19.8.17

BRIEF LIVES

Derek Wilson. Superstition and Science: Mystics, Sceptics, Truth-Seekers and Charlatans. Robinson, 2017.

It is hard to summarise the purport of this book, since no single thread appears to link the parts of it together. The author admits as much in his introduction, when he writes that “I shall be attempting in the following pages to…record the activities and opinions of some of the great thinkers who contributed to the debate about ‘life, the universe and everything’”.

Quite what this is supposed to mean is anyone’s guess, and inevitably the scope of the book becomes so enormous that it is impossible to define its argument and what one ends up with is a kind of dictionary of the lives of individuals whom he admires. The title of the book suggests that it ought to be about the conflict between science and superstition, and it is true that the book contains some accounts, such as those of the travails of Giordano Bruno and Galileo at the hands of the Catholic Church; but the book is not really about the conflict between science and superstition, and at no point does the author attempt to define either term, nor is there any discourse on the subject. In the light of our present knowledge of particle physics, was our ancestors’ acceptance of Newtonian physics ‘superstitious’? If not, then neither was the prevailing Aristotelian weltanschaung of the Middle Ages. These are issues on which the author is silent.

The author records the lives of many others such as Newton (who was more sinning than sinned against) and Hume, both of whom appeared free to pursue and publish their works without significant interference or conflict, and in general the author skips happily from individual to individual without troubling to explain any connection to the title or to the preceding case study. The logic of his approach is that when one reaches the penultimate page, there is no conclusion, the author stating that “to add an epilogue boldly labelled ‘Conclusions’ would be presumptuous in the light of the vastness of our subject”. More likely it would be impossible to write one.

Having said that, I found the author’s style readable and the book can most certainly be recommended as a sort of dictionary of intellectual biography mainly covering the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in Europe, the caveat being that the method of selection, is to my mind, somewhat idiosyncratic. The lives and discoveries of the usual suspects are there (Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton inter alia) and inevitably each reader will find examples of individuals whom he will be surprised to find missing. Amongst the writers and philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we find Leibniz, Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau, but no Bishop Berkeley, Montesquieu or Kant (for example). No effort is made by the author to explain his methodology in selecting his “great minds”. Are we to conclude that his approach is entirely subjective, and that he has just written about a number of people he is familiar with?

The strength of the book lies in its pen portraits, which often include fascinating detail, such as the description of Tycho Brahe’s island researches paid for by the King of Denmark or Newton’s vindictiveness towards his rival Robert Hooke. These I found entertaining even where the subject-matter was familiar to me, and for someone unversed in the intellectual history of the period, this book could serve as an enjoyable introduction. But a better title ought to be devised; I would suggest: Brief Lives - Some Great Minds From the Renaissance to the Eighteenth Century.

Some readers may find it questionable that more than a few pages have been devoted to the lives of religious reformers. I can live with the inclusion of Calvin and Luther on the basis that they were both “great minds”, although not necessarily good; but I was baffled by the inclusion of several pages in the last chapter devoted to John and Charles Wesley and George Whitfield. Is there really any place for them in this book to rank alongside Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau etc.? I conclude (and, unlike the author, I am happy to do so) that this is yet another example of the book’s almost total lack of thematic unity. – Robin Carlile

15.8.17

DIGGING THE DIRT

Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson (editors) Lost City, Found Pyramid - Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices. University of Alabama Press, 2016

Archaeologists, it has been said, often find their careers in ruins. Their jobs often entail digging in the dirt for clues. Genuine archaeology involves a lot of hard work, strict procedures, and very little glamour. Yet, in complete contrast to that reality, there persists a romantic notion of archaeology as an exciting form of adventure, treasure-hunting and searching for lost civilisations. The hugely popular 'Indiana Jones' films perfectly embody this romantic view of archaeology. Mysterious ancient artefacts with strange magical properties usually come into the story.

Lost City, Found Pyramid, a collection of twelve essays written by academics and professionals, digs deeply into the question of why so-called 'pseudoarchaeology' has gained such a wide appeal. It examines how non-scientific pursuit of myths and legends has created false perceptions of true archaeology, and even of human history itself. The first part contains numerous case studies of the work of those 'alternative archaeologists'. They are dismissed as "well-intentioned romantics who project onto actual archaeological data whimsical interpretive frameworks or quixotic 'proofs' that confirm legends. . .or other alternative claims". One such legend, for which sensational claims have been made, is the 'Lost White City of Honduras', otherwise known as 'La Ciudad Blanca'.

The editors acknowledge that "crafting the history of a scholarly field is fraught with difficulties". Great innovators often have interests and influences that are now considered to be unscientific. Copernicus and Isaac Newton studied alchemy as a source of ideas and inspiration, and Galileo taught his medical students to cast astrological charts for their patients to help with diagnosis. In the same way, the forerunners of modern archaeology had theories and methods that would now be questionable. The great pioneering Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie [left] began with the mystical idea that great events of history were somehow encoded in the dimensions of the ancient monuments at Giza. On the other hand, Heinrich Schliemann, often cited as a founder of modern archaeology, believed that Troy was a real historical city when most historians thought it was only a myth. He did discover it, but is criticised for using dynamite to uncover the most ancient layers.

The second part of the book is entitled "How Archaeologists Should or Should Not Engage with Pseudoarchaeology". It opens with the subject of the 'Central Australian Face'. My Google search for that term gave no results, whereas 'face on Mars' produces millions. The whole story is somewhat tedious in the amount of detail given, but it has some value in illustrating the challenge archaeologists have to deal with when engaging with a member of the public claiming to have made a significant discovery. It turned out to be a case of 'pareidolia', a common cognitive response to see facial features in random shapes.

There are some good chapters on the role of the media, in particular the genre known as 'reality TV', in popularising pseudoarchaeology. The venerable National Geographic comes in for some strong criticism over its TV channel programme Diggers. This show's format was to follow two metal-detector hobbyists visiting various historical sites across the United States. It was presented as a search for 'buried treasure', typically coins minted from gold or silver, historic weapons, ammunition, and other artefacts. A strong outcry from professional bodies led to much-needed changes, such as engaging local archaeologists to have some supervision on site and a role in identifying found items.

