempt to define either term, nor is there any discourse on the subject. In the light of our present knowledge of particle physics, was our ancestors’ acceptance of Newtonian physics ‘superstitious’? If not, then neither was the prevailing Aristotelian weltanschaung of the Middle Ages. These are issues on which the author is silent.

The author records the lives of many others such as Newton (who was more sinning than sinned against) and Hume, both of whom appeared free to pursue and publish their works without significant interference or conflict, and in general the author skips happily from individual to individual without troubling to explain any connection to the title or to the preceding case study. The logic of his approach is that when one reaches the penultimate page, there is no conclusion, the author stating that “to add an epilogue boldly labelled ‘Conclusions’ would be presumptuous in the light of the vastness of our subject”. More likely it would be impossible to write one.

Having said that, I found the author’s style readable and the book can most certainly be recommended as a sort of dictionary of intellectual biography mainly covering the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in Europe, the caveat being that the method of selection, is to my mind, somewhat idiosyncratic. The lives and discoveries of the usual suspects are there (Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton inter alia) and inevitably each reader will find examples of individuals whom he will be surprised to find missing. Amongst the writers and philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find Leibniz, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau, but no Bishop Berkeley, Montesquieu or Kant (for example). No effort is made by the author to explain his methodology in selecting his “great minds”. Are we to conclude that his approach is entirely subjective, and that he has just written about a number of people he is familiar with?

The strength of the book lies in its pen portraits, which often include fascinating detail, such as the description of Tycho Brahe’s island researches paid for by the King of Denmark or Newton’s vindictiveness towards his rival Robert Hooke. These I found entertaining even where the subject-matter was familiar to me, and for someone unversed in the intellectual history of the period, this book could serve as an enjoyable introduction. But a better title ought to be devised; I would suggest: Brief Lives - Some Great Minds From the Renaissance to the Eighteenth Century.

Some readers may find it questionable that more than a few pages have been devoted to the lives of religious reformers. I can live with the inclusion of Calvin and Luther on the basis that they were both “great minds”, although not necessarily good; but I was baffled by the inclusion of several pages in the last chapter devoted to John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield. Is there really any place for them in this book to rank alongside Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau etc.? I conclude (and, unlike the author, I am happy to do so) that this is yet another example of the book’s almost total lack of thematic unity. – Robin Carlile

15.8.17

DIGGING THE DIRT

Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson (editors) Lost City, Found Pyramid - Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices. University of Alabama Press, 2016

Archaeologists, it has been said, often find their careers in ruins. Their jobs often entail digging in the dirt for clues. Genuine archaeology involves a lot of hard work, strict procedures, and very little glamour. Yet, in complete contrast to that reality, there persists a romantic notion of archaeology as an exciting form of adventure, treasure-hunting and searching for lost civilisations.

The hugely popular 'Indiana Jones' films perfectly embody this romantic view of archaeology. Mysterious ancient artefacts with strange magical properties usually come into the story.

Lost City, Found Pyramid, a collection of twelve essays written by academics and professionals, digs deeply into the question of why so-called 'pseudoarchaeology' has gained such a wide appeal. It examines how non-scientific pursuit of myths and legends has created false perceptions of true archaeology, and even of human history itself. The first part contains numerous case studies of the work of those 'alternative archaeologists'. They are dismissed as "well-intentioned romantics who project onto actual archaeological data whimsical interpretive frameworks or quixotic 'proofs' that confirm legends. . .or other alternative claims". One such legend, for which sensational claims have been made, is the 'Lost White City of Honduras', otherwise known as 'La Ciudad Blanca'.

The editors acknowledge that "crafting the history of a scholarly field is fraught with difficulties". Great innovators often have interests and influences that are now considered to be unscientific. Copernicus and Isaac Newton studied alchemy as a source of ideas and inspiration, and Galileo taught his medical students to cast astrological charts for their patients to help with diagnosis. In the same way, the forerunners of modern archaeology had theories and methods that would now be questionable. The great pioneering Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie [left] began with the mystical idea that great events of history were somehow encoded in the dimensions of the ancient monuments at Giza. On the other hand, Heinrich Schliemann, often cited as a founder of modern archaeology, believed that Troy was a real historical city when most historians thought it was only a myth. He did discover it, but is criticised for using dynamite to uncover the most ancient layers.

