Essay Index

Science, Forteans and Skeptics

This essay describes and discusses the way in which science and scientists are represented in the Fortean and Skeptic communities. Both communities are interested in what might be loosely termed 'New Age' topics (although such topics might be more accurately called 'Fortean', as we shall see when we describe the Forteans). Both communities have their own ways of approaching such topics, into which enter such questions as trust in science, anti-scientific sentiment, and so on.

The Forteans and Skeptics are not professional bodies. Anybody, at any level of knowledge, can be a member of these communities, and subscribe to their magazines, join their societies, write articles, and so on. Nonetheless, members of these communities have particular views about the role of science in supporting theories or settling disputes about the natural world. Forteans and Skeptics have different views about the nature of reality, and how science can be used to answer questions about natural (or supernatural) phenomena. In essence, the disputes between the Forteans and Skeptics are of the nature of a science war. Skirmishes have been occurring for about 50 years, and can be regarded as the first minor engagements between opposing expeditionary forces. Although both the Fortean and Skeptic communities include professional scientists, these communities are not officially connected to the academy, although their interests might sometimes intersect with the academy. Both communities, however, attract interest from the lay public. There are, therefore, topics within the study of science and the public, such as anti-scientific sentiment, the science wars, trust in science, and situated knowledge, that relate to the Fortean and Skeptic communities.

This conflict between the different modes of thinking inherent in Fortean and Skeptic viewpoints has interested me for sometime. I have lived most of my life close to what was once a hot-bed of UFO activity (Warminster, in Wiltshire). Because of this, my earliest intellectual interests can be described as Fortean. My interest in UFOs led me to read UFO literature. Because Fortean topics often interrelate, and Fortean phenomena often interact, I started to read other 'paranormal' literature, relating to telepathy, the occult, poltergeist activity, and so on. My reading of this literature also began to encompass sceptical literature, which eventually led to the Skeptics themselves. It became evident that two general communities existed: a Fortean community and a Skeptic community; and that these communities had different views of how science could help in the study of 'Fortean' topics, how science worked, and how relevant science was to Fortean topics. Of course, these communities are not ring-fenced; there are skeptical Forteans and Fortean skeptics. Nonetheless, there are two pure types, and what differentiates them is their approach, or attitude, to science.

For this essay, I reviewed some of the 'founding texts' of Forteanism and Skepticism; the texts that inform the world-views of the Forteans and Skeptics - in particular, I was interested in the ways these texts referred to science, scientists, scientific method, and so on. I also read texts that discussed Forteans and Skeptics, which enabled me to see how these communities have modified or changed their views of science over time. Each community also produces a variety of magazines and periodicals, so I reviewed a selection of these, again picking out content relating to science and scientists. There are also Web sites and Internet mailing lists for both communities, so I also monitored and reviewed these. Given that, in general, the Fortean and Skeptical communities consist of lay publics, academic texts relating to the study of the relationship between science and the public were then reviewed, to bring together topics in the public understanding of science with the Skeptical and Fortean understanding of science.

The Forteans take their name from the assiduous collector of oddities, Charles Fort (1874- 1937). Fort spent much of his time in major metropolitan libraries, scouring newspapers, periodicals and scientific journals. From these, he collected unusual data which, he felt, could not be explained by science. Examples of such data included records of rains of frogs or fish, unusual objects seen in the sky, psychokinesis, extra-sensory perception, and so on. Bob Rickard notes his tenacity in the search for and collection of such data:

Twice, he burned his collection of tens of thousands of notes because "They were not what I wanted." Undaunted, he would begin his exhaustive reading and note-taking all over again, but in a new direction.(1)

Fort produced four books during his lifetime: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). Most of the intellectual interest in and support for Fort's work came from the New York novelists Theodore Dreiser and Tiffany Thayer. Indeed, it was only through Dreiser's bullying of his own publisher that Book of the Damned was published.(2)