On the other hand, the British programme Time Team, presented by Tony Robinson, receives lavish praise for focusing on the archaeological and historical significance of a site. It is commended for minimising the sensational aspects of the subject and emphasising a sense of authenticity and accuracy. In contrast, Dr Zahi Hawass, the famous erstwhile Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs is castigated for unprofessional conduct. In Chasing Mummies: The Amazing Adventures of Zahi Hawass, premiered in 2010 on the History Channel, he puts on a show for the camera with fabricated scenes of danger involving students who risk being fired for failure. The book reports that Hawass was himself sacked by the Egyptian government in 2011.



Some of the most interesting material concerns hoaxes. Indeed, a lot can be learned from hoaxes in general. The so-called 'Newark Holy Stones' are a good example. Ostensibly found by antiquarian David Wyrick in 1860 within a cluster of ancient Indian burial mounds near Newark, Ohio, these artefacts have created a great deal of controversy. One of them, the 'Decalogue Stone', [above] depicts Moses and the Ten Commandments written in a unique form of Hebrew. While appearing to be genuinely ancient, the letters have been shown to be derived from the modern Hebrew alphabet. The Holy Stones were interpreted by some as proving a connection between biblical Hebrews and the Moundbuilders of the American Midwest. Genetic tests done on Native American DNA extracted from burial mounds has conclusively proven that those peoples originated in eastern Asia, and not the Middle East.

Why then do the Holy Stones keep appearing in popular magazines and TV programmes? "The answer is that some biblical or Book of Mormon literalists see the Holy Stones as 'scientific' proof that American prehistory can be accommodated within the narrow confines of their doctrinal frameworks." That says it all. People will believe whatever they want to believe. Religious indoctrination can be so strong as to cause its adherents to insist that the 'proof' offered is itself false or a trick from the Devil to test their faith. Hoaxes like this might also, of course, have been planted to support a pet theory or a political viewpoint. Issues of slavery and racism were being hotly debated at the time of the Holy Stones' appearance. The myth of the 'Lost Tribes of Israel' was strongly supported by the Christian clergy as it validated the ongoing colonisation of America and the Christianisation of the Native Americans.

There is much in this book that will interest and stimulate anyone of a 'Magonian' inclination. Its greatest readership is obviously going to be within the professional and academic circles of archaeology and its students. With a retail price of over £50 it is not cheap. But if you are interested in finding nuggets of information it is a treasure trove. -- Kevin Murphy


11.8.17

THE CONSUMED SOCIETY

Greg Garrett, Living With the Living Dead: The Wisdom of the Zombie Apocalypse, Oxford University Press. 2017.

If you’re intent on impressing your tutor with a wide-ranging dissertation on zombies, or you’re a vicar intent on impressing your congregation and increasing your street cred with your moral take on Game of Thrones, or if, perhaps, you’re even intent on adding to the ever-increasing library of zombie-theme books with your own magnus opus, this is the book for you. It’s got everything you’d need to know about the ethics in zombie tropes, memes, themes and narrative arcs in all media from movies through TV to gaming, and boasts quotes with a possibly-zombie-relevant theme from everyone who’s anyone, from the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But perhaps, if you believe that the collective noun for theologians should be ‘an irrelevance’, are seeking pure entertainment, or possibly, are actually Simon Pegg, it’s best to turn away now.

You have been warned: after all, the word ‘wisdom’ is there in the subtitle, and a bit of book-jacket browsing tells you that the – obviously genial – author is an authority on the sort of weird combination of stuff one has come to expect from great universities in the 21st century – e.g. Christianity and zombieism. According to BBC radio, Professor Garrett is ‘one of America’s leading voices on religion and culture’, including pop culture. The zombie/religion mix must have been irresistible.

It must be said that the zombie apocalypse does lend itself with spectacular, glorious potential to all manner of ethical debate, especially the problems that inevitably come in the wake of the breakdown of law and the re-setting of society after the most traumatic of circumstances. Jesus had a lot to say about it… well, no, he didn’t of course, but he had quite a bit to say about issues that can, with greater or lesser legitimacy, be crow-barred into the discussion. You do get a few intense pages of Christian wisdom in here. It’s that sort of book, though as it’s also a very readable and fascinating work, whether those particular passages prove a serious obstacle to your overall appreciation is up to your personal level of tolerance for such things. (And that’s if you can forgive the author’s unquestioning acceptance of Mother Teresa as the genuine embodiment of goodness and compassion – a potentially jarring note.)

Professor Garrett does set out very carefully in the opening pages that, as his background is in Judaeo-Christian religious literature, he will favour it. (He signs off the book, dating it as ‘Pentecost’.) Fair enough. It’s his book, his background, his choice. But it very probably isn’t the background of many of his potential readers, especially in the secular west of Europe. So when he says, for example, that the focus of the Johannine material in the New Testament (the gospel and epistles ascribed to St John) is love, with respect one has to point out that to many of us actually its, albeit implicit, focus is Christianity. Of course that is a given, both to St John and Professor Garrett, but to some of us it just isn’t.

Similarly, when he is discussing the myriad problems of ‘the End’, he writes, re the story of Noah and the Flood: ‘consider how the story concludes with God’s promise never again to destroy the world by water, and one faithful man and his family survive to offer the world a chance to start anew, without the evil that so offended God in the first place’, he adds in parenthesis: ‘(Of course, this proves to be a vain hope, human beings being as they are, but hope is hope all the same.)’ But hang on. Shouldn’t that also be ‘ human beings being as they are, and God being as he is’ ? If we’re expected to take the Flood myth seriously, even as a metaphor, some might note that God needs to be rather less vindictive and tyrannical than he appears to be in both this example of his spite and throughout the entire Bible. Society starting anew might not get very far, once again, if he destroyed yet another huge swathe of humanity in one of his infamous hissy fits.

(And Professor Garrett seems oblivious to a rather obvious potential zombie/vampire crossover interpretation of the very famous story of a certain dead man walking and whose followers drink his blood and eat his flesh.)

In general, though, the breadth of knowledge the author displays about zombie-related media is deeply impressive – he even includes scattered references to Doctor Who – and his examples cover all possible genres. Simon Pegg’s spoof movie Shaun of the Dead, perhaps rather crazily, features quite heavily. I had no idea it was so profound, and possibly neither did Mr Pegg, but Professor Garrett does seem to enjoy it both as a comedy (which it was always intended to be) and another source of profundity (which it probably wasn’t but obviously is now). Yes, Shaun hesitating about killing his zombified mother is – or would be outside the world of comedy – a terrible ethical choice. But let’s not forget, it’s played for laughs.

