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Fads and Fallacies
In The Name of Science
By Martin Gardner
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1957 Martin Gardner
All rights reserved.
In the Name of Science
SINCE THE BOMB exploded over Hiroshima, the prestige of science in the United States has mushroomed like an atomic cloud. In schools and colleges, more students than ever before are choosing some branch of science for their careers. Military budgets earmarked for scientific research have never been so fantastically huge. Books and magazines devoted to science are coming off the presses in greater numbers than at any previous time in history. Even in the realm of escape literature, science fiction threatens seriously to replace the detective story.
One curious consequence of the current boom in science is the rise of the promoter of new and strange "scientific" theories. He is riding into prominence, so to speak, on the coat-tails of reputable investigators. The scientists themselves, of course, pay very little attention to him. They are too busy with more important matters. But the less informed general public, hungry for sensational discoveries and quick panaceas, often provides him with a noisy and entusiastic following.
In 1951, tens of thousands of mentally ill people throughout the country entered "dianetic reveries" in which they moved back along their "time track" and tried to recall unpleasant experiences they had when they were embryos. Thousands of more sophisticated neurotics, who regard dianetics as the invention of a mountebank, are now sitting in "orgone boxes" to raise their body's charge of "orgone energy." Untold numbers of middleaged housewives are preparing to live to the age of 100 by a diet rich in yoghurt, wheatgerm, and blackstrap-molasses.
Not only in the fields of mental and physical health is the spurious scientist flourishing. A primitive interpretation of Old Testament miracle tales, which one thought went out of fashion with the passing of William Jennings Bryan, has just received a powerful shot in the arm. Has not the eminent "astrophysicist," Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky, established the fact that the earth stopped rotating precisely at the moment Joshua commanded the sun and moon to stand still? For fifty years, geologists and physicists have been combining forces to perfect complex, delicate instruments for exploring underground structures. They've been wasting their time according to Kenneth Roberts, the well-known novelist. All you need is a forked twig, and he has written a persuasive and belligerent book to prove it.
Since flying saucers were first reported in 1947, countless individuals have been convinced that the earth is under observation by visitors from another planet. Admirers of Frank Scully's Behind the Flying Saucers suspect that the mysterious disks are piloted by inhabitants of Venus who are exact duplicates of earthlings except they are three feet tall. A more recent study by Gerald Heard makes out an even stronger case for believing the saucers are controlled by intelligent bees from Mars.
In the twenties, newspapers provided a major publicity outlet for the speculations of eccentric scholars. Every Sunday, Hearst's American Weekly disclosed with lurid pictures some outlandish piece of scientific moonshine. The pages of the daily press were spotted with such stories as unconfirmed reports of enormous sea serpents, frogs found alive in the cornerstones of ancient buildings, or men who could hear radio broadcasts through gold inlays in their teeth. But gradually, over the next two decades, an unwritten code of science ethics developed in the profession of news journalism. Wire services hired competent science writers. Leading metropolitan dailies acquired trained science editors. The American Medical Association stepped up its campaign against press publicity for medical quackery, and disciplined members who released accounts of research that had not been adequately checked by colleagues. Today, science reporting in the American press is freer of humbug and misinformation than ever before in history.
To a large extent, the magazine and book publishing firms shared in the forging of this voluntary code. Unfortunately, at the turn of the half-century they began to backslide. Astounding Science Fiction, until recently the best of the science fantasy magazines, was the first to inform the public of the great "Dianetic Revolution" in psychiatry. True boosted its circulation by breaking the news that flying saucers came from another planet. Harper's published the first article in praise of Velikovsky's remarkable discoveries, and similar pieces quickly followed in Collier's and Reader's Digest. The Saturday Evening Post and Look gave widespread publicity to Gayelord Hauser's blackstrap-molasses cult during the same month that the Pure Food and Drug Administration seized copies of his best-seller, Look Younger, Live Longer. The government charged that displays of the book next to jars of blackstrap constituted, because of the book's sensational claims, a "mislabeling" of the product.