Fort's pursuits seem contrary to the prevailing currents of pragmatism within American academic life, and more akin to academic thought in Europe. Robert Hughes, noting a decline in positivism in Europe from the 1890s through to the 1930s, states that the 'major intellectual innovators of the 1890's ... were obsessed, almost intoxicated, with a rediscovery of the nonlogical, the uncivilized, the inexplicable'.(3) Hughes also notes that, by 1905, writers had become 'frank irrationalists or even anti-rationalists'.(4) The last half of the nineteenth century was also the time of the 'occult revival': this encompassed, for example, the spiritual rappings of the Fox sisters, the ascended masters of Madame Blavatsky, and extended into the early twentieth century with the Golden Dawn, Krishnamurti, and so on.(5)

Against this background, mainly unheard and unread in his lifetime, Fort attempted to 'assemble some of the data that I think are of the falsely and arbitrarily excluded'(6), which he called 'the data of the damned'(7). Fort notes that 'the power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science'.(8) For Fort, science attempts to be 'real, true, final, complete, absolute'(9). However, it fails in this aim, because it excludes the damned, and in so doing, is as 'false and arbitrary process'.(10) Scientists have created the semblance of a stable, truth-seeking system only by excluding data that is irreconcilable:

All would be well. All would be heavenly -- If the damned would only stay damned.(11)

To show the foolishness of scientists, Fort mocks Antoine Lavoisier for claiming that what lay people thought of as a stone fallen from heaven – a meteorite – was simply a stone that had been struck by lightning:

About one hundred years ago, if anyone was so credulous as to think that stones had ever fallen from the sky, he was reasoned with:
In the first place there are no stones in the sky:
Therefore no stones can fall from the sky.(12)

However, what Fort failed to recognise is that this is the way science often proceeds. Data doesn't fit with current paradigms, and so ignored for a while. Mistakes are made and then corrected at a later date. Fort also doesn't allow for the context. Lavoisier was very much part of an Enlightenment tradition that was trying to create a science without superstition. Tales of falling stones were often accompanied by rural superstitions. Even so, it was only another 30 or so years until, through the work of Jean-Baptise Biot, such fallen stones were recognised as extraterrestrial in origin.

Fort continues, throughout his books, to march his damned data past his readers. There is a philosophy underlying Fort's magpie instincts: the philosophy of Intermediateness. Everything is connected, everything shades into everything else: there are no boundaries. Science's problem is that it does not recognise this, and instead attempts to create boundaries. Science, therefore, must inevitably fail. 'If Science', Fort writes 'could absolutely exclude all data but its own present data, or that which is assimilable with the present quasi-organization, it would be a real system, with positively definite outlines – it would be real'.

So impressed were Thayer and Dreiser with Fort's work that they founded the Fortean Society in his honour. The intention of the Fortean Society was to spread the works and ideas of Charles Fort. Members of the Fortean Society continued the work of Fort, searching for damned data, and published the journal Doubt. The Fortean Society dissolved on Thayer's death. In the 1960s, the ideas and techniques of Fort were reborn in the International Fortean Organization (INFO) in the US, and the Fortean Times in the UK. Both INFO and Fortean Times continue, aided by dedicated newspaper clippers, to collect unusual data, and also to publish theoretical work based on such data. There are also Web sites and email lists dedicated to Fort and damned data.

Ultimately, the technique of Forteanism is crude empiricism; evidence is amassed in the hope of finding correlations, or in the hope that sheer weight of the evidence alone will lead to recognition of the validity of a phenomenon. Even Colin Wilson – never knowingly shy of the paranormal – recognises this:

[Fort] spent his life collecting newspaper reports of weird and unexplainable events to disconcert the scientists, and then failed to disconcert anybody but his admirers because he tossed down a great mountain of facts like a heap of firewood and hoped they would argue for themselves. But facts never do.(13)

This continual, quiet, data collection is a hallmark of Forteanism. Every issue of Fortean Times contains a section called 'Strange Days', where the data collected by clippers is presented. Similarly, the Forteana email list is almost entirely concerned with swapping stories of strange phenomenon, with little discussion of any theoretical implications of these stories. This is in distinction to a typical Skeptical email list, where is there is much discussion, and little data collection.