The second part of the book is entitled "How Archaeologists Should or Should Not Engage with Pseudoarchaeology". It opens with the subject of the 'Central Australian Face'. My Google search for that term gave no results, whereas 'face on Mars' produces millions. The whole story is somewhat tedious in the amount of detail given, but it has some value in illustrating the challenge archaeologists have to deal with when engaging with a member of the public claiming to have made a significant discovery. It turned out to be a case of 'pareidolia', a common cognitive response to see facial features in random shapes.

There are some good chapters on the role of the media, in particular the genre known as 'reality TV', in popularising pseudoarchaeology. The venerable National Geographic comes in for some strong criticism over its TV channel programme Diggers. This show's format was to follow two metal-detector hobbyists visiting various historical sites across the United States. It was presented as a search for 'buried treasure', typically coins minted from gold or silver, historic weapons, ammunition, and other artefacts. A strong outcry from professional bodies led to much-needed changes, such as engaging local archaeologists to have some supervision on site and a role in identifying found items.

On the other hand, the British programme Time Team, presented by Tony Robinson, receives lavish praise for focusing on the archaeological and historical significance of a site. It is commended for minimising the sensational aspects of the subject and emphasising a sense of authenticity and accuracy. In contrast, Dr Zahi Hawass, the famous erstwhile Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs is castigated for unprofessional conduct. In Chasing Mummies: The Amazing Adventures of Zahi Hawass, premiered in 2010 on the History Channel, he puts on a show for the camera with fabricated scenes of danger involving students who risk being fired for failure. The book reports that Hawass was himself sacked by the Egyptian government in 2011.



Some of the most interesting material concerns hoaxes. Indeed, a lot can be learned from hoaxes in general. The so-called 'Newark Holy Stones' are a good example. Ostensibly found by antiquarian David Wyrick in 1860 within a cluster of ancient Indian burial mounds near Newark, Ohio, these artefacts have created a great deal of controversy. One of them, the 'Decalogue Stone', [above] depicts Moses and the Ten Commandments written in a unique form of Hebrew. While appearing to be genuinely ancient, the letters have been shown to be derived from the modern Hebrew alphabet. The Holy Stones were interpreted by some as proving a connection between biblical Hebrews and the Moundbuilders of the American Midwest. Genetic tests done on Native American DNA extracted from burial mounds has conclusively proven that those peoples originated in eastern Asia, and not the Middle East.

Why then do the Holy Stones keep appearing in popular magazines and TV programmes? "The answer is that some biblical or Book of Mormon literalists see the Holy Stones as 'scientific' proof that American prehistory can be accommodated within the narrow confines of their doctrinal frameworks." That says it all. People will believe whatever they want to believe. Religious indoctrination can be so strong as to cause its adherents to insist that the 'proof' offered is itself false or a trick from the Devil to test their faith. Hoaxes like this might also, of course, have been planted to support a pet theory or a political viewpoint. Issues of slavery and racism were being hotly debated at the time of the Holy Stones' appearance. The myth of the 'Lost Tribes of Israel' was strongly supported by the Christian clergy as it validated the ongoing colonisation of America and the Christianisation of the Native Americans.

There is much in this book that will interest and stimulate anyone of a 'Magonian' inclination. Its greatest readership is obviously going to be within the professional and academic circles of archaeology and its students. With a retail price of over £50 it is not cheap. But if you are interested in finding nuggets of information it is a treasure trove. -- Kevin Murphy


11.8.17

THE CONSUMED SOCIETY

Greg Garrett, Living With the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, Oxford University Press. 2017.

If you’re intent on impressing your tutor with a wide-ranging dissertation on zombies, or you’re a vicar intent on impressing your congregation and increasing your street cred with your moral take on Game of Thrones, or if, perhaps, you’re even intent on adding to the ever-increasing library of zombie-theme books with your own magnus opus, this is the book for you.

It’s got everything you’d need to know about the ethics in zombie tropes, memes, themes and narrative arcs in all media from movies through TV to gaming, and boasts quotes with a possibly-zombie-relevant theme from everyone who’s anyone, from the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But perhaps, if you believe that the collective noun for theologians should be ‘an irrelevance’, are seeking pure entertainment, or possibly, are actually Simon Pegg, it’s best to turn away now.