Many leading book publishers have had no better record. It is true that L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics was too weird a manuscript to interest the larger houses, but Velikovsky's equally preposterous work found two highly reputable publishers. Kenneth Roberts' book on the art of finding water with a dowsing rod, Scully's saucer book, and Heard's even more fantastic study also appeared under the imprints of major houses.
When book editors and publishers are questioned about all this, they have a ready answer. It is a free country, they point out. If the public is willing to buy a certain type of book in great quantities, do they not, as public servants, have every right—perhaps even the obligation—to satisfy such a demand?
No one with any respect for independent thinking would propose that a publishing house or magazine be compelled, by any type of government action, to publish only material sanctioned by a board of competent scientists. That, however, is not the issue. The question is whether the voluntary code of ethics, so painstakingly built up during the past two decades, is worth preserving. Velikovsky's book, for example, was widely advertised as a revolutionary astronomical discovery. The publisher, of course, had every legal right to publish such a book. Likewise, the scientists who threatened to boycott the firm's textbooks unless it dropped Velikovsky from its list, were exercising their democratic privilege of organized protest. The issue is not a legal one, or even a political one. It is a question of individual responsibility.
Perhaps we are making a mountain out of a molehill. It is all very amusing, one might say, to titillate public fancy with books about bee people from Mars. The scientists are not fooled, nor are readers who are scientifically informed. If the public wants to shell out cash for such flummery, what difference does it make? The answer is that it is not at all amusing when people are misled by scientific claptrap. Thousands of neurotics desperately in need of trained psychiatric care are seriously retarding their therapy by dalliance with crank cults. Already a frightening number of cases have come to light of suicides and mental crack-ups among patients undergoing these dubious cures. No reputable publisher would think of releasing a book describing a treatment for cancer if it were written by a doctor universally considered a quack by his peers. Yet the difference between such a book and Dianetics is not very great.
What about the long-run effects of non-medical books like [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and the treatises on flying saucers? It is hard to see how the effects can be anything but harmful. Who can say how many orthodox Christians and Jews read Worlds in Collision and drifted back into a cruder Biblicism because they were told that science had reaffirmed the Old Testament miracles? Mencken once wrote that if you heave an egg out of a Pullman car window anywhere in the United States you are likely to hit a fundamentalist. That was twenty-five years ago, and times have changed, but it is easy to forget how far from won is the battle against religious superstition. It is easy to forget that thousands of high school teachers of biology, in many of our southern states, are still afraid to teach the theory of evolution for fear of losing their jobs. There is no question but that informed and enlightened Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, suffered a severe body blow when Velikovsky's book was enthusiastically hailed by the late Fulton Oursler (in Reader's Digest) as scientific confirmation of the most deplorable type of Bible interpretation.
Flying saucers? I have heard many readers of the saucer books upbraid the government in no uncertain terms for its stubborn refusal to release the "truth" about the elusive platters. The administration's "hush hush policy" is angrily cited as proof that our military and political leaders have lost all faith in the wisdom of the American people.
An even more regrettable effect produced by the publication of scientific rubbish is the confusion they sow in the minds of gullible readers about what is and what isn't scientific knowledge. And the more the public is confused, the easier it falls prey to doctrines of pseudo-science which may at some future date receive the backing of politically powerful groups. As we shall see in later chapters, a renaissance of German quasi-science paralleled the rise of Hitler. If the German people had been better trained to distinguish good from bad science, would they have swallowed so easily the insane racial theories of the Nazi anthropologists?
In the last analysis, the best means of combating the spread of pseudo-science is an enlightened public, able to distinguish the work of a reputable investigator from the work of the incompetent and self-deluded. This is not as hard to do as one might think. Of course, there always will be borderline cases hard to classify, but the fact that black shades into white through many shades of gray does not mean that the distinction between black and white is difficult.