Unlike the Forteans, the Skeptics are not centred on the life, work and philosophy of one man. Historically, however, the origin of the Skeptics and Skeptical thought begins with Martin Gardner. Gardner noted the:

rise of the promoter of new and strange "scientific" theories. He is riding into prominence, so to speak, on the coat-tails of reputable investigators. The scientists themselves, of course, pay very little attention to him. They are too busy with more important matters. But the less informed general public, hungry for sensational discoveries and quick panaceas, often provides him with a noisy and enthusiastic following.(14)

Gardner was concerned with such 'scientific claptrap' because he believed the public was being misled: for example, people were taking to Dianetics rather than seeking orthodox psychiatric help; the work of Velikovsky had re-affirmed fundamentalist belief in certain Biblical miracles; and the public were confused about what is and what is not scientific knowledge. 'And the more the public is confused,' Gardner asserts:

the easier it falls prey to doctrines of pseudo-science which may at some future date receive the backing of politically powerful groups.(15)

When Gardner began researching the work of the pseudoscientists, he was surprised to find that little previous work had been done in this field. He lists only three books in the same area. This meant he had to perform his own searches for pseudoscientific or crank literature to uncover the extent and intent of their writings. Ironically, much of his work was done at the New York Public Library(16) – where Fort had spent much of his time searching out his damned data.

Gardner's first Skeptical book, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (1952), covers a wide range of pseudoscientific areas, such as Dianetics, theories about flat and hollow Earths, UFOs, ESP and psychokinesis, and Wilhelm Reich's Orgone energy. Many of these topics have, in the subsequent fifty years, become the staple of the New Age, and, indeed, for Fortean explanations of damned data. Gardner's achievement, then, was to set the parameters within which Skepticism was to operate. If Fort's philosophy and methods had been influenced by the retreat from the rational, Gardner's were influenced by a celebration of the rational, and a return to the scientific positivism of the 1950s:

Since the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, the prestige of science in the United States has mushroomed like an atomic cloud. In schools and colleges, more students than ever before are choosing some branch of science for their careers. Military budgets earmarked for scientific research have never been so fantastically huge. Books and magazines devoted to science are coming off the presses in greater numbers that at any previous time in history. Even in the realm of escape literature, science fiction threatens to seriously replace the detective story.(17)

In the 1970s, the Skeptics became an organised movement, with the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) in 1976. The 1970s were heady times for the paranormal: the New-Age beliefs of the counter-culture had started to work their way into mainstream society; the study of UFOs already had a substantial literature and following; and 'psychics', such as Uri Geller, were astounding the public – and some scientists. CSICOP created a new magazine, The Skeptical Enquirer, in 1977. CSICOP and The Skeptical Enquirer provided a forum in which claims concerning the paranormal and pseudoscience could be objectively examined, in depth, and the results published. Skepticism became an international movement, with Skeptical groups and magazines appearing all over the world.

It should be noted that the Skeptics do not, of course, claim to be sceptics in the classical, philosophical, sense of the term. Classical sceptics doubted the 'capacity of senses and reason to furnish knowledge of the nature of things' and thus 'advocated suspension of judgment'.(18) Skeptics only claim to be sceptical of the paranormal or pseudoscience, and, as Michael Shermer notes, this form of Skepticism:

is embodied in the scientific method, [and] involves gathering data to formulate and test naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. The key to skepticism is to continuously and vigorously apply the methods of science to navigate the treacherous straits between “know nothing” skepticism and “anything goes” credulity.(19)

Shermer proposes that Skepticism could be more accurately described as 'rational skepticism', to signal its use of rationality – for which, read 'science' – in its methods. However, there is no doubt that the philosophy of Skepticism has affinities with Humanism, particularly Scientific Humanism, which has been defined, by Corliss Lamont, as 'a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion'.(20) Indeed, CSICOP was founded by the humanist Paul Kurtz, who is also founder and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism.

In many ways, the Skeptics and Forteans are obverse sides of the same coin. It is the Forteans who discover and proselytize the 'data' that the Skeptics then analyze. Ironically, it is the Forteans who are closer in spirit to classical scepticism. Classical Forteans – those who follow most closely the philosophy of Fort – reject dogmatic explanations of phenomena whether they come from the science or the humanities.

