“The only facts in his four books… that I depend on are the page numbers.” – James Randi, Flim-Flam!, Prometheus Books, 1986.
I HAD INTENDED that last month’s issue be the last, at least for a while, on the subject of pseudo-science, but I happened to pick up a book, Cosmic Crystals, in the library and while thumbing through it, I came upon the following sentence about the Great Pyramid of Giza: “It is no accident that the Great Pyramid was built in the exact shape of the Golden Temple of Atlantis.”
It is no wonder rational people despair when faced with pseudo-science. Suppose one were to fall into the trap of trying to prove a negative. What is the negative of that sentence? Does one attempt to show that it is, indeed, an accident, that the similarity is only superficial, or what?
Cosmic Crystals is a very curious book. For about 100 pages the author, Ra Bonewitz, discusses the physical characteristics and molecular makeup of crystals with rare clarity and apparent correctness. Chapter 7 is entitled “Crystal Energies,” and the physical energy of a crystal is discussed, and then he introduces the notion of “spiritual energy” defined by him as “energies that cannot be measured by current methods – such as the energies of thought, will, healing, and the energies that make up the higher spiritual bodies.” From that page onward this book is a hopeless medley of unwarranted assertions as if the author had suddenly lost his mind.
It strikes me that we are very vulnerable to books which contain bald assertions, sincere or not, and those whose arguments are based on outright lies. Scientific journals are perhaps the world’s dullest reading because almost every assertion in a scientific article has a footnote telling where the proof of the assertion may be found or at least what the basis for it is. This makes for slow and tedious reading, and only someone who really needs the information is likely to struggle through an article.
We are also quite accustomed to writing that is almost the exact opposite of the above. While I’m standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, I read the headlines in the Enquirer and the Star and a few like papers. Things like “Woman Impregnated by Ghost,” “Man Raised from the Dead,” and “First Pictures of Heaven Taken from Space Ship” are commonplace. It is hard to imagine anyone who would be mislead by these so-called newspapers. Or consider this headline in a recent National Examiner: “Eerie Premonition Changed Swaggert’s Life.” I thought that what changed Swaggert’s life was the demon that only Oral Roberts could see on Swaggert’s back. (Oral Roberts evidently doesn’t know that “the devil made me do it” is supposed to be a joke.) Or if not the demon, I thought what really changed his life was getting caught.
Until a few years ago, reputable hard-cover publishers exercised a lot of discretion about the books they published. When Velikovsky’s book of extremely dubious scientific theory, Worlds in Collision, was published, the publisher was roundly criticized by scientists and rational people, and it is reputed that there was a lot of in-house objection by the academic editors of Doubleday after the decision to publish it was announced. Now publication of much more doubtful books is so common that no one bothers to object.
In short, though there has always been a fringe of nonsense publishing, we were accustomed to taking seriously and with credence arguments and statements in hard-cover books. Probably our common school background lays the basis for and reinforces this feeling. “It’s right here in the book” is an argument that we find carries a lot of weight even though we should know better. What we now must get accustomed to is that nearly any publishing house will publish anything that they think will make money. Thus books about UFO-kidnappings, crystal healing, channeling, and all kinds of idiocies are now published by prestigious publishing houses. The rules have changed, and we have not mentally caught up with the new rules – we still implicitly and unconsciously trust books.
Perhaps because we are brought up on textbooks, we are accustomed to believing what we read and even to allowing the authors to do a bit of thinking for us. Thus we do not examine many statements as carefully as we should. I believe there are three situations that often occur that we should be alert to:
1. The baseless assertion,
2. The irrelevant implication, and
3. The outright lie.
We all make assertions that are unsupported. If we did not, all of our writing would be like that in scientific journals, and we couldn’t even hire people to read it. But we must remember that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof, and extraordinary assertions require at least some supporting arguments. The book I have cited, Cosmic Crystals, abounds with extraordinary claims in the form of baseless assertions. What is one to make of the following quote: “Crystals are very effective as dowsing instruments. A natural crystal suspended from a chain (silver seems to be the most effective) is very useful as a ‘yes-no’ pendulum. You get not only the usual effect of the pendulum, but also the ‘intention’ response of the crystal. Another useful technique in dowsing is to hold a crystal in the hand opposite the pendulum, and use the pendulum in the normal manner. Persons using this technique have reported as much as a ten-fold increase in the power of the pendulum.” The mind boggles. Ra Bonewitz is so skilled with baseless assertions that it is difficult to know where to attack his statements since virtually every clause assumes something that is extraordinary. And he goes on like this for about 100 pages.
How about this one from Dael Walker, author of The Crystal Book: “Before the end of this century researchers will find and decipher crystals that are storing 200,000 years of knowledge as three-dimensional holograms.”
The principal behind irrelevant implication is to state some supposed or real fact that has no real bearing on the question and instead of lying to you, to allow you to make a fool of yourself with your incorrect inference.