You have been warned: after all, the word ‘wisdom’ is there in the subtitle, and a bit of book-jacket browsing tells you that the – obviously genial – author is an authority on the sort of weird combination of stuff one has come to expect from great universities in the 21st century – e.g. Christianity and zombieism. According to BBC radio, Professor Garrett is ‘one of America’s leading voices on religion and culture’, including pop culture. The zombie/religion mix must have been irresistible.

It must be said that the zombie apocalypse does lend itself with spectacular, glorious potential to all manner of ethical debate, especially the problems that inevitably come in the wake of the breakdown of law and the re-setting of society after the most traumatic of circumstances. Jesus had a lot to say about it… well, no, he didn’t of course, but he had quite a bit to say about issues that can, with greater or lesser legitimacy, be crow-barred into the discussion. You do get a few intense pages of Christian wisdom in here. It’s that sort of book, though as it’s also a very readable and fascinating work, whether those particular passages prove a serious obstacle to your overall appreciation is up to your personal level of tolerance for such things. (And that’s if you can forgive the author’s unquestioning acceptance of Mother Teresa as the genuine embodiment of goodness and compassion – a potentially jarring note.)

Professor Garrett does set out very carefully in the opening pages that, as his background is in Judaeo-Christian religious literature, he will favour it. (He signs off the book, dating it as ‘Pentecost’.) Fair enough. It’s his book, his background, his choice. But it very probably isn’t the background of many of his potential readers, especially in the secular west of Europe. So when he says, for example, that the focus of the Johannine material in the New Testament (the gospel and epistles ascribed to St John) is love, with respect one has to point out that to many of us actually its, albeit implicit, focus is Christianity. Of course that is a given, both to St John and Professor Garrett, but to some of us it just isn’t.

Similarly, when he is discussing the myriad problems of ‘the End’, he writes, re the story of Noah and the Flood: ‘consider how the story concludes with God’s promise never again to destroy the world by water, and one faithful man and his family survive to offer the world a chance to start anew, without the evil that so offended God in the first place’, he adds in parenthesis: ‘(Of course, this proves to be a vain hope, human beings being as they are, but hope is hope all the same.)’ But hang on. Shouldn’t that also be ‘ human beings being as they are, and God being as he is’ ? If we’re expected to take the Flood myth seriously, even as a metaphor, some might note that God needs to be rather less vindictive and tyrannical than he appears to be in both this example of his spite and throughout the entire Bible. Society starting anew might not get very far, once again, if he destroyed yet another huge swathe of humanity in one of his infamous hissy fits.

(And Professor Garrett seems oblivious to a rather obvious potential zombie/vampire crossover interpretation of the very famous story of a certain dead man walking and whose followers drink his blood and eat his flesh.)

In general, though, the breadth of knowledge the author displays about zombie-related media is deeply impressive – he even includes scattered references to Doctor Who – and his examples cover all possible genres. Simon Pegg’s spoof movie Shaun of the Dead, perhaps rather crazily, features quite heavily. I had no idea it was so profound, and possibly neither did Mr Pegg, but Professor Garrett does seem to enjoy it both as a comedy (which it was always intended to be) and another source of profundity (which it probably wasn’t but obviously is now). Yes, Shaun hesitating about killing his zombified mother is – or would be outside the world of comedy – a terrible ethical choice. But let’s not forget, it’s played for laughs.

(As an aside: of course, to a Brit, the urge when faced with the Apocalypse to go down the pub is presumably deeply etched in our DNA. But in Shaun of the Dead there is an added layer of reference. In fact the pub is named after the Winchester club in the classic TV series Minder, thus, if anything - apart from Simon Pegg’s obvious love of the comic capers of Arfur and Terry – simply reinforcing the idea of the pub as cosy, familiar hub where funny stuff, even farce, happens. I don’t think we need to look much deeper.)

But should we take a book about the ethical implications of the zombie apocalypse seriously anyway? Isn’t it just akin to, say, debating that other great fictional cataclysm, the Rapture? Well, yes and no. Mainly no, actually. In many ways this is – despite all my caveats given above – an important book. Professor Garrett might have fallen for the myth of Mother Teresa, but quite clearly he’s both a thoroughly decent man and a very knowledgeable commentator. He is, for example, an expert on screen-writing and the whole movie business.