Martin Gardner devotes a chapter to Fort in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, in which Fort is neither scorned nor damned. Gardner notes that Fort doubted everything, even his own speculations. While Forteanism serves to remind science that no theory is above doubt, and that knowledge is provisional, it serves a 'sound and healthy' purpose.(21) However, when 'a Fortean seriously believes that all scientific theories are equally absurd, all the rich humor of the Society gives way to an ignorant sneer'.(22) Nonetheless, while science, Skepticism and Forteanism do manage to co-exist, there are clashes between the fundamentally anti-scientific Forteans and the fundamentally pro-science Skeptics. For example, a cross-posted exchange between a Fortean and a Skeptic mailing list led to a minor outbreak of hostilities. One member of the Skeptics email list asked for a definition of "a Fortean", and received a non-controversial reply, from another Skeptic, that defined the term and directed the querent to the Fortean Times web-site. Another respondent, however, provided a much more scathing analysis of the methods of Forteans. This was cross-posted to the Fortean mailing list, where a riled Fortean used similar rhetoric to condemn scientific methods. A small war then ensued, in which various Forteans congratulated themselves on being the true Skeptics and accused Skepticism of having religious overtones.(23)

However, there is a certain schizophrenia within the Forteans. Fort was avowedly anti-scientific, stating for example, that science 'is established preposterousness'.(24) Yet Mat Coward notes that 'core forteanism is primarily concerned with the defence of scientific method and intellectual inclusiveness'(25), while Ian Simmons states that Forteanism is not inimicable to science, feeling that Fort sets himself as 'as strong supporter of scientific method as opposed to scientific dogma'.(26) The Forteans, it appears, are not only battling with the Skeptics, but with themselves.

What Simmons and Coward appear to be saying is that Fort accepted the scientific method. It is only scientific dogma that Fort rails against – the dogma that asserts that the damned data has no place within current scientific theories. Therefore, the scientific method is at the heart of Forteanism. It is, however, difficult to believe that Fort accepted the scientific method when he states:

But that all scientific attempts really to find out something, whereas really there is nothing to find out, are attempts, themselves, really to be something. ...
Or that science is more than an inquiry:
That it is a pseudo-construction, or a quasi-organization: that it is an attempt to break away and locally establish harmony, stability, equilibrium, consistency, entity --
Dimmest of possibilities -- that it may succeed.(27)

Indeed, such statements seem to imply that all of science is little more than a social construction. Science can only model the real world by a reductionism that excludes particular data, and in so reducing the world, excludes the real world. Again, Fort asserts:

Science relates to real knowledge no more than does the growth of a plant, or the organization of a department store, or the development of a nation: that all are assimilative, or organizing, or systematizing processes that represent different attempts to attain the positive state...

There can be no real science where there are indeterminate variables, but every variable is, in finer terms, indeterminate, or irregular ... Science is the attempt to awaken to realness, wherein it is attempt to find regularity and uniformity. Or the regular and uniform would be that which has nothing external to disturb it. By the universal we mean the real. Or the notion is that the underlying super-attempt, as expressed in Science, is indifferent to the subject-matter of Science: that the attempt to regularize is the vital spirit.(28)

In their idiosyncratic way, Fort's ideas sound similar to those of Paul Feyerabend, who believed that the:

attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man ... entails, therefore, the rejection of all universal standards and of all rigid traditions. (Naturally, it also entails the rejection of a large part of contemporary science.)'(29)

Feyerabend suggests that science might be served by proceeding counterinductively, to 'introduce and elaborate hypotheses which are inconsistent with well-established theories and/or well established facts.' Fort did this all the time - for example, proposing that red rain might not, in fact, be rain that contained dust from the Sahara, but 'blood or finely divided animal matter ... Debris from inter-planetary disasters.'(30) Or that the falls of strange animals or unidentified matter could be explained by storms in a Super-Sargasso Sea that hovered somewhere in the atmosphere.(31) It is likely that Fort and Feyerabend would have agreed that modern science had created theories of 'great beauty and sophistication', but had only achieved this by ignoring all the discrepancies between theory and fact, which had 'to be concealed, by ad hoc hypotheses, ad hoc approximations and other procedures'.(32)

However, it should be remembered that Fort was working with both newspapers and science journals – particularly natural history magazines. Such journals, in Fort's time, still published the work of enthusiastic amateurs. As Fuller notes, 'by the first decades of the twentieth century... natural historians ... had come to be seen as the least professional of the life scientists, since their journals still published anecdotalist amateurs'.(33) Nelkin writes that the press was the vehicle for increased antiscientific tendencies in the early twentieth century, such as the 'revival of astrology and mysticism and the antievolution activities of fundamentalists'.(34) Yet much of Fort's work, and the continuing work of the Fortean community, is the collection of anecdotal evidence for strange phenomena from newspapers and journals. As both Shermer(35) and Sagan(36) note, anecdotes are not scientific proof. Forteanism is crude, Baconian empiricism gone mad. As Fort notes:

