Charles Fort's Paranormal Critique of Science
Charle's Fort's Critique of Science
I am currently making my way through an odd but fascinating little book written by 20th century philosopher Charles Fort.
I mean to use the info in this and Fort’s other two works in the bibliography of a book I myself am working on about UFO experiences and epistemology (the philosophy of how we know stuff)—but the reading part of my project is turning out to be a lot more fun than I expected.
Fort’s treatise New Lands starts out with a seemingly endless list of examples of various faulty predictions made by famous astronomers, along with several incidents of ‘discovery’ that were nothing of the kind.
In each case, a specific astronomer makes some kind of prediction—let’s say about the return of a comet. (Fort lists tons of these.)
The comet does not show up on cue, not that year or the next. The reason for this error is then explained at length by the scientist who made the prediction, and more math is done, until the next wrong prediction, at which time the whole routine is repeated.
In the case of bogus astronomical discovery, Fort lists half a dozen similar examples of scientists who were credited with ‘discovering’ a specific heavenly body even though these same scientists either 1) couldn’t find that heavenly body, 2) misidentified it when they did find it, or 3) didn’t notice it even though they were looking right at it, or 4) didn’t know what such a body even was at the time they were mucking about.
The credit for discovery came later, alongside a long-winded, often effusively praising explanation of why the awkward scientific exploit (which wasn’t discovery while it was in progress) in retrospect should be considered to be an actual and of course important discovery.
Fort, who was no fan of science and spent much of his life studiously documenting its many failures and inanities, is also a really funny guy once you get used to his weird, slightly stuffy prose. After documenting pages and pages of footnoted examples of this kind of bumbling research, he remarks:
“I don’t know what the mind of an astronomer looks like—but I think of a fizzle with excuses revolving around it.”
Science Is Not a Truth Factory
Most people who are not scientists imagine that science is this pristine, true formula that, once applied correctly, yields nothing but good authoritative information about the world we live in, and lots of it.
In fact, science of any kind is a messy business, full of failures and fudging and dumb theories that turn out to even dumber than they sounded when they were first floated. (Google ‘phlogiston’ if you don’t believe me.)
Research is difficult and highly political to boot. Experiments are challenging to design and harder to replicate. Even when you are able to design a good experiment and someone else does replicate your results, you then come to the problem of interpretation, and it’s no small problem either.
One recent study revealed that an alarmingly large number of research projects were summarized in a way that completely misrepresented the experimental data and presented a conclusion opposite the one indicated by the research.
Worse still, some contemporary math geeks make a pretty good case that statistical analysis of scientific data (the final step that makes an experimental result ‘significant’ or the product of chance) is itself statistically more likely to produce a wrong result than an accurate one.
Is your head spinning yet?
The problem is that math is absolute, perfect, and lots of fun (for a certain sort of person) but the world is messy, surprising, and frequently uncooperative. Math takes place ‘inside’ the head, between a human being’s ears, but the world (supposedly) takes place ‘out there’, where stuff and matter is located.
Matching the math in one’s scientific head to the chaos in the world outside of it is NOT as straightforward a task as most laymen assume it is. This is not to say that the task is futile or worthless, but only that the noble attempt (which we call ‘science’) doesn’t produce pristine nuggets of pure truth in the same reliable way that Hershey manufactures chocolate bars.
Story As Scientific Duct Tape
In each of these Fortean jabs at astronomy, what happens is that some human being calling himself an astronomer engages in some methodology—usually involving mathematics—that at some point gives him the confidence to make a definitive statement about the world. Then the world makes a monkey out of him by proving him wrong. Then he redeems himself by placing his original factoid into the context of a story.
As it happens, story and science have a long-running dysfunctional relationship.
Simple observation (thanks, science!) tells us that science depends on story to keep itself patched together and looking presentable—kind of the same way important men depend on their wives to clean their suits, pick out their ties, shine their shoes, and wash their underwear.
The problem is, story is more than that. Story was not put on earth just to bleach the stains out of Science’s skivvies, thank you very much—though she might willingly do that for Science if Science didn’t take her for granted and run her down in public all the time when they’re out together with Science’s snooty self-important friends.
Or, Story might just tell Science to stuff it. It’s hard to say at this point.
The dysfunctional relationship between Story and Science got its start during the Age of Enlightenment and had more than a few good side effects initially. During in the 17th and 18th centuries the Catholic Church (which was also the government in most countries, or was at least inextricably tied to the government), was using Story to mash people into little piles of guilty subservient goo.
Along comes Science and says, “See here now you big bully—We can think for ourselves. We don’t need you at all. Piss off and take your big bad-tempered God along with you.”
Then the Ego emerged into the light of shining, transcendent Reason, ushering in a New Age.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Now Science behaves as if Story barely exists, all the while running her ragged just to maintain his public pretense of infallibility.
Science & the Paranormal
Charles Fort was of the opinion that it’s hard if not impossible to make an authoritative statement about anything, because everything is in a state of flux—every single thing is always on its way to becoming some other thing. The nature of the universe is change, as in:
Don’t take it serious. It’s too mysterious.
He once famously quipped:
“I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.”
When people discuss paranormal experiences, they almost always fall into trying to prove them scientifically, and failing that, they appeal to religion or philosophy for authority. No one thinks of Story, because story has been banished to the kitchen of human thought.
Girls tell stories.
Men speak authoritatively as scientists, priests, sages, or experts.
If you think I’ve overstating this, take a look at the English Department of any major university, count up the boys and girls, and then compare that count with the numbers in the science and philosophy departments.
Religion is not different: Much has been persuasively written on the patriarchal nature of the major religious traditions.
My point is not that knowledge is gendered but that authoritative ways of looking at the world are also used to divide and separate bodies. Authorities not only tend to conceal their own errors in order to maintain their authority, they also conceal valuable information contained in the experiential language of Story—the helpmate without whom they look darned foolish.
What if the main value of paranormal experiences is in the nature of the experience itself? In the story?
Experience is what it is, or what we say it is, if we are able to say. At the point that experience takes form as structured language, it becomes Story.
Ours is the only culture in the history of humankind that does not see the transformation of experience into story as essential and worthy of deep respect, preceding and guiding all other kinds of knowledge.
In most cultures, traditions of Story ground that culture in the created world and orient each person in it to matter in a way that is functional and correct. Such cultures can stay stable over thousands of years.
What is our biggest cultural problem today? Arguably it is ungrounded, runaway change.
Isn’t it ironic? By nailing knowledge to the wall for sake of creating toasters and security and absolutes, we are swamped with unwanted change, swamped with defunct toasters, swamped with swamp gas and weird tales and things seen in the skies.
I’m not saying Science is bad. I’m not saying Science has given us nothing. I’m not saying I want to see Creationism in schools or that global warming is Al Gore-generated commie propaganda. I’m not saying any of those things.
I’m just saying.
Tell the stories. Tell them well. To thine own self be true.
The world will sort out the rest.