Pseudoscience

Tagged: Theme

Pseudosciences are here defined as belief systems which, though adopting a scientific or quasiscientific terminology, are generally regarded as erroneous or unproven by the orthodox scientific community; frequently they not merely disagree with, or are improbable adjuncts to, accepted science but violate its fundamental tenets; several relevant figures and ideas have elsewhere been sorted under the "techno-occultism" rubric, in terms consistent with their presentation in this entry. They are not to be confused with the Imaginary Sciences, which are literary conventions, although the borderline can be blurred, especially with pseudo-technologies such as Antigravity devices.

The adherents of many of the pseudosciences often display an almost religious fervour – indeed, some pseudoscientific schools, notably Scientology (which is registered as a Church), use terminology that is consciously more religious than scientific. A further aspect is that creators of and believers in pseudoscientific cults often interpret the scientific establishment's indifference or contempt in terms of jealousy or even as a self-interested conspiracy designed to conceal the Truth. The type-example of this occurs in ufology (see UFOs), where scientists, politicians, the military, the CIA (especially) and even the presumed Alien crews have been frequently accused of mounting cover-ups of global proportions. (John A Keel has used the lack of good evidence of alien visitors as an indication that such alien visitors do indeed exist: who else would be able to mount such an effective cover-up?) Martin Gardner has documented such Paranoias in his classic study of pseudoscientific cults, In the Name of Science (1952; rev vt Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science 1957), and the cultic aspect of pseudoscientific belief systems is noted even in the titles of two further surveys of the field: Cults of Unreason (1973) by Dr Christopher Evans, which is moderately sympathetic, and The New Apocrypha (1973) by John T Sladek, which is very comprehensive and occasionally strident. Other works of note include: The Natural History of Nonsense (1947) by Bergen Evans, which concentrates on biological/zoological fallacies; Can You Speak Venusian?: A Guide to the Independent Thinkers (1972; rev 1976), by Patrick Moore, which is an idiosyncratic personal survey; Science: Good, Bad and Bogus (coll 1981) by Gardner; Science and the Paranormal (anth 1981) edited by G Abell and B Singer; Facts and Fallacies: A Book of Definitive Mistakes and Misguided Predictions (1981) by Chris Morgan and David Langford; A Directory of Discarded Ideas (1981) by John Grant; and Yes, We Have No Neutrons: An Eye-Opening Tour through the Twists and Turns of Bad Science (1997) by A K Dewdney. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A Critical Examination of the Evidence (1987) by T Hines. A Dictionary of Common Fallacies (1978; rev and exp 1980 2vols) by Philip Ward contains a great deal of scattered information on the pseudosciences. The best journal on the topic is probably The Skeptical Inquirer, published from Buffalo, New York, by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

Few people could read any of these books without finding one or other of their own pet beliefs being dismissed as nonsense; Gardner, for example, has many harsh words about osteopathy; Sladek is not gentle with Teilhard de Chardin's theories of Evolution or Marshall McLuhan's ideas about the Sociology of the Media Landscape; Dewdney dismisses the feasibility (much cherished in sf circles) of SETI. Grant, contrariwise, has been attacked for declining to dismiss some pseudosciences as necessarily absurd rather than just exceptionally unlikely. Such reactions point up the difficulty of defining the topic with any precision, and also indicate that the authors of these books may have prejudices of their own.

There has always been a close and rather embarrassing link between the pseudosciences and sf. Some commentators have suggested that, at its lowest level, sf appeals to a childishness in readers, an unwillingness to get to grips with the real world – qualities which could equally be ascribed to devotees of various of the pseudosciences. When Gardner wrote in the mid-1950s that "the average fan may very well be a chap in his teens, with a smattering of scientific knowledge culled mostly from science fiction, enormously gullible, with a strong bent towards occultism, no understanding of scientific method, and a basic insecurity for which he compensates by fantasies of scientific power" he was describing not pseudoscience believers but sf fans; and in part he had a point, given that his context was a discussion of John W Campbell Jr's editorials puffing Psionics. Other aspects of mid-1950s magazine sf, notably its tales of Paranoia, its Superman fantasies and its obsession with ESP and Psi Powers, were not inconsistent with Gardner's caricature.