He totally understands the emotion packed into the superficially mindless subject matter, its power and enduring appeal. He presents us with many of the stark choices – but hopefully only ever in theory – those under threat from the living dead will face: whether to kill those shambling un-humans who were once, perhaps just seconds before, your husband or wife or small child or mother, and who are intent on consuming your flesh to turn you from being One of Us into One of Them. Whether to run or stay and fight. How to organise and order a new society – just how draconian would it have to be? Do you always obey the mantra ‘kill or be killed’?

(It’s at this point that one realises that the zombie apocalypse scenario is potentially an absolute gift to all manner of pressure groups – the gun lobby or crusading vegans, for example. Presumably all that is still to come, but come it no doubt will.)



But in real life that kind of lawless evil would be up against – certainly in the UK – the good old Blitz spirit, where neighbours who had rarely ever so much as exchanged a word suddenly pull together, sharing what they have and helping out. 


One of the major problems – or at least concerns – about the post-apocalyptic world is just how deep a sense of community would go, or whether groups would fragment along certain lines. How deep would previous prejudices, continue to run, for example?

Rather endearingly, the author admiringly mentions the Muslim emphasis on community, but as a religion it’s not exactly famous for its inclusivity, is it? Yet… who knows how ordinary people, suddenly finding themselves no longer necessarily defined by their religion, tribe or even family, would react to an ongoing life-or-death struggle against the living dead? Possibly the overall reaction would be considerably more cheering than the pundits would have us believe.

As I write, a UK TV channel is advertising a new reality series called Paradise Lost, where a group of people have to build a community from scratch somewhere inhospitable. The whole point, it seems – given away in the title itself for a start – is to reveal the darker, nastier, more self-aggrandising aspects of humanity. But of course that was the concept from the very beginning. That’s what lay behind the choice of the participants, as most likely to provide that euphemistic ‘good telly’ – i.e. the most self-seeking, loud-mouthed exhibitionists they could find. Without even seeing a single episode (and I won’t, as I usually try to keep my meals inside my stomach), I can say with certainty that it will be hell from the start, much to the joy of the producers.

Yet that’s not what actually happens, or more accurately, not what happens overall, in life-or-death situations (and, let’s be honest, being ‘trapped’ even in the bleakest surroundings for a finite amount of time while being filmed isn’t exactly fighting for your life). Look at how the ordinary people rallied – immediately, passionately and efficiently - when officialdom exhibited the most outrageous and chaotic lack of response to the conflagration of Grenfell Tower in west London not so long ago. Suddenly, black and white, Muslim and Christian and pagan and atheist, and the posh locals and the not-so-posh locals, were all in it together, offering food and clothes, shelter and money. It was quite extraordinary.

Similarly, there have been a series of dramas about post-apocalyptic Britain in which gangs roam, looting, torturing and killing. No one is suggesting that that, tragically, would not be the case, at least to some extent. But in real life that kind of lawless evil would be up against – certainly in the UK – the good old Blitz spirit, where neighbours who had rarely ever so much as exchanged a word suddenly pull together, sharing what they have and helping out. True, there were many cases during the actual Nazi Blitz on London of criminals using the cover of the bombing raids to commit burglaries, rapes and murders. It wasn’t all Cockney jollity. But the decent, human community spirit was, and still is, a real thing. You see it after catastrophic flooding, for example, let alone an invasion of the walking dead. You don’t have to be a main character in Game of Thrones to be a hero.

Professor Garrett quotes the Dalai Lama: ‘where love of one’s neighbour, affection, kindness, and compassion live, we find that ethical conduct is automatic. Ethically wholesome actions arise naturally in the context of compassion’. (Sometimes throughout this book, you just long for more Dalai Lama and less, say, Rowan Williams. Yes you do - he was the Archbishop of Canterbury before this one. The beardy one. Apparently he’s a personal friend of the author, so fair enough. And he does talk sense in these contexts.)

Humanity is complex, and disasters bring out both the good and the bad in us – as zombie movies such as 28 Days Later, with its visceral cynicism but thread of hope, vividly show. The dark/light balance is meat and drink to a theologian, of course, and even with a fair bit of resistance, even I found there are many moments of solemn nodding in agreement with the author.