Irrelevant implications are usually easy to spot if you are looking for them, but in casual reading you may not notice them. When you are told that a flight bound for Jamaica from England with 39 people on board disappeared without a trace, you are meant to infer that it is another victim of the Bermuda Triangle. What you are not told is that the flight disappeared on the leg from the Azores to Newfoundland so this irrelevant implication is not obvious because the information is incomplete.
In The Gold of the Gods, Erich von Daniken tells of finding in Ecuador an ancient carving depicting the skeleton of a man. He says that he counted the ribs and found that their number was correct and that their shape was quite accurate. Then he says that we should remember that X-rays were not discovered until 1895. Daniken, a master of irrelevancy, expects you to conclude that visiting cosmonauts had X-ray machines because otherwise no one could know what a skeleton looked like.
In the famous “Fairies Photographed” by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1920, it was announced that the negatives had been secretly marked and that no substitution had been made. Actually skeptics claimed the pictures had been faked, not that the negatives had been switched. In the infamous experiments at Stanford with Uri Geller, it was stated that Geller had sometimes performed in a Faraday cage (a room surrounded by wire mesh which is intended to shield the interior of the room from radio waves) though no one had claimed that Geller’s tricks had anything to do with radio.
Consider this from an ad in the Washington Post by Woodward & Lothrop, a department store: “Is it so surprising that the known scientific qualities of crystals would transfer to the arena of a more personal ‘crystal power’ as well?” Notice that Woodies is taking the craven route of asking questions, rather than making assertions, in the hope that they can lead you to make unwarranted inferences without actually lying to you. In the same ad they state: “The Mayans and Aztecs believed quartz crystals to have magic healing powers. Crystals and crystal balls have been used by mystics and gypsies for centuries, to probe the past and future.” Aside from the apparent comma fault in this last quote, what is one to conclude? That gypsies, mystics, Aztecs, and Mayans had knowledge of crystals that science does not now have? Or that a superstition that endures for centuries (fortune telling, astrology, etc.) surely has validity? That gypsies and mystics actually do have the ability to probe the past and future?
In Missing Time, author Budd Hopkins claims that if you have ever looked at your watch and found it much later than you had thought, you may have been kidnapped by extraterrestrials and then had the memory of that event removed from your mind by them. Since there is probably not a person in the world who has not had time slip away from him (perhaps because he was napping) the saucer men must be very numerous and quite busy.
Perhaps the most pervasive irrelevant implication is the announcement that some famous person believes that some psychic phenomenon is true. We are so familiar with this technique in advertising everything in the world that it may not occur to us that because Shirley MacLaine believes in channeling (the currently fashionable name for spiritualism) is little reason to assume that there is anything to it other than her silliness. The Woodward & Lothrop ad quoted above also says that Jane Fonda wears a crystal to promote health and well-being and that Jill Ireland describes the part crystals played in her battle with cancer in her book, Life Wish. Does the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in fairies (he really did) lead you to believe in them? Sir Oliver Lodge and William Crookes, both well-known, competent scientists believed fully in psychic mediums, and their belief is still cited today by spiritualists as evidence that there is something to their nonsense.
We are probably even less prepared for the outright lie than the irrelevant implication because we simply do not expect that hard-cover books would contain outright lies. As James Randi says in Flim-Flam!, “Uncritical publishers regularly turn out books and periodicals without checking the accuracy of their contents. They call such trash ‘nonfiction’ and the public assumes ‘nonfiction’ is synonymous with ‘truth.’ Some publishers even claim that the works they publish are researched thoroughly to ensure factual content, although this is not the case.”
When we read that a certain ship was lost in the Bermuda Triangle, it may not occur to us, and indeed we may not have the means to check, that the whole incident is an outright lie – that there is no record of the ship’s existence.
In The Gold of the Gods, Erich von Daniken describes in great detail his visit to a cave in Ecuador. The walls of the cave were porcelainized by the heat of some device which had cut and shaped them. He described a huge stack of gold found in this cave and was warned not to use his flash to take a picture because of the danger of triggering some device which might close the mouth of the cave. He described his visit to a private museum owned by a local priest where he was shown hundreds of magnificient, ancient-American gold artifacts. James Randi visited Juan Moricz, the man who is described in the book as Daniken’s guide to the wonders of the cave, and found that Daniken had actually not visited any cave with Juan Moricz. Although “Caves of Gold” have long been a legend in the area, no one could be found, including Juan Moricz, who claims he has actually visited them. The astonishing museum reported by Daniken turned out to be a motley collection of junk owned by an eccentric priest. (Flim-Flam!).
James Randi often says that scientists are among the most gullible in accepting evidence that is an outright lie. They simply are not accustomed to dealing in deception. I mentioned in a previous article that there are some scientists who “cook” their data to produce the desired results, but they are rather rare. It would not occur to most scientists that the data in a publication is an outright lie.
The conclusion is that we are no longer being even partially protected by publishers from deception by authors who use baseless assertions, unwarranted implications, and outright lies to advance their claims. We must treat all books with skepticism and continually realize that no one is doing our thinking for us. We have to do it ourselves.
Hand-set in Deepdene; display type is Airport Semi-Bold. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 410 copies, four pages at a time, on an SP-15 Vandercook. The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
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