Pseudoscientific ideas have a rather different spectrum in sf than outside it. For example, pseudo-medicine is probably the richest (pun intended) area of pseudoscience, being the region that attracts the most frauds as opposed to sincere theoreticians, yet pseudo-medicine is rarely encountered in sf. An early example is A E van Vogt's flirtation in Siege of the Unseen (October-November 1946 Astounding as "The Chronicler"; 1959) with the notorious eye exercises devised by William Bates (1860-1931) as a supposed panacea for eyesight problems; in real life Aldous Huxley was a strong supported of the "Bates method". Since about the mid-1970s, when ideas of Mind/Body/Spirit became fashionable, the ability of characters to heal themselves has, in sf, subtly shifted out of the more general category of Psi Powers to become regarded as a reasonable consequence of a general enhancement of the mind; such an attitude is found in David Zindell's Neverness (1988), among very many others. Trepanation – drilling a hole through the skull in the pineal region in order to improve general and particularly intellectual health, promoted from 1965 by the Dutch theoretician Bart Huges – makes a brief appearance in David Cronenberg's film Scanners (1981). But such examples are trivial in comparison with the huge diversity of pseudo-medical ideas found outside fiction. One sf idea that has affected pseudo-medicine was Lytton's vril, described in The Coming Race (1871); in the 1920s the US businessman Robert Nelson marketed his cure-all, Vrilium, which – unlike another product named for vril, Bovril – was fortunately not recommended for oral consumption: it proved to be rat Poison. At a more fundamental level, one might make a case that sf has contributed more to the pseudosciences than they have contributed to sf.

Psychiatry – more specifically psychoanalysis – has provided sf and fantasy authors with better pickings. Some critics would dismiss the theories of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) as largely if not entirely pseudoscientific; and the same can be said with greater assuredness of some of the later ideas of Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), which drew also upon science-fictional notions. Reich came to believe that he was a focus of a Space-Opera-style cosmic battle between friendly and hostile UFOs, powered by the "orgone drive". He assisted the Forces of Good and defended himself against the Forces of Evil using one of his own inventions, the cloudbuster, which dispersed "destructive orgone energy". Of psychological interest was the Christos Experiment carried out by occasional sf writer G M Glaskin and others in the 1970s, which suggested that the human mind, in something akin to a dream state, was capable of exploring past and future incarnations (see Reincarnation). Sf has also produced its own psychiatric ideas, notably those associated with Dianetics and Scientology. Among the most enthusiastic exploiters of such notions in Genre SF was A E van Vogt, who played a prominent role in the early days of dianetics and was also much influenced by the General Semantics philosophy of Count Alfred Korzybski. In more recent years Colin Wilson, who admires van Vogt greatly, has based a considerable amount of his fiction on unorthodox psychological hypotheses; the most interesting example may be his novella "Timeslip" (in Aries 1, anth 1979, ed John Grant), which mixes the (now rather more reputable) theory of the divided brain with notions of the paranormal and the possibility of humanity developing radically new modes of thinking – a Conceptual Breakthrough in more than one sense of that term.

Perhaps the greatest single source of pseudoscientific ideas in genre sf has been the work produced by Charles Fort in the 1920s and 1930s. Fort himself was not a pseudoscientist per se – he was a chronicler of strange events rather than a theoretician – but he had a habit of scattering wild theories through his writings in the form of humorous asides. These have been rich ground for sf writers in search of story-ideas, but some seem to have taken them with a greater seriousness. The two areas of his theorizing that have most influenced sf are ESP/Psi Powers and the notion that we are being secretly observed, and perhaps controlled, by mysterious intelligences. The latter hypothesis is reflected in many theories at the wilder end of ufology, in the sort of Paranoia demonstrated in the lurid stories of Richard Shaver, in the lasting popularity of H P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos – extensively imitated and developed by others – and, in a roundabout way, in the idea that we have been visited many times in the past by Aliens, who have directed the evolution of our technology (as in the works of Erich von Däniken; sf stories reflecting this last view are discussed also in the entries on Adam and Eve, Origin of Man and Shaggy God Story). It is worth noting here that the notion of some archaic and long-lost race of alien Forerunners having "seeded" all the technologically developed planets of the Galaxy (see also Panspermia) has become something of a Cliché in Space Opera; on occasion, where the setting is the very Far Future, humanity itself – or its AI emissaries – has been the "seeding" race. The Cliché is interestingly deployed in, for example, John Brunner's A Maze of Stars (1991).

One of the most influential pseudoscientists of the latter half of this century has been Immanuel Velikovsky. He first put forward his theories in Worlds in Collision (1950), a book that came to prominence largely thanks to the misguided overreaction to it of orthodox scientists. In his first few books Velikovsky examined countless legends of catastrophe from the Bible and Mythology, and claimed these were explicable in terms of profound cosmic disturbances. (In several books in the 1960s W Raymond Drake repeated the exercise, this time coming to the "inescapable" conclusion that the disasters could be explained only in terms of warring Alien races – the "Gods".) Most notable was Velikovsky's idea that the planet Venus is recent, having been spat out of Jupiter during biblical times and swooping repeatedly near to the Earth before settling in its current orbit; these close encounters naturally caused great upheavals on Earth. In the early 1980s there was an outburst of what can be termed "neo-Velikovskianism", typified by Peter Warlow's The Reversing Earth (1982); such revisions of the core theories, being considerably more scientifically literate than the original, proved harder to refute and, because this time few scientists bothered to make the public attempt to do so, were perhaps more influential on the scientifically ignorant intelligentsia. A number of sf novels have been directly affected by the original ideas of Velikovsky (see his entry for examples) or the later revisions; the most notable is The HAB Theory (1976) by Allan W Eckert. A good Parody of Velikovskianism is Judgement of Jupiter (1980) by John T Sladek writing as Richard A Tilms.

