Forteana Australis

Sceptical Fortean or Fortean Skeptic?

And, several weeks later, he finally gets his bum ino gear to post his second ever blog entry . . .

Sorry if any of you have been waiting with bated breath to see the latest instalment of Forteana Australis - it's been a hectic couple of weeks here in Wormman's Wild Kingdom. Now we have a long weekend, the worst of the marking is completed, the rain has stopped and it's a rather pleasant Monday afternoon to sit out on the deck in the remains of my tropical garden while the silvereyes forage for bugs in my bromeliads and tap idly away on a keyboard.

In my last entry I promised a short piece on my personal path to fortean. I think it's probably a good idea to get this out of the way before I disappoint anyone.

I am a scientist. I'm certainly not getting paid to be one anymore, but I think that the way I view the universe has a lot more in common with the scientific way of doing things than any other philosophy. I love evidence, you see. I've never been really good at religion because to my mind it involves way too much faith in things that aren't backed up
by evidence. I love the tools of good science - testable hypotheses, controls and double blind tests, because I know that humans are fallible beings who let their feelings and preconceptions get in the way of finding answers.

As I said in my previous entry, I've been interested in the weird long before I could call myself a scientist. Despite the fact that I devoured kid's science books as a child, the stuff I read definitely had a weird angle to it - dinosaurs are every kid's favourite monster, but when it came to nature books or documentaries, it was all reptiles and invertebrates for me. Naturally, my earlier non-fiction reading steered me towards science when I got to school, but I still kept the weird on board. I had a healthy bit of disrespect for authority, helped in part by the political environment in our household (where my father was still reeling from the undemocratic sacking of the Labour Whitlam government in 1975), so I thought it was most unfair that mainstream science didn't believe in cryptids or UFOs or ghosts - after all there was all this evidence and testimony.

I probably would have stayed a true believer if it hadn't been for religion, or at least what passed for religion in Brisbane in the 1980s. We were in the grip of a corrupt religiously conservative government, led by the corrupt religious conservative Johannes Bjelke Petersen. All of the stereotypes about the Deep South in the US could be said for the Deep North of Queensland. As a result we were exposed to the usual bans - no sex ed (not even in the most biological terms), movies banned and touring bare-breasted African dance troupes were regarded as the architects of moral downfall. Things reached their nadir in the mid-eighties when young-earth creationism was introduced to the science syllabus (championed by a frightening number of science teachers like Ken Ham and the two science subject masters at my high school) and my school discussed removing MacBeth from the English workprogram and books on stage magic from the library shelves because of their demonic influences.

Did I mention I was a teenager heavy metal fan who played Dungeons and Dragons and believed in evolution ? Triple strike.

While my father hated Joh for what he was doing to the SEQEB workers, I hated him for trying to get rid of the things I really cared about - serious stuff for an angst-ridden teenager. To make it worse, our mailbox was deluged with pamphletts from the local Christadelphians or from the League of Rights affiliated "Wake Up Australia", and the television was filled with televangelists. I hated "Christians". It didn't matter that the only ones I had contact with were the well-meaning and harmless but frustratingly insipid members of the Interschool Christian Fellowship, or the mad-eyed missionaries who were the only ones who would brave religious education in state schools so that they could tell us how evil Halloween was.

I read wildly - starting with Gould and Dawkins (from the evolution angle) but eventually finding Randi (Flim Flam) and the Australian Skeptics by way of Murdoch's only left-leaning columnist Phillip Adams. As is the case when one finds a group of like-minded individuals, I found justification for my prejudices. However, there was still a lost voice saying "But wouldn't it be cool if just some of this weird stuff was true."

Randi lost me with his campaign against Dowsers. My grandfather, a Welsh coal miner who came out when he was 25 and worked in mines right throughout the state could dowse. I saw him do it a few times, and once, when I was about 4 or 5, he did the trick where he helped me do it by touching my hands while I held the coathanger. I'm not sure whether there is some extrasensory perception that helped folks like my grandfather find underground water (to this day I hink he subconsciously picked up mundane signs on the surface) but I saw him find water pipes on several occasions, and that one time he helped me do it. Randi's treatment of folks who genuinely believe they have the ability, and his absolute refusal to countenance an alternative but mundane explanation apart from "self-delusion" or "con artist" strikes me as being unnecessarily mean-spirited.

Slowly, I drifted away from the other hardcore sceptics as well. Dawkins chose to use evidence for evolution to push his own special brand of fundamentalist atheism. Going to university exposed me to a few more viewpoints as well. I was shocked to discover that only a tiny minority of Christians were young earth creationists, and that the Catholic Church hadn't had a problem with evolution since at least the 1960s. I met people like my boss at QUT, a devout Catholic who thought that creationists were treating God with contempt. The internet broadened my horizons considerably and even found out that fundamentalist Christians weren't all obsessed with what I watched or how I spent my time.

I stuck with Gould and Sagan, both of whom seemed capable of proposing a few "out there" hypothesis (Gould with "Nemesis" or Shiva as he preferred to call it, Sagan with his "Dragons of Eden") and equally capable of abandoning them when the evidence came up against them. They also seemed to have something that the hardcore sceptics seemed to lack - a sense of humour.

So I was stuck between the believer of my youth and the Skeptic of my later youth, without any kind of philosophy to pin my hat to. I even lost the bad guys I could rail against. That's when Paul Sieveking and his Forteana column in New Statesman and Society came along, and I found something that seemed to occupy a middle ground. As a bonus, these forteans also seemed to maintain a sense of wonder and bemusement about the universe that is instantly attractive.

I still don't think I can call myself a true Fortean. If asked to choose, I still think that science has the best chance of figuring out the universe than any other philosophy. This means that I have a little too much faith in some of the faulty trappings of science as it is done (peer review for example). I'm more likely to be sceptical of a new claim made by believers than I am of a new claim by scientists, and this makes me a believer of sorts.

However, I do recognise the problems that science has - scientific discovery is more likely to be made as a result of funding priorities or the interests of those who supply the money than through some lofty "scientific method" of observation, hypothesising, testing and review. Scientists are fallible humans who are just as prone to having biases cloud their judgement as true believers, and when they gang up, scientists can be just as exclusive as any church hierarchy.

One thing does give me a little hope, though. The one statement that Fort made that resonates most with me is also the best approximation of a healthy attitude to scientific discovery. From Wild Talents :

"I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, than is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while"

I can think of no better way of summing up how a scientist should approach experimentation that this (as a matter of fact I use it as a way of teaching Popper's ideas about falsifying hypotheses to my students).

A few months back, our Bob said the following in the midst of an unfortunately mispelt discussion on what is Foeteanism :

"Forteanism is not science, but there is no reason why a scientist cannot be a Fortean"


So, what about Fortean Skeptics ? Given the activities of some of those who call themselves Skeptics, who seem to damn all of that inconvenient data, I'm not sure that the two can ever be compatible. However a sceptical Fortean ? I'm not sure you could be anything else but . . .


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