23.8.10

WEEPING STATUES

Wendy Grossman and Christopher French (editors). Why Statues Weep: The Best of 'Skeptic'. Philosophy Press, 2010.

It’s always difficult to review an anthology, as the quality of contributions can vary greatly and the reviewer’s interest in different topics can vary. I think the only way you can judge a compilation such as this by how well it reflects the overall contents of the magazine.

The title refers to an outbreak of claims that statues of the Virgin Mary in Ireland and elsewhere, were weeping either tears or blood. This happened shortly before Skeptic magazine began life as The British and Irish Skeptic. It was first published in Dublin by Wendy Grossman, as an offshoot of the American CSICOP’s Skeptical Enquirer. However it soon developed its own character. I think that the Skeptic takes a rather less dogmatic view than the American magazine sometimes seems to.

The book's chapters are divided into sections with titles such as ’There Must be Something in It’ and ‘Favourite Popular Myths’ looking at some of the most common beliefs such as the Martian canals and face, the Mary Celeste, and Nostradamus. I think it’s reasonable comment that some of these topics have been debunked so thoroughly already that there is little need to reprise the arguments here, but I would say that by including these pieces the editors are aiming to present an overview of the magazine through two and a half decades.

One section optimistically headed ‘Whatever Happened To…’ looks at topics which the editors seem to think have dropped from general debate. I think not. Crop circles, Rendlesham and alien implants are still very much with us. Having said that, they are still well worth re-reading. Perhaps this section would have been better labelled ‘Still With Us…?’

The sceptical movement in the US and Britain has its origins in campaigns against outright fraud, and beliefs which, however sincerely held, could be dangerous and damaging. John Diamond’s denunciation of alternative medicine, written shortly before his death from throat cancer, is a powerful polemic (although not written in a polemical style). Mark Pendergrast, himself a victim of false memory claims, writes concisely and objectively about the manner in which these claims are allowed to grow.

A wide variety of topics are covered in other sections, including hoaxes (including the visions at Knock), abductions (a rather weak chapter, I think), perpetual motion, and an informative explanation of the sometimes very counter-intuitive workings of chance and randomness. It’s encouraging to see a few Magonians represented in its pages: Kevin McClure, David Clarke and Martin Kottmeyer discuss, respectively, the Millennium, Rendlesham, and the curious way in which UFOs have changes speed over the years.

Of course, this book is not going to change anybody’s mind, nor is it intended to, but for a good overall view of the issues that concern sceptical thinkers this is a very useful anthology. -- Reviewed by John Rimmer


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