A less well known catastrophe theory was produced in 1886 by the US Quaker scientist Isaac Newton Vail. This was that all planets go through a phase or phases of having rings of ice like those currently observable around the Gas Giants. Natural instabilities in Earth's primordial rings caused them eventually to crash down towards the surface, creating a hugely thick cloud canopy in the upper atmosphere. When this canopy in turn collapsed, there was of course the Flood. A science-fictional exploration of this is Piers Anthony's Post-Holocaust novel Rings of Ice (1974). Another historically important theory of catastrophe was the World (or Cosmic) Ice Theory of Hans Hörbiger, devoutly espoused by the Nazis in the years leading up to World War Two; according to Nazi folklore, various "Jew scientists" like Albert Einstein fled Germany merely because they could not face the public demolition of their life's work in the light of Hörbiger's discovered Truth. The theory seems to have been regarded by even the most sensationalist of pulp writers as too silly to be exploitable, but as late as 1953 the Hörbiger Institute was using it to "prove" that the Moon's surface was covered in a deep layer of solid ice.

It is not only in Genre SF that we find pseudoscientific theories. Many eccentricities relating to Spiritualism and astral bodies (see Eschatology), to Immortality and Reincarnation were commonplace in late-nineteenth-century sf, and are still occasionally found today. Theories concerning race (see Politics), usually implying black or Native American inferiority, were depressingly common in Lost-World stories and elsewhere (but at least theories were called on to support such claims of racial inferiority: the inferiority of Women in SF was usually just taken for granted), as were ideas about the lost continents Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu, and the hidden kingdoms inside the Hollow Earth. For some decades after the Darwinian controversy, alternative theories of Evolution were popular in sf, and the Lamarckian variant (founded on the notion that characteristics acquired during an individual's lifetime may be passed on to its offspring) proved especially fruitful for early writers; even today, Lamarckian ideas turn up more frequently than most sf writers would care to admit, as evolutionary ideas are misapplied to fictional Alien species – although it might be claimed that evolutionary mechanisms may be different in distinct biologies. (Very common, of course, is the perfectly justifiable application of Lamarckian assumptions to the evolution of machine Intelligence.) Pseudoscientific theories of Devolution and racial degeneracy appear in much early sf, including pulp sf at least up to the 1930s, John Taine being a frequent culprit. Other Soft Sciences have produced their own rashes of pseudoscientific ideas, although the defining line between science and pseudoscience can in these areas be especially hard to draw, since the empirical testing of, say, a sociological hypothesis may require decades of patient observation. This is particularly true of Futures Studies, which is often decried as being a pseudoscience in toto.

None of the predictive pseudosciences have been of much importance in sf, although they are often enough derided in stories whose own purportedly scientific underpinning is at least as dubious: we scorn numerology to pass the time before making a Hyperspace jump. Astrology (further discussed under Astronomy) plays a part in several books, examples being Macroscope (1969) by Piers Anthony and The Astrologer (1972) by John Cameron. Numerology is rare; its wilder eccentricities are parodied in Martin Gardner's The Numerology of Dr Matrix (coll 1967; exp vt The Incredible Dr Matrix 1976; exp vt The Magic Numbers of Dr Matrix 1985). An example of a numerology story is "Six Cubed Plus One" by John Rankine (Douglas R Mason). From about the mid-1980s, though, the Tarot became popular in stories on the borderline of sf and fantasy; examples are Mary Gentle's "The Tarot Dice" (in Scholars and Soldiers, coll 1989), Marsha Norman's interesting mainstream novel The Fortune Teller (1988), and the original anthology Tarot Tales (anth 1989) edited by Rachel Pollack and Caitlín Matthews.

