REVIEW: Three books on how pseudoscience is actually kinda boring


Seriously, not as exciting as you might think.

I.

A while back I read Faking History: Essays on Aliens, Atlantis, Monsters, and More, by Jason Colavito. It's a rather unusual work, in that it's both scholarly (he includes an exhaustive collection of footnotes and references) and informal (he frequently snarks at the pseudo-historians he's analyzing, which they kind of deserve).

Previously I had read Colavito's excellent essay "Charioteer of the Gods," which I think pretty devastatingly finds the source of ancient astronaut theory in nothing else but the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. In other words, you don't have to be a historian of ancient history, or an archaeologist, or engineer, or physicist, to realize that the Ancient Aliens folks are full of crap. If they're literally getting their ideas from pulp fiction, that's enough to scoff.

Of course, not all of the ancient astronaut theory comes from Lovecraft—just, as Colavito argues, the specific "gods are really aliens, and they meddled with earthly life in the distant past" part, that is, the part that makes them ancient astronauts. Moreover, Lovecraft himself wasn't wholly original in his ideas for weird fiction. He drew on lots of contemporary theories, both scientific and esoteric. Faking History concerns itself primarily with these theories, as well as some cryptozoology. What emerges is a striking picture of the sheer sameness of pseudoarchaeology, pseudohistory, esoterica, and New Age spiritualism.

I had gotten sort of an inkling of this already, both by listening to Coast to Coast AM and reading up on scientific skepticism. I was half prepared to give Coast to Coast the benefit of the doubt, since among other things I'm not a regular listener, but after reading books like Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science and Gregory Reece's UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture I realized that pseudoscientific, crank, and fringe claims really are that repetitive and homogeneous.

II.

Fads and Fallacies was written in 1957 and yet the same stuff still bamboozles people. Gardner lays out the baseless claims of dowsers (who are still active and even getting people killed), young-earth creationists, homeopaths, quack doctors, even the weird woo-ish origins of organic farming in America!

Yes, it sounds a bit strange since the idea of organic farming is quite mainstream nowadays—even skeptics spend most of their effort pointing out that "USDA Organic" is just a marketing label—but organic farming has its roots entangled in typical food woo and even some out and out wacky stuff. You wouldn't know it from Wikipedia, though, whose articles on organic farming I suspect have been judiciously pruned to remove any undesirable quotes.

Gardner considers J. I. Rodale, a leader among the early organic movement and whose company Rodale, Inc. went on to publish many now-prominent magazines and books, including Men's Health and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Gardner writes:
Not only does cooking devitalize food, according to Rodale, but food also loses in health value if it is grown in soil that has been devitalized by chemical fertilizers [...] The soil is like a living organism, Rodale claims, and only animal or vegetable fertilizers preserve its vitality.

[...]

In [his] magazines one may find many advertisements for Sunflower seeds. Rodale regards them as the great "forgotten food," of enormous health value when added to the diet. [p. 224]
Noting that Rodale was a manufacture of electric switches by profession, it becomes clear that, at least in its genesis, organic farming was typical of food-woo: sweeping claims made without evidence, and a fixation on a select few "superfoods." In this case, it was sunflower seeds—which are pretty good for you, and tasty, but not "the great forgotten food," and not superlatively better than other things.

But that's not all! Organic farming can also be traced to so-called bio-dynamic farming, championed by anthroposophist Rudolph Steiner. (Fun fact: Western Washington University's Huxley College of the Environment sponsored a summer field trip that involved learning about bio-dynamic farming... in a rather uncritical way, so I'm told.) Gardner again:
In essence, the anthroposophist's approach to the soil is like their approach to the human body—a variation of homeopathy. (See Steiner's An Outline of Anthroposophical Medical Research, English translation, 1939, for an explanation of how mistletoe, when properly prepared, will cure cancer by absorbing "etheric forces" and strengthening the "astral body.") They believe the soil can be made more "dynamic" by adding to it certain mysterious preparations which, like the medicines of homeopathic "purists," are so diluted that nothing material of the compound remains. [p. 225]
It's classic pseudoscience. They give mysterious answers to mysterious questions; fooling themselves by pointing to the equally mysterious (to the layman) answers of science, they think that "etheric forces" or "astral bodies" are just as useful as "subatomic particles" or "natural selection." And yet, it's form without substance: ask five different metaphysical-esoteric "experts" for a definition of "etheric forces" and you'll get fifteen different answers. (I know; I listen to Coast to Coast AM.) Moreover, these answers will come in one of two forms. They may be simple—so simple, in fact, as to be empty—or they may seem complicated. Yet, following the threads of the "complex" explanation, you'll find yourself tangled in self-referential knots.

III.

Gregory Reece's UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture illuminates this property of pseudoscience quite nicely. Contrary to the title, Reece doesn't limit himself to the "religious" side of the UFO believers. He actually starts with the "serious" UFO investigators, who believe that flying saucers are physical craft with scientifically-explicable parts inside—these investigatory may not even believe that flying saucers are alien craft! Reece calls this section of the movement "nuts and bolts" Ufology. Out of all the UFO true believers they have the most solid ground to stand on. Yes, especially during the Cold War the American and Soviet governments did a lot of secret aerospace research and development. (In fact, they still do, but amateur observers often catch them.) But there's no evidence of super-science like anti-gravity flying saucers. Even less of alien intelligences visiting our world.