Actually, two different "continuums" are involved. One is a scale of the degree to which a scientific theory is confirmed by evidence. At one end of this scale are theories almost certainly false, such as the dianetic view that a one-day-old embryo can make sound recordings of its mother's conversation. Toward the middle of the scale are theories advanced as working hypotheses, but highly debatable because of the lack of sufficient data—for example, the theory that the universe is expanding. Finally, at the other extreme of the scale, are theories almost certainly true, such as the belief that the earth is round or that men and beasts are distant cousins. The problem of determining the degree to which a theory is confirmed is extremely difficult and technical, and, as a matter of fact, there are no known methods for giving precise "probability values" to hypotheses. This problem, however, need not trouble us. We shall be concerned, except for a few cases, only with theories so close to "almost certainly false" that there is no reasonable doubt about their worthlessness.
The second continuum is the scale of scientific competence. It also has its extremes—ranging from obviously admirable scientists, to men of equally obvious incompetence. That there are individuals of debatable status—men whose theories are on the borderline of sanity, men competent in one field and not in others, men competent at one period of life and not at others, and so on—all this ought not to blind us to the obvious fact that there is a type of self-styled scientist who can legitimately be called a crank. It is not the novelty of his views or the neurotic motivations behind his work that provide the grounds for calling him this. The grounds are the technical criteria by which theories are evaluated. If a man persists in advancing views that are contradicted by all available evidence, and which offer no reasonable grounds for serious consideration, he will rightfully be dubbed a crank by his colleagues.
Cranks vary widely in both knowledge and intelligence. Some are stupid, ignorant, almost illiterate men who confine their activities to sending "crank letters" to prominent scientists. Some produce crudely written pamphlets, usually published by the author himself, with long titles, and pictures of the author on the cover. Still others are brilliant and well-educated, often with an excellent understanding of the branch of science in which they are speculating. Their books can be highly deceptive imitations of the genuine article—well—written and impressively learned. In spite of these wide variations, however, most pseudo-scientists have a number of characteristics in common.
First and most important of these traits is that cranks work in almost total isolation from their colleagues. Not isolation in the geographical sense, but in the sense of having no fruitful contacts with fellow researchers. In the Renaissance, this isolation was not necessarily a sign of the crank. Science was poorly organized. There were no journals or societies. Communication among workers in a field was often very difficult. Moreover, there frequently were enormous social pressures operating against such communication. In the classic case of Galileo, the Inquisition forced him into isolation because the Church felt his views were undermining religious faith. Even as late as Darwin's time, the pressure of religious conservatism was so great that Darwin and a handful of admirers stood almost alone against the opinions of more respectable biologists.
Today, these social conditions no longer obtain. The battle of science to free itself from religious control has been almost completely won. Church groups still oppose certain doctrines in biology and psychology, but even this opposition no longer dominates scientific bodies or journals. Efficient networks of communication within each science have been established. A vast cooperative process of testing new theories is constantly going on—a process amazingly free (except, of course, in totalitarian nations) from control by a higher "orthodoxy." In this modern framework, in which scientific progress has become dependent on the constant give and take of data, it is impossible for a working scientist to be isolated.
The modern crank insists that his isolation is not desired on his part. It is due, he claims, to the prejudice of established scientific groups against new ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. Scientific journals today are filled with bizarre theories. Often the quickest road to fame is to overturn a firmly-held belief. Einstein's work on relativity is the outstanding example. Although it met with considerable opposition at first, it was on the whole an intelligent opposition. With few exceptions, none of Einstein's reputable opponents dismissed him as a crackpot. They could not so dismiss him because for years he contributed brilliant articles to the journals and had won wide recognition as a theoretical physicist. In a surprisingly short time, his relativity theories won almost universal acceptance, and one of the greatest revolutions in the history of science quietly took place.
It would be foolish, of course, to deny that history contains many sad examples of novel scientific views which did not receive an unbiased hearing, and which later proved to be true. The pseudo-scientist never tires reminding his readers of these cases. The opposition of traditional psychology to the study of hypnotic phenomena (accentuated by the fact that Mesmer was both a crank and a charlatan) is an outstanding instance. In the field of medicine, the germ theory of Pasteur, the use of anesthetics, and Dr. Semmelweiss' insistence that doctors sterilize their hands before attending childbirth are other well known examples of theories which met with strong professional prejudice.
Excerpted from Fads and Fallacies by Martin Gardner. Copyright © 1957 Martin Gardner. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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