The above is not to imply that some of the theories discussed here (especially those relating to ESP and Psi Powers) have not had their supporters among the reputable scientific ranks. For example, the scientific essayist (and novelist) Arthur Koestler gave support to Jung's idea of synchronicity (that there are acausal principles affecting events, as well as cause-and-effect) in The Roots of Coincidence (1972) and made a case for Lamarckism in The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971), where he also dealt with seriality, a hypothesis, closely akin to synchronicity, developed by the Austrian biologist Paul Kammerer (1880-1926). The mathematical physicist John Taylor for some years gave credence to the supposed fork-bending abilities of Uri Geller (1946-    ), although later he recanted, in Science and the Supernatural (1980). J Allen Hynek, a reputable space scientist, contributed considerably to ufology. The psychologist H J Eysenck gave rather qualified support to the psi powers, as in Explaining the Unexplained: Mysteries of the Paranormal (1982) with Carl Sargent. The neurologist Kit Pedler was another to take the psi powers seriously, as in Mind Over Matter: A Scientist's View of the Paranormal (1981), and many physicists engaged in quantum mechanics in the later twentieth century were open-minded about areas of parapsychology that had been scientifically Taboo a couple of decades previously. Yet the sometimes aggressively illogical, proudly irresponsible outpourings of pseudoscience have on occasion played a considerable part in establishing such Taboos. For example, it was possible in 1966 for Carl Sagan to speculate joyously about the possibility that alien races might indeed have come among us in the remote past, as he did in Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966) with I S Shklovskii, without in any sense damaging his own scientific credibility; ten years later, post-von Däniken, it would have been a brave scientist who would have done the same. Similarly, investigations in the late 1960s and 1970s by the French statistician Michel Gauquelin of possible correlations between planetary positions at individuals' births and their subsequent personalities brought down on him considerable abuse from the scientific establishment – not because of his research per se (interesting but inconclusive) but because he was seen to be working in the taboo area of astrology.

The heyday of pseudoscience fiction was arguably the 1950s. Since the 1960s sf writers within the genre, less so those outside it, have in general been more responsible in their use of the dramatic possibilities of the pseudosciences, at least within Hard SF, which purports to be based in the scientifically plausible. On occasion their rejections of perceived pseudoscience have been overenthusiastic; for example, in his novel Quatermass (1979), Nigel Kneale derides the (today perfectly respectable) notion that megalithic monuments might be prehistoric astronomical observatories on the grounds that, as computers were required to discover all their astronomical alignments, our ancestors would have required computers in order to design them – an argument exactly analogous to the proof that bees can't fly.

Many sf writers, including Isaac Asimov and John Brunner, have actively campaigned against the mindless acceptance of pseudoscientific propaganda and its greedy exploitation by book publishers. Brunner, for example, wrote a scathing article on the latter subject, "Scientific Thought in Fiction and in Fact", for Science Fiction at Large (anth 1976; vt Explorations of the Marvellous 1978) edited by Peter Nicholls, presenting the view that the publishing boom (since somewhat abated) in books on the pseudosciences was leading to a great deal of cynical and fraudulent production of fictions masquerading as fact; sf writers at least maintain their fictions as fictions.

Some sf writers have used the tool of Parody to counter the influence of the pseudoscientists: Sladek has produced not only the Velikovsky parody mentioned above but also Arachne Rising: The Thirteenth Sign of the Zodiac (1977) and The Cosmic Factor (1978), both as by James Vogh, and such short stories as the witty "Stop Evolution in Its Tracks!" (November/December 1988 Interzone #26); David Langford is responsible for An Account of a Meeting with Denizens of Another World, 1871 (1979) as if with his wife's (genuine) ancestor William Robert Loosley; and John Grant for Sex Secrets of Ancient Atlantis (1985). Persistent rumour has, despite his strenuous denials, claimed Patrick Moore as author of Flying Saucer from Mars (1955) by "Cedric Allingham".

During the late 1980s there began a disturbing tendency for pseudoscientists (examples include the Church of Scientology, Uri Geller, US ufologist Stanton Friedman [1934-    ] and Whitley Strieber) to respond to criticism with litigation. Sf writers and readers, angered by the threat to freedom of opinion, were prominent among those supporting the victims of such actions. To extend Brunner's point: the greatest triumph of pseudoscience will come if it is permitted to impose the acceptance of its fictions – or, at best, its hypotheses – as fact. Such attempts continue in the twenty-first century, in particular with the essentially content-free scholium of "Intelligent Design" (a transparent stalking-horse for Religion) being vigorously promoted as a viable alternative to Evolution. The widespread scientific consensus on human civilization's contribution to global warming is both opposed by pseudoscientific arguments and derided as being itself pseudoscience; see Climate Change for some sf examples. [PN/JGr/DRL]

see also: Bermuda Triangle; Flat Earth; Urban Legends.

further reading

What follows is a basic library of books on the pseudosciences. Although a few are concerned with specific topics – e.g., Climate Change, ESP and Psi Powers, UFOs, quackery, Intelligent Design – most offer general coverage.

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