Sometimes I am a collector of data, and only a collector, and am likely to be gross and miserly, piling up notes, pleased with merely numerically adding to my stores ... But always there is present a feeling of unexplained relations of events that I note, and it is this far-away, haunting, or often taunting, awareness, or suspicion, that keeps me piling on.(37)

If Fort is a Feyerabendian anarchic, throwing out counterinductive ideas, the Skeptics are the Rottweilers of science, barking at the gates, mauling the damned data as it tries to enter. They are the traditional rationalists, embodying the scientific method, trying to save us, the 'lay public', from the monsters of irrationality and the paranormal.

The growth in the Skeptical movement coincided with the growth of New Age beliefs in mainstream society. The Skeptics were interested in refuting the alleged psychic powers of such personalities as Uri Geller and Ted Serios(38), in examining the reality of UFOs, in testing the efficacy of alternative medicine, and so on. Gardner had been concerned with such topics as far back as the 1950s, and saw education of the public as the best defence against such irrationalities:

The spectacular recent successes of pseudo-science have a value in publicizing aspects of our culture that are much in need of improvement. We need better science education in our schools. We need more and better popularizers of science. We need better channels of communication between working scientists and the public. And so on.(39)

Gardner's comments are a forerunner of what has become known as the 'public deficit model'. The public lacks understanding of scientific facts, and if the public could be made aware of these facts, it would better understand science, scientists and problems of public policy relating to science.

Of course, the Forteans could equally claim that there is a knowledge deficit among scientists, in as much as they only work with included knowledge, and ignore the damned data. Such an argument is, however, hard to sustain; there are many scientists working on paranormal phenomena – some of whom, such as Richard Wiseman(40) and Susan Blackmore(41) – tend toward scepticism.

The Skeptical movement has attracted 'star' scientific names, such as Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Jay Gould. Yet, despite this, and despite its preference for the scientific method, modern Skepticism could hardly be accused of 'scientism'. Skeptics recognise that the ’cookbooks’ of scientific methodology do not describe actual scientific practice. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, notes that science is influenced and shaped by human emotions, biases, preferences, and 'that scientists and the methods of science themselves are inexorably intertwined with their social and cultural surroundings'.(42)

Nor do Skeptics place unreserved trust in the pronouncement of experts. For example, the abilities of Uri Geller astounded the physicist John Wheeler, who almost immediately went to work testing children who had shown similar talents to Geller's. Wheeler's experiments convinced him that hundreds of children showed amazing spoon-bending powers. However, as Gardner notes, 'Taylor was supremely ignorant of conjuring methods ... [and] ... controls were unbelievably inadequate'.(43) The magician and Skeptic James Randi visited Wheeler and demonstrated how easily Wheeler's experimental controls were violated, and the ease with which objects could be bent while experimental observation of subjects was relaxed. Collins and Pamplin discovered how the ‘superminds’ of some of Wheeler’s extraordinary children bent spoons – the children waited until observation was relaxed, and then physically bent them.(44) It is interesting, given this work by Harry Collins that, in The Golem, he and Trevor Pinch assert that:

The favourable reception of unusual sciences such as parapsychology – the study of 'mind over matter', 'telepathy', and the like – has given rise to fears that the fringe sciences are taking over. An anti-fringe science movement has been spawned whose members take it on themselves to 'debunk' all that is not within the canon, in the name of proper scientific method. Where these efforts are aimed at disabusing the public about unsupported claims, it is admirable, but the zeal of these self-appointed vigilantes carries over into areas where they have no business.(45)

A similar argument from the scientific community against the work of the sociology of science community would meet a certain resistance. Nonetheless, Skeptics also note that over-zealous Skepticism has its failings; Sagan writes that a deficiency of the Skeptic community is in 'its polarization: Us vs. Them' – that is, that Skeptics have a monopoly on truth. Sagan suggests 'a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition'.(46) Sagan also recognises that 'if you're only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world.'(47)