(As an aside: of course, to a Brit, the urge when faced with the Apocalypse to go down the pub is presumably deeply etched in our DNA. But in Shaun of the Dead there is an added layer of reference. In fact the pub is named after the Winchester club in the classic TV series Minder, thus, if anything - apart from Simon Pegg’s obvious love of the comic capers of Arfur and Terry – simply reinforcing the idea of the pub as cosy, familiar hub where funny stuff, even farce, happens. I don’t think we need to look much deeper.)

But should we take a book about the ethical implications of the zombie apocalypse seriously anyway? Isn’t it just akin to, say, debating that other great fictional cataclysm, the Rapture? Well, yes and no. Mainly no, actually. In many ways this is – despite all my caveats given above – an important book. Professor Garrett might have fallen for the myth of Mother Teresa, but quite clearly he’s both a thoroughly decent man and a very knowledgeable commentator. He is, for example, an expert on screen-writing and the whole movie business.

He totally understands the emotion packed into the superficially mindless subject matter, its power and enduring appeal. He presents us with many of the stark choices – but hopefully only ever in theory – those under threat from the living dead will face: whether to kill those shambling un-humans who were once, perhaps just seconds before, your husband or wife or small child or mother, and who are intent on consuming your flesh to turn you from being One of Us into One of Them. Whether to run or stay and fight. How to organise and order a new society – just how draconian would it have to be? Do you always obey the mantra ‘kill or be killed’?

(It’s at this point that one realises that the zombie apocalypse scenario is potentially an absolute gift to all manner of pressure groups – the gun lobby or crusading vegans, for example. Presumably all that is still to come, but come it no doubt will.)



But in real life that kind of lawless evil would be up against – certainly in the UK – the good old Blitz spirit, where neighbours who had rarely ever so much as exchanged a word suddenly pull together, sharing what they have and helping out. 


One of the major problems – or at least concerns – about the post-apocalyptic world is just how deep a sense of community would go, or whether groups would fragment along certain lines. How deep would previous prejudices, continue to run, for example?

Rather endearingly, the author admiringly mentions the Muslim emphasis on community, but as a religion it’s not exactly famous for its inclusivity, is it? Yet… who knows how ordinary people, suddenly finding themselves no longer necessarily defined by their religion, tribe or even family, would react to an ongoing life-or-death struggle against the living dead? Possibly the overall reaction would be considerably more cheering than the pundits would have us believe.

As I write, a UK TV channel is advertising a new reality series called Paradise Lost, where a group of people have to build a community from scratch somewhere inhospitable. The whole point, it seems – given away in the title itself for a start – is to reveal the darker, nastier, more self-aggrandising aspects of humanity. But of course that was the concept from the very beginning. That’s what lay behind the choice of the participants, as most likely to provide that euphemistic ‘good telly’ – i.e. the most self-seeking, loud-mouthed exhibitionists they could find. Without even seeing a single episode (and I won’t, as I usually try to keep my meals inside my stomach), I can say with certainty that it will be hell from the start, much to the joy of the producers.

Yet that’s not what actually happens, or more accurately, not what happens overall, in life-or-death situations (and, let’s be honest, being ‘trapped’ even in the bleakest surroundings for a finite amount of time while being filmed isn’t exactly fighting for your life). Look at how the ordinary people rallied – immediately, passionately and efficiently - when officialdom exhibited the most outrageous and chaotic lack of response to the conflagration of Grenfell Tower in west London not so long ago. Suddenly, black and white, Muslim and Christian and pagan and atheist, and the posh locals and the not-so-posh locals, were all in it together, offering food and clothes, shelter and money. It was quite extraordinary.

Similarly, there have been a series of dramas about post-apocalyptic Britain in which gangs roam, looting, torturing and killing. No one is suggesting that that, tragically, would not be the case, at least to some extent. But in real life that kind of lawless evil would be up against – certainly in the UK – the good old Blitz spirit, where neighbours who had rarely ever so much as exchanged a word suddenly pull together, sharing what they have and helping out. True, there were many cases during the actual Nazi Blitz on London of criminals using the cover of the bombing raids to commit burglaries, rapes and murders. It wasn’t all Cockney jollity. But the decent, human community spirit was, and still is, a real thing. You see it after catastrophic flooding, for example, let alone an invasion of the walking dead. You don’t have to be a main character in Game of Thrones to be a hero.

Professor Garrett quotes the Dalai Lama: ‘where love of one’s neighbour, affection, kindness, and compassion live, we find that ethical conduct is automatic. Ethically wholesome actions arise naturally in the context of compassion’. (Sometimes throughout this book, you just long for more Dalai Lama and less, say, Rowan Williams. Yes you do - he was the Archbishop of Canterbury before this one. The beardy one. Apparently he’s a personal friend of the author, so fair enough. And he does talk sense in these contexts.)

Humanity is complex, and disasters bring out both the good and the bad in us – as zombie movies such as 28 Days Later, with its visceral cynicism but thread of hope, vividly show. The dark/light balance is meat and drink to a theologian, of course, and even with a fair bit of resistance, even I found there are many moments of solemn nodding in agreement with the author.

One thing he is very clear about from the start is that these questions have a much more urgent and obvious relevance in the post-9/11 world, when a new sort of horror was imposed on the world’s greatest superpower, brutally awakening it to a reality other countries were only too familiar with. (To be fair, he does also mention the UK’s trauma of 7/7.)

The balance of terror and hope is, in the post 9/11 world, a daily drain on our collective psyche, zombies or no zombies.

One of the major differences from a more conventional war setting, however, is that the War on Terror is fighting hidden evil, anonymous faces in the everyday crowds. Men (and women) who can mow down innocent travellers or sightseers, or stab party-goers. Similarly, it can be hard to distinguish between the living and the merely wounded, say, and the walking dead. Yet hesitation to rid the world of these monsters might well prove deadly. The moral and ethical parallels are there between those negotiating a world full of actual monsters and those straining to combat men and women who have chosen to become monsters. And in both scenarios, those who will have to deal with them might well not be professional military or security personnel – they might be you and me.

That is why this is an important book.

And how can you resist a man who writes, in the context of the moral conflict of Rick, the survivor in The Walking Dead:

‘When after the 9/11 attacks President George W. Bush said that the United States – like Rick… - would use any means necessary to protect its citizens, and his ally Tony Blair stood by him to say Britain would support the United States, they committed two of the world’s great democracies to a course of action that violated their core values. In the process, both nations lost a great store of their moral standing, while acting in the name of defending freedom and fighting evil…’

Constantly this a man saying it’s hard, it’s hard being human right now, so how much harder would it be if there were so few humans left, fighting the monsters that once were us?