One thing he is very clear about from the start is that these questions have a much more urgent and obvious relevance in the post-9/11 world, when a new sort of horror was imposed on the world’s greatest superpower, brutally awakening it to a reality other countries were only too familiar with. (To be fair, he does also mention the UK’s trauma of 7/7.)

The balance of terror and hope is, in the post 9/11 world, a daily drain on our collective psyche, zombies or no zombies.

One of the major differences from a more conventional war setting, however, is that the War on Terror is fighting hidden evil, anonymous faces in the everyday crowds. Men (and women) who can mow down innocent travellers or sightseers, or stab party-goers. Similarly, it can be hard to distinguish between the living and the merely wounded, say, and the walking dead. Yet hesitation to rid the world of these monsters might well prove deadly. The moral and ethical parallels are there between those negotiating a world full of actual monsters and those straining to combat men and women who have chosen to become monsters. And in both scenarios, those who will have to deal with them might well not be professional military or security personnel – they might be you and me.

That is why this is an important book.

And how can you resist a man who writes, in the context of the moral conflict of Rick, the survivor in The Walking Dead:

‘When after the 9/11 attacks President George W. Bush said that the United States – like Rick… - would use any means necessary to protect its citizens, and his ally Tony Blair stood by him to say Britain would support the United States, they committed two of the world’s great democracies to a course of action that violated their core values. In the process, both nations lost a great store of their moral standing, while acting in the name of defending freedom and fighting evil…’

Constantly this a man saying it’s hard, it’s hard being human right now, so how much harder would it be if there were so few humans left, fighting the monsters that once were us?

Sadly, this book is probably not an obvious choice as a stocking filler for your mad-on-Game-of-Thrones teen or to tempt your Millennial mates away from their devices. Yes, it deals with relevant digital games, and shows a dazzling insider knowledge of movies and TV. But basically, it’s not a mainstream book. Too much Book of Revelation, too many psalms, too much Rowan Williams. But after all, it is published by Oxford University Press. And it is impressive.

And perhaps unexpectedly, it’s recommended. In fact, highly. Professor Garrett is clearly not only a nice guy but a genuinely fascinating gent and acknowledged authority on all sorts of good stuff like the history of movies. Even given the gulf between us on so many matters – all the better for a lively debate, then - I’d be more than happy to buy him a pint down the Winchester. (Oh, I take it back. I think even Simon Pegg would love to meet him, too.) – Lynn Picknett


8.8.17

LEAPING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends… and Pseudoscience Begins, Oxford University Press, 2017

In her farewell address to the American Statistical Association last year, outgoing president Jessica Utts, who analysed parapsychological experiments for the US government and concluded that they support the reality of psi, drew attention to the irony that many scientists, in their denial of such evidence, adopt the mind set and methods of pseudoscience. Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction seems designed to illustrate her point. As the subtitle spells out, its aim is to show where science ends and pseudoscience begins. And so it does – but not in the way the authors intend.

At the start of their book, Wynn and Wiggins (W&W), respectively professors of chemistry and physics, both American, list the ‘flaws and problems’ that are the tell-tales signs of pseudoscience. But, in a perfect example of the doublethink Utts describes, they go on to commit many of the very same errors.

As those authors will probably dismiss my criticisms as being those of a ‘believer’, I ought to make my own position clear on matters parapsychological, paranormal and Fortean. Like, I suspect, many readers of this site, I’m one of those who find themselves between what Jeffrey J. Kripal calls the ‘two equally silly extremes’ of ‘denying debunker’ and ‘true believer’. W&W clearly occupy the first extreme (although it’s apparent that, to them, everybody who doesn’t join them there belongs in the ‘true believer’ category, there being no middle ground in their eyes).

This is the second edition of Quantum Leaps, the first having appeared in 2001. According to the preface, it’s chiefly the chapter on alternative medicine that’s been updated, even though there have been significant developments with some of the other subjects covered that should have been included. The book is enlivened with cartoons by Sidney Harris, ‘America’s premier science cartoonist’ according to Isaac Asimov. Lord knows it needs enlivening.

The book is aimed at the lay reader without a grounding in science, to teach them how to distinguish between genuine science and the pseudo variety, on the basis that the latter thrives on its unsuspecting victims’ lack of a proper scientific education, which not only leads them into erroneous thinking but also exposes them to exploitation by charlatans and con-persons.