Even Charles Fort recognised that 'there is not a physicist in the world who can perceive when a parlor magician palms off playing-cards'.(48) Hence the representation of magicians (such as James "The Amazing" Randi, and Penn and Teller) in the Skeptical community. Because there are highly able conjurers who claim psychic powers, the experimental verification of such powers appears to require a degree of experimental rigour over and above that attained by a physicist such as Wheeler. Magicians are using their lay knowledge – knowledge situated within a certain professional community – to help the Skeptical community test such claims of psychism. The use of such situated knowledge occurs in both Fortean and Skeptic communities. Both communities contain historians, cultural theorists, anthropologists, sociologists, and so on, which can bring their particular kinds of knowledge – knowledge situated in non-scientific disciplines – to bear on Fortean topics. On the other hand, much of the theorizing about Fortean phenomena by Forteans – where it does not question the very basis of science – questions the validity of scientific explanations of Fortean topics. However, Sagan notes that 'many pseudoscientific and New Age belief systems emerge out of dissatisfaction with conventional values and perspectives and are therefore themselves a kind of skepticism'.(49)

Oscar Handlin notes that, even when the public deficit of scientific knowledge has been addressed:

the ability to answer correctly questions about the new astronomy or physics or psychology did not modify old views about heaven and hell or about absolute personal morality. The two kinds of knowledge co-existed in uncomfortable juxtaposition.(50)

Various types of knowledge – of ghosts, of UFOs, of ESP – are situated within particular publics, and some of these knowledges are shared across publics. It is possible, for example, to have a public that believes in the reality of UFOs and ESP, but is as sceptical as a Skeptic about the existence of ghosts. These knowledges 'arise from a variety of local contexts and personal value systems'(51) and are not necessarily informed by scientific methods or theories. Local contexts might be anecdote or rumour; a personal value system might be a belief in the interconnectedness of all minds. Such situated knowledges can exist outside the realms of science – such as the recent vogue for angelology, which can currently only be properly approached through some kind of socio-pycho-cultural model – or they can 'touch ... upon the science of scientists, but ... not accept its limits'.(52) Such symbiosis between science and Fortean topics can be seen in such writers as Deepak Chopra or Fritjof Capra, where quantum theory meets mysticism.

Through various situated knowledges, the Fortean becomes Skeptical, and the Skeptical becomes Fortean. The non-scientific public can take a little pinch of science from over there, add it to this Fortean topic here, and arrive at something that attempts to explain the paranormal beliefs situated within that public. Rationality-irrationality becomes hyphenated. It becomes part of the Fortean continuum, where everything is in the process of both being and becoming something else.

Ironically, perhaps, while I was researching this essay, science provided a tentative reason for the differences in views between the Skeptics and the Forteans, and perhaps provided a solution to Fort's feeling that there were unexplained relations between the events in his notes. An article in New Scientist, headlined 'Paranormal beliefs linked to brain chemistry', describes how 'People with high levels of dopamine are more likely to find significance in coincidences, and pick out meaning and patterns where there are none.'(53) Ironically, science itself now seems able to explain why Forteans see patterns or meaning where Skeptics do not. Fort's old enemy, dogmatic science, attempts to explain him. How would Fort have felt?

This essay has described the way in which science is viewed and used within the Fortean and Skeptic communities. In particular, it attempted to indicate, for each community:

We have seen that, for the Skeptics, the scientific method is the tool of choice. However, this is not some normative view of science – most enlightened Skeptics are aware of how science actually works in the real world. For Fort, dogmatic science was the enemy, unable to approach truth, because in Fort's philosophy, anything that had to break things apart to get at the "truth" of the world could not hope to describe the real world. I was particularly fascinated by the way in which Fort's wild speculations matched Feyerabend's notions of a counterinductive science. However, whereas Fort himself was deeply sceptical of the ability of science to approach the truth, modern-day Forteanism regards science as one method by which the patterns in Fort's all encompassing 'continuity' can identified.