Sadly, this book is probably not an obvious choice as a stocking filler for your mad-on-Game-of-Thrones teen or to tempt your Millennial mates away from their devices. Yes, it deals with relevant digital games, and shows a dazzling insider knowledge of movies and TV. But basically, it’s not a mainstream book. Too much Book of Revelation, too many psalms, too much Rowan Williams. But after all, it is published by Oxford University Press. And it is impressive.

And perhaps unexpectedly, it’s recommended. In fact, highly. Professor Garrett is clearly not only a nice guy but a genuinely fascinating gent and acknowledged authority on all sorts of good stuff like the history of movies. Even given the gulf between us on so many matters – all the better for a lively debate, then - I’d be more than happy to buy him a pint down the Winchester. (Oh, I take it back. I think even Simon Pegg would love to meet him, too.) – Lynn Picknett


8.8.17

LEAPING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION

Charles M. Wynn and Arthur W. Wiggins, Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends… and Pseudoscience Begins, Oxford University Press, 2017

In her farewell address to the American Statistical Association last year, outgoing president Jessica Utts, who analysed parapsychological experiments for the US government and concluded that they support the reality of psi, drew attention to the irony that many scientists, in their denial of such evidence, adopt the mind set and methods of pseudoscience. Quantum Leaps in the Wrong Direction seems designed to illustrate her point. As the subtitle spells out, its aim is to show where science ends and pseudoscience begins. And so it does – but not in the way the authors intend.

At the start of their book, Wynn and Wiggins (W&W), respectively professors of chemistry and physics, both American, list the ‘flaws and problems’ that are the tell-tales signs of pseudoscience. But, in a perfect example of the doublethink Utts describes, they go on to commit many of the very same errors.

As those authors will probably dismiss my criticisms as being those of a ‘believer’, I ought to make my own position clear on matters parapsychological, paranormal and Fortean. Like, I suspect, many readers of this site, I’m one of those who find themselves between what Jeffrey J. Kripal calls the ‘two equally silly extremes’ of ‘denying debunker’ and ‘true believer’. W&W clearly occupy the first extreme (although it’s apparent that, to them, everybody who doesn’t join them there belongs in the ‘true believer’ category, there being no middle ground in their eyes).

This is the second edition of Quantum Leaps, the first having appeared in 2001. According to the preface, it’s chiefly the chapter on alternative medicine that’s been updated, even though there have been significant developments with some of the other subjects covered that should have been included. The book is enlivened with cartoons by Sidney Harris, ‘America’s premier science cartoonist’ according to Isaac Asimov. Lord knows it needs enlivening.

The book is aimed at the lay reader without a grounding in science, to teach them how to distinguish between genuine science and the pseudo variety, on the basis that the latter thrives on its unsuspecting victims’ lack of a proper scientific education, which not only leads them into erroneous thinking but also exposes them to exploitation by charlatans and con-persons.

After outlining the basic approach and methodology of science (the hypothetico-deductive model, Occam’s razor, and all that), W&W devote chapters to what they consider the ‘five biggest ideas of pseudoscience’ – namely UFOs and aliens, out-of-body-experiences and related phenomena, astrology, creationism and ESP/psychokinesis – showing how they don’t measure up to that standard. Along the way they also deal, in a peremptory fashion, with a rather random assortment of other subjects such as Bigfoot, Nessie, Spontaneous Human Combustion and (oddly) Piltdown Man.

Their analysis of these complex subjects is incredibly slight. The whole of the UFO phenomenon, from Kenneth Arnold to abductions and taking in side issues such as the ancient astronaut theory, is dealt with in just 14 pages. The chapter ‘Out-of-Body Experiences and Entities’, which covers everything from OOBEs and Near Death Experiences to ghosts, mediumship, possession, astral projection, the soul and reincarnation (as well as, for some reason, the Cottingley fairies) gets 15. So not exactly in-depth.

Although it comes as no surprise that W&W give prominence to the sceptical position, the lack of the slightest pretence at presenting a balanced picture takes the breath away. For them, all the beliefs and concepts they target are the result of bias, wishful thinking and dishonesty, and everyone who gives them house room therefore either a fool, dupe or charlatan. End of story. There’s little in the way of analysis or the building of a case to refute the claims of proponents of their chosen subjects, W&W rather relying on sweeping statements and dogmatic assertions in a ‘Trust us, we’re scientists’ manner. (‘Makes authoritarian pronouncements’ is one of their tell-tale signs of the pseudoscientist.)
Thus, Uri Geller ‘simply bends the objects when no one is watching’. Evidence? Even the severest of Geller’s critics give him credit for a bit more subtlety than that. Thus again, all psychic readings simply employ ‘social and psychological manipulation’. Supporting studies? W&W don’t, in fact, cite a single scientific or academic publication in support of any of their statements – extraordinarily, there are no references at all!




It’s probably just as well that they don’t provide the reader with the means of fact-checking what they say, as the book is filled with inaccuracies and the most basic of errors – ironic for authors who champion accuracy and precision – which make it apparent they don’t actually know very much about the subjects they’re debunking, or have even looked up the basics as they were writing.

Their summary of the Roswell case, for example, is incredibly muddled and doesn’t square with any of the hypothetical reconstructions, basically because they include (very much alleged) eyewitness accounts that emerged decades after the event as if they were all reported way back in 1947.

W&W’s overview of the alien abduction phenomenon is similarly slapdash. According to them, this ‘emerged in the 1950s’ when ‘hundreds of people began to report that.... alien beings had kidnapped them, taken them aboard their flying saucers, and, in some cases, subjected them to painful medical examinations’ (of course, abduction reports on a mass scale were rather a feature of 1980s ufology). And yet the ‘founding parents of the alien abduction movement’ were Betty and Barney Hill, whose experience took place ‘in 1966’ (actually 1961), while their hypnotically-recovered memories ‘may have incorporated imagery from contemporary movies such as Invaders from Mars (1953).’

W&W have problems with dates in general, for example in their chapter on ESP writing that ‘In the 1960s, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars for psychic research’; the programme in question actually started in 1973. These aren’t isolated slips, but typical of their sloppy research. Still, when you’re dealing with pseudoscience, why bother getting your facts right?