After outlining the basic approach and methodology of science (the hypothetico-deductive model, Occam’s razor, and all that), W&W devote chapters to what they consider the ‘five biggest ideas of pseudoscience’ – namely UFOs and aliens, out-of-body-experiences and related phenomena, astrology, creationism and ESP/psychokinesis – showing how they don’t measure up to that standard. Along the way they also deal, in a peremptory fashion, with a rather random assortment of other subjects such as Bigfoot, Nessie, Spontaneous Human Combustion and (oddly) Piltdown Man.

Their analysis of these complex subjects is incredibly slight. The whole of the UFO phenomenon, from Kenneth Arnold to abductions and taking in side issues such as the ancient astronaut theory, is dealt with in just 14 pages. The chapter ‘Out-of-Body Experiences and Entities’, which covers everything from OOBEs and Near Death Experiences to ghosts, mediumship, possession, astral projection, the soul and reincarnation (as well as, for some reason, the Cottingley fairies) gets 15. So not exactly in-depth.

Although it comes as no surprise that W&W give prominence to the sceptical position, the lack of the slightest pretence at presenting a balanced picture takes the breath away. For them, all the beliefs and concepts they target are the result of bias, wishful thinking and dishonesty, and everyone who gives them house room therefore either a fool, dupe or charlatan. End of story. There’s little in the way of analysis or the building of a case to refute the claims of proponents of their chosen subjects, W&W rather relying on sweeping statements and dogmatic assertions in a ‘Trust us, we’re scientists’ manner. (‘Makes authoritarian pronouncements’ is one of their tell-tale signs of the pseudoscientist.)
Thus, Uri Geller ‘simply bends the objects when no one is watching’. Evidence? Even the severest of Geller’s critics give him credit for a bit more subtlety than that. Thus again, all psychic readings simply employ ‘social and psychological manipulation’. Supporting studies? W&W don’t, in fact, cite a single scientific or academic publication in support of any of their statements – extraordinarily, there are no references at all!




It’s probably just as well that they don’t provide the reader with the means of fact-checking what they say, as the book is filled with inaccuracies and the most basic of errors – ironic for authors who champion accuracy and precision – which make it apparent they don’t actually know very much about the subjects they’re debunking, or have even looked up the basics as they were writing.

Their summary of the Roswell case, for example, is incredibly muddled and doesn’t square with any of the hypothetical reconstructions, basically because they include (very much alleged) eyewitness accounts that emerged decades after the event as if they were all reported way back in 1947.

W&W’s overview of the alien abduction phenomenon is similarly slapdash. According to them, this ‘emerged in the 1950s’ when ‘hundreds of people began to report that.... alien beings had kidnapped them, taken them aboard their flying saucers, and, in some cases, subjected them to painful medical examinations’ (of course, abduction reports on a mass scale were rather a feature of 1980s ufology). And yet the ‘founding parents of the alien abduction movement’ were Betty and Barney Hill, whose experience took place ‘in 1966’ (actually 1961), while their hypnotically-recovered memories ‘may have incorporated imagery from contemporary movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953).’

W&W have problems with dates in general, for example in their chapter on ESP writing that ‘In the 1960s, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars for psychic research’; the programme in question actually started in 1973. These aren’t isolated slips, but typical of their sloppy research. Still, when you’re dealing with pseudoscience, why bother getting your facts right?

Such a cavalier attitude to the facts hardly gives the reader trust in W&W’s reliability. However, some of their errors are more fundamental to the case they’re attempting to make, calling into question their credibility.

In their chapter on ESP, for example, they make the basic mistake of taking ‘extrasensory’ to mean ‘involving an extra sense’. This leads them to argue that, because a sense necessarily involves a physiological mechanism that links a stimulator in the body to a receptor in the brain, and no such mechanism can be identified for telepathy and the like, then by definition they can’t possibly exist. In fact, the term was coined by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s to mean ‘outside of the senses’, deliberately in order to acknowledge that such abilities don’t seem to depend on any kind of sense in the normally-understood way. W&W build their debunking on an entirely mistaken premise, and thereby mislead the reader unversed in the subject.