This is where nuts-and-bolts guys get tangled up in some strange loops. Reece details the history of saucer stories from before there were even saucers (remember the mystery airships of the Old West?) and demonstrates just how much borrowing went on. Take, for example, (my impression of) the story of the 1947 Roswell incident:
  • Unidentified flying object (read: a saucer-shaped alien spacecraft) crashes into a farmer's field
  • Soon afterward the U.S. Air Force descends on the site, takes all of the material away, and covers the whole thing up, claiming it was just a weather balloon.
  • In fact, the saucer pieces and the bodies of the alien pilots were taken to a secret facility (Area 51) where autopsies were performed and technology reverse-engineered.
  • The U.S. Government has been covering up the existence of UFOs and alien visitations ever since, even in the face of close encounters, cattle mutilations, and even abductions. (Of course, this draws on later reports.)
In fact, the farmer who discovered the crash described the material as pretty obviously weather-balloon type stuff: tin foil, rubber, sticks, paper. Hardly spaceworthy. The rest of the pop-culture details aren't, according to Reece, even original to the Roswell incident! In fact, the basic outline — crash landing — bodies recovered — strange artifacts proving their alien origin — may date back to before the 20th century, with the (very probably hoaxed) newspaper story of an airship crash in Aurora, Texas. There, the inhabitant of the ship was described as being very much human in appearance, though with strange clothing and indecipherable writings that suggested his Martian provenance. (Remember that at this time Mars was thought to be inhabited, or at least habitable.)

Aztec, New Mexico was the site of another purported saucer crash in 1949 (reported in 1950). This time the pilots were dark-skinned and very small, and assumed to have come from Venus. (Remember that at this time nobody knew that Venus' cloud cover was sulfuric acid, and many people speculated that it was just kind of hot and humid.) Similar details emerge: strange hieroglyphs, for example. That turned out to be a hoax, but it doesn't stop the town of Aztec from holding a UFO symposium every year.

Now, the Roswell incident stayed pretty mundane for a couple decades afterward. At the time, though people were getting excited about UFOs, the extraterrestrial hypothesis was still fringe. Secret Soviet or American programs were the go-to explanation for weird things in the sky. In those ensuing decades, though, there was a great burgeoning of pulp science fiction, the Space Race, and so on. That pop culture swell tipped things in favor of alien spaceships, even as humanity probed ever further past earth's atmosphere. As quasi-timeless as pseudoscience and woo are, never overlook the pop-culture drivers.

But at this point the nuts-and-bolts guys had a serious problem. UFO sightings had grown ever more frequent; if they were truly strange and wonderful, not just unidentified-by-the-spotter but never-before-seen, then why wasn't the government doing much about it? Oh sure, there was Project Blue Book, but overall there was a lot of seeming denial that UFOs were worth investigating. And this is when the theory of the UFO Coverup started to take place. Even the most grounded UFO investigators fell prey to magical thinking, in the form of a vast governmental-and-possible-aliens-too conspiracy. Their first sin of irrationality, though, was probably some form of privileging the hypothesis: when presented with a UFO sighting ("Look! Up in the sky! It's a... I-don't-know-what!") their minds jump immediately to alien-spaceship or secret-government-spaceplane and then retroactively fit or fabricate evidence to that hypothesis. This especially is how you get such fabulous hypnotic-regression testimonies, with more and more titillating details blooming after each session.

IV.

After the nuts-and-bolts UFO investigators, Reece dives into the real high strangeness. The other part of UFO culture, which has basically eclipsed the nuts-and-bolts people at this point, is the UFO religion wing: these people borrow liberally from earlier spiritual speculation and, to put it snarkily, think that Jesus was a crystal space alien from the fourteenth dimension.

Weird, but oh so typical.
But even this is boring! There hasn't really been a novel development in UFO cults since before there were UFOs. All the stuff about "higher consciousness beings" and even spirit visitors from Mars and Venus were talked about by the Theosophists of the turn of the 20th century. And Colavito also shows pretty convincingly that the "ancient aliens" subgenre of UFO religion is a blatant rip-off of Lovecraft's work. Not that there aren't people who believe (or at least want to make money off making people believe) that Lovecraft was actually channeling spirits or something when he wrote about the Necronomicon.

Things really don't change that much. To the extent that anyone tries to claim it's scientific, or tries to invoke "quantum" as a mechanism for explanation, they will fail. If it's truly scientific, the field will exhibit progress, and you can verify for yourself that not even purported "new revelations" are in fact very new. Epistemological wheel-spinning is another sign of a "way of knowing" that's actually a dead end.

Then there's the curious, on further reflection unexpected, fact that so many of these "founders" of pseudoscience are out to make money. That they are knowingly playing a confidence game is a bit harder to determine, but it's worth mentioning the "economic argument" that these things are pseudoscience:

Source: xkcd.
Of course, many believers will cite the homogeneity of claims to mean "well, that means there's a kernel of truth somewhere!" This isn't any less banal and wrong than "all religions are just climbing the same mountain, but from different directions." No amount of wishful thinking and pattern-matching will make it true.

What the homogenity—and this is homogeneity that's pretty time-and-technology-independent, mind—really shows, I think, is that the root of pseudoscientific beliefs of this kind is inside human psychology, and far deeper than anything generated by our modern condition. It's interesting to wonder what will happen to these beliefs as time goes on; if they won't go away, will their longevity cause them to congeal into an institution? True religions in their own right?

How weird would it be, if at least a few of Earth's major religions were UFO cults in a thousand years and then we actually contacted intelligent extraterrestrial life? Talk about bewilderment!

But it wouldn't make the UFO bits any less boring.