Such a cavalier attitude to the facts hardly gives the reader trust in W&W’s reliability. However, some of their errors are more fundamental to the case they’re attempting to make, calling into question their credibility.

In their chapter on ESP, for example, they make the basic mistake of taking ‘extrasensory’ to mean ‘involving an extra sense’. This leads them to argue that, because a sense necessarily involves a physiological mechanism that links a stimulator in the body to a receptor in the brain, and no such mechanism can be identified for telepathy and the like, then by definition they can’t possibly exist. In fact, the term was coined by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s to mean ‘outside of the senses’, deliberately in order to acknowledge that such abilities don’t seem to depend on any kind of sense in the normally-understood way. W&W build their debunking on an entirely mistaken premise, and thereby mislead the reader unversed in the subject.

Unbelievably, when it comes to laboratory experiments into psi the most recent that W&W discuss are from the early 1980s – making even the first edition of their book nearly 20 years out of date! They trot out the usual debunker’s line that ESP, PK and precognition ‘must remain pseudoscientific concepts until methodological flaws in their studies are eliminated, and repeatable data supporting their existence are obtained.’ And yet, even though this is an updated edition, there’s no mention of research (some of which was published before the original) that does appear to meet those criteria, such as the ‘presponse’ experiments by scientists such as Dick Bierman and Daryl Bem that produced evidence for short-term precognition. Either W&W don’t know about this research, in which case they’ve no business writing this book, or they do and don’t want their readers to know about it because it doesn’t fit their case.

It does, though, tick another of W&W’s warning signs of pseudoscience in action: ‘positive instances are emphasized; negative ones are ignored’. In fact, selective evidence abounds, W&W picking the easiest targets – known hoaxes and flawed studies – and making no mention whatsoever of research that has produced data that’s harder to dismiss. A properly sceptical case should tackle the best evidence, not the worst, and by not doing so W&W again present their readers with an inaccurate, misleading picture.

There’s a similar, quite shameless, selectivity – not to say spin - on the few occasions when they do cite specific studies. For example, while they correctly report that the Hynek Center for UFO Studies found conventional explanations for 92 per cent of the reports it received, they add ‘The balance could not be identified for lack of information’ as if it was the Center’s conclusion rather than their own interpretation.

Similarly, in their chapter on astrology, W&W refer to a study by Michel Gauquelin which found that people are generally bad at evaluating personality assessments based on horoscopes, supporting the view that any perceived accuracy is merely down to misjudgement and wishful thinking. But they make no mention of Gauquelin’s research into the ‘Mars effect’ that – controversially – appeared to bear out some astrological tenets. (Tick: ‘Results that fail to support the hypothesis are discarded’.)
In their zeal, W&W grasp whatever argument comes to hand, seemingly blind to the fact that it sometimes contradicts what they’ve written elsewhere. For example, one of the grounds on which they reject alien abductions is that interstellar travel, requiring as it does faster-than-light travel, is impossible according to the current laws of physics. Yet two pages later they write that it ‘would be a mistake to completely rule out the possibility’ either of ETs visiting Earth or us developing interstellar travel in the future.




With most of their chosen targets, W&W don’t even attempt to take on and deconstruct the arguments of the ‘believers’, dismissing it all from the outset as delusion or fakery, denying that there is anything to study in the first place.

Everything is hung on the hypothetico-deductive (H-D) model, which begins with reliable data on which testable hypotheses can be based. (W&W never use the term, since for them the H-D model is synonymous with science itself, and – as I’ll come to - they don’t want to suggest that there are any other ways of doing science.) However, the limits and philosophical problems of that model - its inapplicability to certain areas of study - are widely recognised within science itself (something you’d never know from reading this book). It’s an important item in the scientific toolkit, but not the only one.

However, W&W apply the model indiscriminately, using it to disqualify the subject under scrutiny before it even makes the starting line. The whole issue of UFOs and abductions, for example, is dismissed as unworthy of study because it’s entirely based on ‘personal anecdotes by untrained observers’. (How could it be otherwise?) Similarly, NDEs are swept away on the logic that since, by definition, they don’t happen under laboratory-controlled conditions all such claims are inadmissible as evidence. (Ditto.)

Where some apparently corroborative evidence does exist it’s summarily dismissed by unsupported assumptions: in those cases in which clinically dead patients seemingly obtained information about what happened around them, ‘It is possible… that the information the patient supplied was obtained by ordinary means, namely through her senses both before and during the procedure.’

It's the kind of logic that makes the job of debunking so much easier, since the debunker doesn’t even have to address the facts (real or alleged) put forward by the other side.

It’s only in the chapter on creationism that W&W put up some hard facts to counter the specific claims of the believers – pointing out the manifest impossibilities in Bible stories such as that of the Flood – rather than dismissing them on technicalities, making it the best-argued in the book. Presumably to avoid appearing anti-religion as such, they limit their target to the beliefs of Biblical literalists (e.g. that God took exactly six 24-hour days to create the world), tolerating what they term ‘gradual creationism’ (‘a tapestry based upon religious faith, but tempered by scientific insights’). I wondered if this chapter was W&W’s real reason for writing the book, because of the political struggle over the teaching of ‘creation science’ in US schools that they inveigh against here, burying it among other ‘pseudosciences’ to make it less obviously their main target.

But W&W don’t only give a distorted view of their chosen pseudosciences, but also present the reader with inaccurate and dubious information about the real thing, too. For example, in their chapter on alternative medicine, in which any apparent successes are, naturally, put down to the placebo effect, they declare authoritatively that such effects are ‘at best small, short-lived, and unreliable’ and that ‘Placebos have NEVER actually “healed” anything’ – which is pure, patent nonsense.

W&W don’t only set themselves up as arbiters of pseudoscience but of science itself, passing off their opinions as if they reflect the unanimous view of the scientific community (and so playing on the very scientific illiteracy they condemn the pseuds for exploiting).

For example, in discussing the weirder aspects of quantum theory, such as the properties of a particle being dependent on how it is observed, they declare that, despite the claims of some, ‘This theory says nothing about the role of human consciousness or mental processes in the physical world.’ Other scientists, of greater stature than W&W, would disagree – the names John A. Wheeler and Sir Roger Penrose spring to mind. True, those views are controversial, but not to acknowledge that they exist at all – within science – is, yet again, giving their readers an inaccurate picture.