Unbelievably, when it comes to laboratory experiments into psi the most recent that W&W discuss are from the early 1980s – making even the first edition of their book nearly 20 years out of date! They trot out the usual debunker’s line that ESP, PK and precognition ‘must remain pseudoscientific concepts until methodological flaws in their studies are eliminated, and repeatable data supporting their existence are obtained.’ And yet, even though this is an updated edition, there’s no mention of research (some of which was published before the original) that does appear to meet those criteria, such as the ‘presponse’ experiments by scientists such as Dick Bierman and Daryl Bem that produced evidence for short-term precognition. Either W&W don’t know about this research, in which case they’ve no business writing this book, or they do and don’t want their readers to know about it because it doesn’t fit their case.

It does, though, tick another of W&W’s warning signs of pseudoscience in action: ‘positive instances are emphasized; negative ones are ignored’. In fact, selective evidence abounds, W&W picking the easiest targets – known hoaxes and flawed studies – and making no mention whatsoever of research that has produced data that’s harder to dismiss. A properly sceptical case should tackle the best evidence, not the worst, and by not doing so W&W again present their readers with an inaccurate, misleading picture.

There’s a similar, quite shameless, selectivity – not to say spin - on the few occasions when they do cite specific studies. For example, while they correctly report that the Hynek Center for UFO Studies found conventional explanations for 92 per cent of the reports it received, they add ‘The balance could not be identified for lack of information’ as if it was the Center’s conclusion rather than their own interpretation.

Similarly, in their chapter on astrology, W&W refer to a study by Michel Gauquelin which found that people are generally bad at evaluating personality assessments based on horoscopes, supporting the view that any perceived accuracy is merely down to misjudgement and wishful thinking. But they make no mention of Gauquelin’s research into the ‘Mars effect’ that – controversially – appeared to bear out some astrological tenets. (Tick: ‘Results that fail to support the hypothesis are discarded’.)
In their zeal, W&W grasp whatever argument comes to hand, seemingly blind to the fact that it sometimes contradicts what they’ve written elsewhere. For example, one of the grounds on which they reject alien abductions is that interstellar travel, requiring as it does faster-than-light travel, is impossible according to the current laws of physics. Yet two pages later they write that it ‘would be a mistake to completely rule out the possibility’ either of ETs visiting Earth or us developing interstellar travel in the future.




With most of their chosen targets, W&W don’t even attempt to take on and deconstruct the arguments of the ‘believers’, dismissing it all from the outset as delusion or fakery, denying that there is anything to study in the first place.

Everything is hung on the hypothetico-deductive (H-D) model, which begins with reliable data on which testable hypotheses can be based. (W&W never use the term, since for them the H-D model is synonymous with science itself, and – as I’ll come to - they don’t want to suggest that there are any other ways of doing science.) However, the limits and philosophical problems of that model - its inapplicability to certain areas of study - are widely recognised within science itself (something you’d never know from reading this book). It’s an important item in the scientific toolkit, but not the only one.

However, W&W apply the model indiscriminately, using it to disqualify the subject under scrutiny before it even makes the starting line. The whole issue of UFOs and abductions, for example, is dismissed as unworthy of study because it’s entirely based on ‘personal anecdotes by untrained observers’. (How could it be otherwise?) Similarly, NDEs are swept away on the logic that since, by definition, they don’t happen under laboratory-controlled conditions all such claims are inadmissible as evidence. (Ditto.)

Where some apparently corroborative evidence does exist it’s summarily dismissed by unsupported assumptions: in those cases in which clinically dead patients seemingly obtained information about what happened around them, ‘It is possible… that the information the patient supplied was obtained by ordinary means, namely through her senses both before and during the procedure.’

It's the kind of logic that makes the job of debunking so much easier, since the debunker doesn’t even have to address the facts (real or alleged) put forward by the other side.

It’s only in the chapter on creationism that W&W put up some hard facts to counter the specific claims of the believers – pointing out the manifest impossibilities in Bible stories such as that of the Flood – rather than dismissing them on technicalities, making it the best-argued in the book. Presumably to avoid appearing anti-religion as such, they limit their target to the beliefs of Biblical literalists (e.g. that God took exactly six 24-hour days to create the world), tolerating what they term ‘gradual creationism’ (‘a tapestry based upon religious faith, but tempered by scientific insights’). I wondered if this chapter was W&W’s real reason for writing the book, because of the political struggle over the teaching of ‘creation science’ in US schools that they inveigh against here, burying it among other ‘pseudosciences’ to make it less obviously their main target.

