12 August 2010


Gregory L. Reece. Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs. I. B. Tauris, 200

Robert L. Park. Superstition: Belief in an Age of Science. Princeton UP, 2010,

Macello Gleiser. A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe. Free Press, 2010.

The liminal zone between reality and fantasy is a strange haunted place, as a boy back in 1977 Gregory Reece had an experience - or dream or fantasy - in which he and a friend saw a great bird circling in the holiday summer sky. As the boyhood world in which dream and reality intermingled faded into the adult world of daylight reason and common sense, he labelled this experience a fantasy. It had fallen off the liminal tightrope into the world of labels. 🔻

But it would appear that this experience has helped stimulate Reece into an adult interest in the world of fringe beliefs; the Fortean realm of the damned and excluded. Already the author of studies of the religious aspects of Elvis worship and ufology, he now turns his attention to some other Fortean concerns, the realms of Bigfoot, Atlantis and lost civilisations, the hollow earth and the dero, of time travel and mysterious sources of energy.

In this book he is intermingling his adventures in these realms, going on a Bigfoot hunt in Texas, exploring spooky caves in Arkansas or attending a conference on alternate energies in Utah, with potted histories, which avoid the traps of belief and debunking. Instead he aims to celebrate the diversity of belief, looking for the psychological forces which drive people into obsessive interest.

Looking through these diverse themes, there seem to be more connections than you might think. Bigfoot believers see Bigfoot as the symbol of the perfect wilderness, untarnished by the stain of a corrupt and fallen civilisation; as believers in the hollow earth, Atlantis and other utopian realms dream of the perfect habitat, untainted by the corruptions, ravages and decay of wild nature. Its appropriate that these utopian realms are placed in unmapped places: inside the earth, in hidden valleys, under the ocean, on a hidden planet behind the moon, or in invisible astral realms, all safe from the attentions of profane geographers and astronomers. These places, like the Bigfoot's wilderness, are lands of lost content, like the mysterious ancient civilisations, echoes perhaps of childhood Edens.

Perhaps we can also see in some cryptozoological claims themes and echoes not far removed from the belief in life after death; the idea that nothing is totally, irredeemably lost, gone for ever beyond recall. Similarly the secrets of the lost past are thought to be recoverable. As can seen here, these means of recovery are not those of conventional science or scholarship; they are, Reece, argues closer to those of religion; personal experience, testimony and revelation.

Even those claims which at first glimpse seem to lie in the realms, however unorthodox, of science and engineering, such as those surrounding Nikola Tesla or various free-energy devices, turn on examination often to rely on personal revelation. The Tesla of the these neo-Teslaites, is not the real life engineer, but an occult messianic figure who controls the secrets of the universe which will redeem the world.

There are, however, other more secular appeals to these unorthodox beliefs, for Reece notes that though they often make claims to special esoteric knowledge, they are in reality radically democratic. They proclaim that in order to understand the secrets of the universe one does not need to have specialist knowledge requiring years of academic education, (or for than matter years of occult training!) but one can find them in paperback books, pulp comics and legions of websites. Joe Sixpack really can know more than the Professor.

Reece argues that a confident science, which he fully supports, should not feel afraid of these alternative visions, for they are part of the vital plurality, inheritors of the traditions of multiple voices, through which the printing press revolutionised the world at the time of the Renaissance.

For those of secure and certain faith, whether the traditional faiths of texts, creeds and quotations, or the more recent faiths of the great equation, such plurality is seen as a danger, as superstition or heresy.

Physicist Robert Park is one man of secure and certain faith, in his case that of scientific rationalism, and like the Catholic fathers before him, he sees the pre-existing folk religion as a pathetic superstition, destined to wither away before the One True Faith. Now in describing scientific rationalism as faith I do not mean to disparage it as a false or foolish faith, it is one which to a degree I share, yet faith it remains. It is faith insofar as goes beyond arguing that scientific method based on naturalism is the best tried and tested method of exploring, and producing fruitful models of, the empirical world, to the vision that it represents the sole road towards a hypothetical absolute metempircal 'truth', and a road to redemption. Here science, or rather scientism, takes on a distinctly religious tone.

Park may have good reason for this faith, for it was modern scientific medicine which saved his life, when he was crushed by a falling tree a few years ago, when all that the two Catholic priests who found him, and whom he later befriended, could do was administer the Last Rights. It is this friendship which triggered this book, one man of one faith arguing with two of another.

Many of his points are well made, such as his critique of 'alternate medicine', whose practitioners range from the well meaning, but probably self deluded; to con-artists battening on the desperate and despairing, and of whom there are no words in any language obscene enough to describe; or the poorly conducted experiments on the effects of prayer etc., some of which seem to have involved some very strange characters indeed.

However, as with many 'skeptical' works, what emerges here is less the genuinely sceptical and ironical tone that one sees in Reece's book, but much more the angry impatience of the person of faith who cannot understanding how anyone could be damned stupid enough not to share their convictions.

No doubt that this because, due to the vicious culture wars there, many scientists in the United States saw that there deepest personal values were under attack, particularly under the Presidency of George W Bush. In a sense they see themselves in much the same position as Christian fundamentalists and likewise draw into the laager. This sense of threat seems to have been exacerbated by the role of the John Templeton Foundation.

This was set up by Sir John Templeton, who was not, as you might think from the moniker some unworldly Oxbridge academic, or eccentric home counties baronet, but an American tax-dodging billionaire, who decamped to the Bahamas back in 1968 when it was a British colony, and thus got British citizenship by the backdoor. He was awarded a knighthood in 1987 "for services to philanthropy", though whether this was awarded by Lyden Pindling the notoriously corrupt Prime Minister of the Bahamas at the time, or Margaret Thatcher is unclear. It is clear that Park and his colleagues believe that Templeton used his fortune to buy his way into the scientific community and twist science for his own purposes.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that there has been a backlash, but there are dangers in not only arguing that every other world view except science is superstition, but that any empirical claim which appears to contradict the current contents of science, or whose devotees have implausible explanations for its working, must of necessity and without further detailed examination be dismissed.

There is however another potential irony, as physicist and astronomer Marcello Gleiser argues. For he takes the view that some of the deepest beliefs of scientists, that the universe is rational and orderly, that there will be a theory of everything which will generated the one equation that will bind them all, and which can be printed on a tee shirt, the conflation of "truth " and beauty, the idea of perfect symmetry, are all hangovers, superstitions if you like from the age of faith, products of a monotheistic culture. Gleiser in a haunting and personal book, argues that far from being the "way things had to be", the universe, life and everything are the products of 'accidental' broken symmetries. The universe is in some sense wilder and freerer than we imagine. -- Peter Rogerson

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