Adding to this, but in keeping with W&W’s dumbed-down approach, is a lack of philosophical depth, which is needed when bandying terms like ‘reality’ around. Although they acknowledge in passing that some widely-accepted aspects of real science don’t meet the standards they set out – string theory isn’t open to testing by experiment, for example - they make no attempt to explain why they don’t qualify as pseudoscience. The book misses a discussion of such questions, since they’re bound to occur to many readers.

For W&W, the scientific method - pared down to the H-D model as if that, and that alone, is what science is - offers the only ‘road to reality’, in one of their favourite phrases. Many within academia, including science, disagree, seeing it as only one way of understanding the world. (Given conundrums such as cosmological fine-tuning, and the observer effect in quantum mechanics that W&W refer to, some big names in science even question the assumption that reality can ever be studied entirely objectively - or even that we can be sure it really exists.)


There’s a high-handedness evident from the outset, W&W presenting their way of thinking as the only right way to think, one that the rest of us not only should but must adopt, delivering lofty pronouncements such as ‘it is essential that the general public be sufficiently scientifically literate’, and that believers in pseudoscience ‘invest time that could be more profitably spent expanding their knowledge of reality’. Their big message is that ‘Pseudoscientific beliefs impede progress toward… a reality-based view of the natural world’. No recognition that there limits to science, other ways of understanding reality (if indeed there is such a thing), or that many people just aren’t interested in expanding their knowledge of it.

To drive home how vital it is that we all follow their ‘road to reality’, W&W make wild claims such as ‘the number of people who are able to distinguish between science and pseudoscience is diminishing’ and the ‘increased belief in pseudoscience is a global trend’. Typically, no data is offered for these highly dubious assertions.

All of these criticisms wouldn’t matter so much if this was just a book presenting the ‘anti’ side of the argument, rather than one that purports to teach readers how to discriminate between science real and pseudo. In order to be able to make an informed decision, the reader needs to be properly informed and not, as here, given partial, selective and misleading information.

In the end, this isn’t a book about how to think, but what to think.

W&W end the book with a short discussion of Holocaust denial, as a cautionary tale on how ‘the road to illusion is a slippery and dangerous slope’. Why round off a work on pseudoscience with a digression into pseudohistory? Clearly, it’s to leave the reader with the impression that anybody who has any truck with the beliefs discussed in it are the same as – and as dangerous as - Holocaust deniers. A cheap shot, of which W&W should be ashamed.

To be clear, these criticisms of W&W’s book don’t mean that I ‘believe’ in all the things they debunk, or reject the scientific method. Science is a fabulous tool for understanding the universe we inhabit. Of course there are those who exploit belief in things paranormal (just as there are those who misuse science and medicine), and they need to be challenged. The sceptical position is a valid one, counterbalancing the excesses of the ‘true believers’. It’s just that W&W make such a bad job of it; their case is so flawed that it is, ironically, easy to debunk.

So, to summarise: skimpy research and carelessness with the facts, one-sided presentation of information, misrepresentation of the opposing position, reliance on unsupported statements and dogmatic assertions, selectivity of evidence (especially ignoring contrary data), tendentious arguments… Yep, that’s pseudoscience.

Some of the cartoons are funny, though. -- Clive Prince



3.8.17

FAIRY TALES AND RABBIT HOLES

Carol Mavor. Aurelia. Art and Literature Through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale. reaktion Books 2017.

"An Aurelia is the pupa of an insect, which can reflect a brilliant colour, as the chrysalises of some butterflies do."

"Aurelia is a homonym of 'oralia' a word coined by the literary scholar Michael Moon which is suggestive of both the oral tale and eating. My Aurelia speaks in gold and has much to do with eating."

'Aurelia. Art and Literature through the Mouth of the Fairy Tale' is told with a butterfly tongue that celebrates, warns, swallows, chews and rebels. Aurelia awakens the fairy-tale realm in a wide range of authors, artists, books and objects which fall down its hole."

These are three extracts from Carol Mavor's introduction to Aurelia, describing the intentions of her unconventional take on the fairy-tale. Mavor is a contemporary of two famous fairy-tale scholars, Jack Zipes and Marina Warner, whose influence and assistance she acknowledges. Whilst they chronicle and analyse stories Mavor freely speculates on fairy-tale texts, including her personal choice of related artworks.

All three can be playful in their approach but Mavor's juxtaposition of text and image is of a dark and whimsical kind. She wants to jolt the reader's sensibility. Just when you thought you 'understood' what was going on in the head of The Brothers Grimm or Lewis Carroll other ideas and subsequent offshoots multiply and multiply. This multiplication of meaning, through Mavor's often forced erudition, makes Aurelia both a fascinating and a frustrating book. On nearly every other page there's an over-referential excess. Too many writers, artists, filmmakers etc. are sign-posted. Her show of learning making for chapters that are meandering and self-conscious with only the occasional section where the true creative tap flows. Aurelia's so uneven. Rather than a concept that Mavor wishes to "swallow, chew and rebel" with its subject matter we have ill-digested ideas attempting to hold together an 'experimental' text. She tries too hard to weave an original depiction of a fairy-tale consciousness.

I'm all for intellectual play (Mavor quotes Roland Barthes, that master essayist of impish delight) yet this often results in chapter conclusions that are forced and platitudinous. Take the chapter on the disturbing photographs of Bernard Faucon. His 1960/70's images of beautiful young boys, grouped next to boy mannequins, convey both an innocence and barely suppressed eroticism. Mavor sees them as suggesting the doll of Pinnochio: all delectable boys awaiting enchantment, hoping to loose their woodenness and be transformed:
Faucon's sweet adolescence, preternaturally harboured for a long time through the bodies of boys that infused his work and his own boyish looks. And then, it departed, like a butterfly escaping its chrysalis-skin... Only in fairy tales can a boy live 'happily ever after'.

Nicely expressed but rather obvious once you've glanced at the photographs. And this kind of easy summing up runs throughout her book. An interesting chapter on the famous caves of Lascaux is another example. Coming out of "the big hole in the. Mountain" of a cave in the Pacific Northwest, that Mavor visited with her son, she says "Just as the fairy tale gives us the dream that we have a right to be happy and free, so does darkness." Intelligent conclusions come from deeper writing, but not so here. Yet Mavor is too bright a writer to be consistently shallow or pretentious. On the writings of Lewis Carrol she settles on much stronger, well read (and understood) ground. Here Mavor makes a convincing case for fairy-tale madness and the act of constant eating:
"...the Alice stories present us with plenty of feeding but not much nurturing. Just as the Mad Hatter 'bit a large piece out of his teacup instead of the bread and butter' when you take a bite in Wonderland it is more about reading than eating. Eating - as - reading makes possible all the forgetting."