But W&W don’t only give a distorted view of their chosen pseudosciences, but also present the reader with inaccurate and dubious information about the real thing, too. For example, in their chapter on alternative medicine, in which any apparent successes are, naturally, put down to the placebo effect, they declare authoritatively that such effects are ‘at best small, short-lived, and unreliable’ and that ‘Placebos have NEVER actually “healed” anything’ – which is pure, patent nonsense.

W&W don’t only set themselves up as arbiters of pseudoscience but of science itself, passing off their opinions as if they reflect the unanimous view of the scientific community (and so playing on the very scientific illiteracy they condemn the pseuds for exploiting).

For example, in discussing the weirder aspects of quantum theory, such as the properties of a particle being dependent on how it is observed, they declare that, despite the claims of some, ‘This theory says nothing about the role of human consciousness or mental processes in the physical world.’ Other scientists, of greater stature than W&W, would disagree – the names John A. Wheeler and Sir Roger Penrose spring to mind. True, those views are controversial, but not to acknowledge that they exist at all – within science – is, yet again, giving their readers an inaccurate picture.

Adding to this, but in keeping with W&W’s dumbed-down approach, is a lack of philosophical depth, which is needed when bandying terms like ‘reality’ around. Although they acknowledge in passing that some widely-accepted aspects of real science don’t meet the standards they set out – string theory isn’t open to testing by experiment, for example - they make no attempt to explain why they don’t qualify as pseudoscience. The book misses a discussion of such questions, since they’re bound to occur to many readers.

For W&W, the scientific method - pared down to the H-D model as if that, and that alone, is what science is - offers the only ‘road to reality’, in one of their favourite phrases. Many within academia, including science, disagree, seeing it as only one way of understanding the world. (Given conundrums such as cosmological fine-tuning, and the observer effect in quantum mechanics that W&W refer to, some big names in science even question the assumption that reality can ever be studied entirely objectively - or even that we can be sure it really exists.)


There’s a high-handedness evident from the outset, W&W presenting their way of thinking as the only right way to think, one that the rest of us not only should but must adopt, delivering lofty pronouncements such as ‘it is essential that the general public be sufficiently scientifically literate’, and that believers in pseudoscience ‘invest time that could be more profitably spent expanding their knowledge of reality’. Their big message is that ‘Pseudoscientific beliefs impede progress toward… a reality-based view of the natural world’. No recognition that there limits to science, other ways of understanding reality (if indeed there is such a thing), or that many people just aren’t interested in expanding their knowledge of it.

To drive home how vital it is that we all follow their ‘road to reality’, W&W make wild claims such as ‘the number of people who are able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience is diminishing’ and the ‘increased belief in pseudoscience is a global trend’. Typically, no data is offered for these highly dubious assertions.

All of these criticisms wouldn’t matter so much if this was just a book presenting the ‘anti’ side of the argument, rather than one that purports to teach readers how to discriminate between science real and pseudo. In order to be able to make an informed decision, the reader needs to be properly informed and not, as here, given partial, selective and misleading information.

In the end, this isn’t a book about how to think, but what to think.

W&W end the book with a short discussion of Holocaust denial, as a cautionary tale on how ‘the road to illusion is a slippery and dangerous slope’. Why round off a work on pseudoscience with a digression into pseudohistory? Clearly, it’s to leave the reader with the impression that anybody who has any truck with the beliefs discussed in it are the same as – and as dangerous as - Holocaust deniers. A cheap shot, of which W&W should be ashamed.

To be clear, these criticisms of W&W’s book don’t mean that I ‘believe’ in all the things they debunk, or reject the scientific method. Science is a fabulous tool for understanding the universe we inhabit. Of course there are those who exploit belief in things paranormal (just as there are those who misuse science and medicine), and they need to be challenged. The sceptical position is a valid one, counterbalancing the excesses of the ‘true believers’. It’s just that W&W make such a bad job of it; their case is so flawed that it is, ironically, easy to debunk.

So, to summarise: skimpy research and carelessness with the facts, one-sided presentation of information, misrepresentation of the opposing position, reliance on unsupported statements and dogmatic assertions, selectivity of evidence (especially ignoring contrary data), tendentious arguments… Yep, that’s pseudoscience.

Some of the cartoons are funny, though. -- Clive Prince



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