ASTOP: The Fortean Fallacy

Pseudoscience Fact Sheets. In the late 1980s scientists associated with the Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience (ASTOP) created a collection of fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics. ICSA (then known as American Family Foundation) received permission to distribute these for educational purposes.
New York eccentric Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932) really started something. The obsessive hobby which occupied the last 26 years of his life led to four published books — The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents — which appeared between 1919 and 1932. These books are perfect examples of the classic pseudoscience activity of research by exegesis. Fort haunted the British Museum in London and the New York Public Library, noting any event reported in old magazines and newspapers — the older the better — which in any way seemed “odd.” Fort enjoyed taking several hundred such odd events and using them to prop up a scenario “theory” — the wilder the better. Fort equally enjoyed contradicting himself; instead of riding the hobbyhorse of a single crazy “theory,” like most modern pseudoscientists, Fort offered numerous totally inconsistent ones. For example, in one place he speculates that the earth is relatively stationary in a space that is surrounded by an opaque shell, full of holes (the starts and planets) and with areas which are mushy or jelly-like. Between the shell and the earth are gigantic floating islands of jello, to which stick tons of rubbish — worms, fish, dead birds, bricks, worked stone, worked iron, liquids of various colors, frogs, odd humans like Caspar Hauser — which has somehow blown there or drifted there from other worlds. Fort did not take anything he wrote seriously, and his books are intentionally very funny — a really rare thing since one of the distinctive features of pseudoscience is its total lack of humor, except for unintended humor. On the other hand, Fort, a devout believer in the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, if little else, was quick to point out that in his opinion all the claims, facts, theories and discoveries of science were just as absurd and false as Fort’s own speculations. Fort, who knew nothing whatsoever about science, had not the vaguest idea how scientists confirm or validate an idea. He was not so much a pseudoscientist as he was one who believes, like Hegel and his modern disciple, Feyerabend, that there is no difference between science and pseudoscience; his decades of exegesis were intended to demonstrate mainly that “reality” is ultimately unknowable, and that the smug certainties of science are achieved mainly by sweeping aside and ignoring all the “unpleasant facts” that don’t fit in with scientific dogmas.

As a critic of science, Fort is of no interest whatsoever, because he was totally ignorant of what science is and what scientists do. But his impact on pseudoscience was immense. Fort taught the field of pseudoscience that all you need to write a book is a subscription to some newspapers and good sharp scissors plus a scrapbook to paste it all in. Since newspapers publish vast amounts of “weird” and “strange” reports, one just has to keep clipping until one has enough for a book — of course, one never investigates directly to see whether these reports actually correspond to real events! That would spoil the fun; it would also no longer be pseudoscience.

The two most serious modern Forteans — a Fortean being one who occupies himself clipping weird reports out of old magazines and newspapers, like Fort himself — are Vincent H. Gaddis and William R. Corliss. Gaddis is the unsung inventor of the Bermuda Triangle hoax. Corliss is the creator of a number of vast tomes full of questionable reports on a wide variety of topics, as part of what he calls his “Sourcebook Project.” Both Gaddis and Corliss completely lack the wit and literary elegance that make Fort’s books such fun to read. Many other writers have followed in the footsteps of Fort and Gaddis, particularly, often plagiarizing their books directly. Some modern Forteans include Charles Berlitz, Jacques Bergier, Ivan T. Sanderson, Morris K. Jessup, Robert Charroux, John Wallace Spencer, D. Scott Rogo, Martin Ebon, Frank Edwards, Harold T. Wilkins, and many others.

Such book-producing Forteans should not be confused with members of the Fortean Society, a club founded in 1931 by members of the New York novel-writing profession, including Tiffany Thayer, Alexander Wolcott, Booth Tarkington, and Ben Hecht. The Fortean Society was merely an excuse for buddies to get together, hear exceptionally valueless speeches after a good dinner, and then drink one another under the table.

We might define Forean activity as the collection of magazine and newspaper reports of “odd” or “impossible” phenomena, and the grouping of such phenomena by “type,” followed by the claim to have learned something from reviewing the reports of the phenomena. The “something” generally tends to be an absurd scenario “theory” — that all these missing cats have wandered into the 9th Akasic dimension, that’s why they’re never seen again. Further, these reports are always taken precisely at face value. There is never the slightest attempt at checking or verification. As most are aware, there have been for a number of years some tabloid newspapers and one or two magazines which exist principally to print or reprint Fortean material. Most of the tabloids that sit near drugstore checkout counters are of this kind — BIGFOOT STOLE MY WIFE! TV STARS CURSED BY INDIAN MEDICINE MAN! GHOST OF J.F.K. HAUNTS U.S. AIR FORCE! “MASH” STAR’S EXPERIENCE WITH REINCARNATION! and so on; with the difference that essentially the entire content of such tabloids is literally made up on the spot by the writers sitting at their word processors, which short-cuts the laborious clipping procedure, while insuring that the desired celebrities are mentioned as being involved somehow. A more traditional Fortean publication is the magazine Fate, which has been published since 1948, founded by science fiction magazine editor Raymond A. Palmer.

A fairly large percentage of all pseudoscience books published in this century have had a basically Fortean format. After Fort’s own books, the most successful were Fortean books on “flying saucers” that appeared in the early 1950’s. The success of these books led pseudoscientists to create Fortean books on a vast number of other topics, including mysterious disappearances of ships and aircraft at sea. The classic Fortean book is a collection of ghost stories, “ESP experiences,” recollection of near-death experiences, reports of the Loch Ness Monster, etc., etc., etc.

For more about Charles Fort, see:

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, Martin Gardner, Dover, New York, 1957, Chapter 4.

Acknowledgments

ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (mail@icsamail.com).