That's lovely, funny and memorable. The book's title about art and literature being seen "through the mouth of the fairy tale" really clicks. The rabbit hole into which everything (all knowledge) falls to be eventually swallowed up and forgotten.

A Curates Egg book then? Such a term evokes a fairy tale association (though there isn't one.) A bit of good and a bit of bad mixed up in the witches brew experiment that constitutes Aurelia? It's certainly a flawed production. Mavor's considerable learning frequently impairs her narrative, or anti-narrative drive, leaving you with an odd work that fails to deliver enchantment nor disconcert the reader enough to re-think their ideas on the fairy-tale.

On the blurb of this beautifully produced book, a fellow academic declares Aurelia to be "full of magic as its subjects." It isn't. Mavor may have intended it to be "darkly wet coated." Unfortunately Aurelia lacks a real and substantial edge. This book could have been so much more than an interesting curiosity. Aurelia succeeds in sending you back to its ambiguous fairy-tale sources but not to any re-reading of Aurelia itself. – Alan Price



31.7.17

UNSETTLING SCIENCE

S. D. Tucker. Space Oddities; Our Strange Attempts to Explain the Universe. Amberley, 2017.

In his previous book, Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History, the author took a look as some of the bizarre ideas that had been put forward to explain how the world works. He pointed out that many of those ideas, strange as they seem to us now, were not so ridiculous when examined in the light of scientific knowledge at the time when they were put forward, and mostly were only subsequently seen to be misplaced as our understanding evolved.

That is not really the case with the characters and ideas we are introduced to in this volume, as in nearly all cases they were promulgating ideas which are directly contradicting the accepted scientific consensus of their era. Now there are times and places when we should be taking a critical look at the 'accepted scientific consensus', but for the moment I'll let that lie, and accept that ideas such as the world being a globe, the sun being hot and the stars being quite a long way off are pretty well as settled as any scientific idea can be. But not to the people we meet here.

Perhaps the flat-earthers are the easiest to deal with, and quite a lot has been written about them. If fact I see that there is something of a flat-earth revival going on, based in Orange County, California. Well where else? The membership of this movement seems to consist of the same sorts of conspiracy theorists who believe the moon landing was faked, ranging from rappers and reality TV 'stars' to fundamentalist Bible-belters. What they share is a belief that the 'establishment' is in some way the enemy – whether this is seen from the political Right or Left doesn't seem to matter too much.

A British Flat Earth Society was around until the 1980s. In its later years it was run by a Labour member of the former Greater London Council, who saw it as a way of questioning established ideas generally. Its present web incarnation also seems to be a rather tongue-in-cheek archive and discussion forum, but I may be seeing irony where there is none.

A theme repeated throughout this book, is how so many of the unconventional ideas about how the universe is constructed seem to have a political doctrine buried somewhere in them, often not very deeply.

Ufology became politicised very early on, and Tucker examines the Cold-War propaganda and scaremongering from both sides that accompanied the UFO waves of the 1950s and the launching of the Soviets' first sputnik. He looks in some detail at the para-political messages that were contained in the contactee accounts of the 'fifties and 'sixties, with their descriptions of utopian, egalitarian societies on other planets, where all men (or perhaps more accurately 'beings') are equal, untroubled by such things as money and evil capitalism. It was hardly surprising that government intelligence agencies began to take an interest in such people.

Where I think he misses a point is that he sees these specifically in terms of leftist, 'communist' concepts rather than a sort of pan-political authoritarianism. It is difficult to imagine characters such as George Adamski, Daniel Fry or George van Tassel coming up with any coherent critique of the failures of late capitalism, but actually some of the early contactees seem to have had rather closer links to the political Right, than to the Left. A figure found in the background of a number of them is William Dudley Pelley, who was the founder of the pre-WWII American fascist organisation The Silver Shirts, but after being charged with high treason and sedition he was barred from all political activities.

In 1950 Pelley set up an occult group called 'Soulcraft'. Helping him with this project was George Hunt Williamson (née Michael d'Obrenovic), himself a contactee, and one of the people who allegedly witnessed George Adamski's first contact with the space brothers in the Mojave desert.

The sorts of societies which these contactees claimed were established on the planets they visited, whilst apparently very egalitarian and rejecting capitalism and the monetary system, also often displayed very centralised control mechanism, usually with a separate caste of 'elders' or 'wise ones' to keep the plebs in check and determine what exactly everybody's 'abilities' and 'needs' might be. This is a characteristic of planned societies from opposite ends of the political spectrum (or possibly from the bit where they meet round the back). There is still a great deal of work to be done on the political influences behind the contactee and early saucer movement, which in my view came largely from the Right.

This is not to say that leftist thinkers did not attempt to exploit the development of the UFO and contactee phenomenon, and Tucker shows how the Soviet government actively cultivated the idea that any extra-terrestrials we might meet would be good Marxists. Marxism, they claimed, was a scientific theory and all societies would eventually develop to a state of pure communism (unlike the impure communisms which seem to be the only kind we can manage on earth) so any society on another planet which had developed to the scientific and social level where it can launch faster-than-light ships into the cosmos must, by definition, be communist.

Much the same argument was used by some writers a generation or two earlier who claimed that the vast network of canals on Mars, built to bring life to a dying planet, must also have been the result of a vast collectivist, communist enterprise. Too bad about that idea.



One of the barmiest characters that we are introduced to here is the French philosopher Charles Fourier, father of a political movement later described as ‘Utopian Socialism’ (as if there is any other kind) and was spoken well of by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Some of his ideas on land and agrarian reform seemed fairly reasonable, but before too long he got onto the usual Utopian tropes of building barrack-blocks of sexually segregated dormitories whose precisely 1,620 inhabitants would have their work allocated to them according to the 810 personality types which Fourier had identified in humankind.

It might not have turned out quite as grim as it sounds, as apparently warfare would be replaced by competing pastry-chefs in some sort of Great Planetary Bake Off; presumably Mary Berry would become Supreme Commander. But these ideas seem almost practical when compared to his view of the cosmos.