Both communities are interested in the same topics – those broadly called 'New Age'. Both communities have their views on how science should proceed when analyzing these topics. Differences in viewpoint have periodically led to skirmishes between them – which were properly the first battles in the science wars. The skirmishes between the Forteans and the Skeptics have been occurring at the fringe of the academy, but rarely impinge on it. Although there are scientists and academics of various stripes in the both the Fortean and Skeptic camps, the science wars occurring between the two groups have been more like guerilla warfare, struggling for the hearts and minds of a lay public still fascinated by the mysteries of the paranormal.

This essay has primarily described the role of anti-science sentiment, the science wars, and situated knowledge in the two communities. It has only touched upon other topics of interest, such as the public deficit model of scientific understanding, the communication of science, and trust in science and scientists. One or two other ideas also intrigue me. Fort should be a darling of the post-modern sociologists of science, given his ideas on dogmatic science, its incompleteness, the interconnectedness (holism?) of everything, the inadequacy of science's grand narrative, his philosophy of the unexcluded middle (fuzzy logic?), and so on. Why is Fort not more often referred to by sociologists of science, if only to recognise his primacy and pre-post-modernity? Equally, why is the border skirmish between the Forteans and the Skeptics rarely discussed by the sociologists of science? Here we have lay publics, full of situated knowledges, confronting each other. This is a confrontation that has been occurring for at least fifty years – before the Edinburgh school was even born. So, when Fuller states that 'arguments that now appear reactionary will probably contribute to the next scientific revolution as the "return of the repressed"', in Freudian terms'(54) , what is this 'return of the repressed' but the 'inclusion of the damned', in Fortean terms?


1 Bob Rickard, 'Charles Fort: His Life and Times',, 18/09/2002
2 Ibid.
3 H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought 1890-1930, p. 35.
4 Ibid., p.338
5 An interesting history of the occult revival is given in Peter Washington's Madame Blavatsky's Baboon.
6 Charles Fort, The Book of the Damned, p. 14. Throughout this project I have used the hypertext editions of Fort's works, which have been edited and annotated by the Fortean, Mr. X, at
7 Ibid., p. 15.
8 Ibid., p. 7.
9 Ibid., p. 14.
10 Ibid., p. 14.
11 Ibid., p. 18.
12 Ibid., p. 22.
13 Colin Wilson, The Occult, p. 38.
14 Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, p. 3.
15 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
16 Ibid., p. viii.
17 Ibid., p. 3.
18 I.G. Kidd, 'Sceptics', in The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, ed. J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Rée.
19 Michael Shermer, 'Skeptics Manifesto',
20 Quoted by Frederick Edwords, 'What is Humanism?',
21 Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, p. 49.
22 Ibid.
23 Emails to Fortean ( and Skeptic ( mailing lists, 20-21st February. 2002.
24 Book of the Damned, p. 20.
25 Mat Coward, 'Good Fort, Bad Fort',
26 Ian Simmons, 'Let's End Science Friction', FT no.107, February 1998, p. 45.
27 Book of the Damned, p. 17.
28 Ibid., p. 25.
29 Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, p. 12.
30 Book of the Damned, p. 40.
31 Ibid., pp. 87-88.
32 Feyerabend, p. 49.
33 Steve Fuller, Science, p. 15.
34 Dorothy Nelkin, Selling Science, p.80
35 Michael Shermer, The Borderlands of Science, p. 48.
36 Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World, pp. 170-171.
37 Fort, Wild Talents, p. 862.
38 Serios could create pictures on a photographic plate using only the powers of his mind!
39 Fads and Fallacies, pp. 321-322.
40 Researcher in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire
41 Reader in psychology, University of the West of England (until 2001)
42 Ibid., p. 30.
43 Gardner, Science: Good, Bad and Bogus, p. 182.
44 B. R. Pamplin and H. M. Collins, `Spoon Bending: An Experimental Approach', Nature, 257, 8 [4 September, 1975].
45 Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch, The Golem, p. 143.
46 Sagan, p. 282.
47 Ibid., p.287.
48 Fort, New Lands, p. 360
49 Sagan, p.283.
50 Oscar Handlin, "Ambivalence in the Popular Response to Science", in Barnes, p. 263
51 Jeff Thomas, 'Informed Ambivalence', in Science Today, p. 166.
52 Handlin, p. 266.
53 'Paranormal beliefs linked to brain chemistry', New Scientist, 24 July 2002
54 Fuller, p. 121.


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