Planets, he claimed, were sexual beings, each with a male North Pole and a female South Pole. Rather than magnetic fields emanating from these locations, the produced a sort of sexual fluid – he called it aroma – which not only inseminated the planet to produce the life-forms that dwelt on it, but could cross-breed with other planets, so a plant or animal on earth could be created by ‘aroma’ from Jupiter or the Sun. Apparently this cosmic gang-bang had resulted in some rather unpleasant life-forms developing on Earth – i.e, us – so at the moment we were outside this heavenly Playboy Mansion, but as soon as we sorted ourselves out, the earth would be welcomed back and the oceans would turn to lemonade. Unsurprisingly this part of his philosophy seems to have been skated over by Marx and Engels, but embraced enthusiastically later by the Surrealists.

Much of the book is taken up with accounts of attempts to communicate with other planets by means varying from laying out giant sheets across the Sahara Desert spelling out messages to observant Martians, to the numerous attempts, some claiming to be successful – using psychic powers of telepathy or teleportation. One of these was a former Town Clerk of Shoreditch who conducted a long-range radio romance with a charming Martian called Oomaruru, who despite a pair of Garry Lineker-sized ears, “was really very sweet”.

The book is sub-titled ‘our strange attempts to explain the universe’, but the more you read of such attempts it becomes clear that most of what is described are really attempts by the theorists to explain their own position in the world. Tucker describes the life of the Soviet astrophysicist Nikolai Kosyrev who after a successful scientific career fell foul of Stalin and was incarcerated in the Gulag for a decade. Perhaps influenced by the Siberian shamans who were some of his fellow-prisoners, he began to feel that the whole cosmos was in telepathic contact with him. He survived the dreadful conditions of the prison camp survived and lived until 1983. He had built up a following, which established an institute of 'cosmic anthropoecology'. By shielding oneself from the earth's magnetic field in a sort of Faraday cage they called a 'Kosyrev Mirror' it was possible to create hallucinations which they believed were actually the cosmic communications that Kosyrev had claimed to discover.

The individuals and ideas that are described in the book are ultimately, Tucker claims, largely mirrors of each other, the dreamer seeing their own visions of their place in the universe reflected back to them, whether as a giant, macrocosmic re-organisation of society on communist or fascist lines, or just a love-affair with a rather nice big-eared young lady from Mars. It is a timely warning that most scientific theories, even the sensible ones, are always viewed through a personal or political lens.

Throughout the vast range of outlandish ideas about the universe that are touched upon in this fascinating book, ironically the only one that seemed to be based upon what superficially is an actual physical observation, is that the earth is flat!  – John Rimmer


27.7.17

IMAGINATION AND REALITY

Barton M Nunnelly. Mysterious Kentucky: Volume One, The History, Mystery and Unexplained of the Blue-Grass State. Triangulum, 2017.

Barton M Nunnelly. Mysterious Kentucky: Volume Two, The Dark And Bloody Ground. Triangulum, 2017.

Ron Quinn. Little People. Galde Press, 2010. (Second printing 2017)

Linda Zimmerman. More Hudson Valley UFOs: Including Western Connecticut, Northern New Jersey and Beyond. Eagle Press, 2017.

Folklore is often presented as a collection of timeless and presumably generations-old stories collected by clergymen’s daughters while visiting the ‘aged poor’, and being representative of quaint country ways. This often true of tales of the supernatural, which often start with the words “it is said that” or “local people say” and are little more than rumours of rumours.

However, as we have often argued, folklore is alive and well and is based on what folklorists call memorate's; stories which tell or purport to tell personal experiences, particularly with the supernatural. These are stories of 'wondrous experiences' or 'anomalous personal experiences'. They might include tales of prophetic dreams, crisis apparitions, the ghostly return of loved ones, witchcraft or miraculous healing. But the sets of experiences in these studies of regional folklore from the United States are what we might call the 'others', that the Greeks call the exotica.

These are the liminal beings or forces that straddle and boundaries of natural and supernatural, matter or spirit, mortal and immortal etc. and are encountered in the debatable realms between dream and waking reality and unreality. These exotica take many different forms, from the traditional little people in old country clothes that are encountered in the stories from rural New York in Ron Quinn’s book. These are the closest to traditional fairy stories and though some come from adults, such as that of a hiker encountering little people playing the flute in a river in a magical country on the other side of an enchanted forest, the majority are stories of childhood experiences. These little people are not the gauze winged fairies of the Victorian imagination, but those of the genuine folk tradition as might be encountered in the works of Evans-Wenz, Lady Gregory or Dermot MacManus.

The exotica takes on a much more modern and technological guise in Linda Zimmerman’s stories of UFOs taken from an area not too far away from the region where Quinn’s stories were collected, yet the difference between the two is startling. In place of little creatures in rural woodlands, we have visions of huge technological devices the size of American football pitches flying round the night sky. These seem to reflect more the technological power and modernity of New York City, which represent the urban exotica.



The exotica from the Blue Grass State of Kentucky tend to take on yet another form, that of entities occupying the ground between human and animal. They are the classical hairy humanoids, both large and small, the inheritors of the wodewoses of old. Those from Kentucky seem slightly less wild than those of say British Columbia and on occasion are envisaged as wearing tattered clothes. There are stories of children making friends with these wodewoses and even learning their language. Other stories tell of even wilder creatures such as bipedal canines, lake monsters, giant snakes as well as tales of lights in the sky.

But like New York’s little people, these creatures are not just liminal between man and animal but also between natural and supernatural, dream and reality, truth and fiction. The stories might be told first hand, but other sources of folklore exist such as stories in newspapers and magazines.

It is often put forward that there is a gulf in folklore between the cultural-source and personal-experience theories of the origin of folk beliefs, but this is a wholly false dichotomy. All our culture is informed by collective and personal experience and all our experiences are mediated by culture. It is culture that names and tell us what are trees, chairs, computers and tables, cats and pigeons. Outside of culture there would nothing but a confusion of sensory information. Some of the strange and numinous experiences that people have may be experienced in the moments when they face a world stripped of cultural maps and labels.

It sometimes thought that to call something a myth or to say that it is a product of the human imagination is to say that it is not real, but as the writer Y. N. Harari has argued, the great forces that drive our world, religious beliefs, political ideologies, the state, the nation, economics, money, art, music literature, are all products of the human imagination.

Whether or not any of the exotica exist in any sense in the world of physics and geography, which may well be a meaningless question, is irrelevant. They are as real as the nation state, the laws that bind us and the money in our pockets. – Peter Rogerson


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS