No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Nutballs, old and new

I took the whole week off work, so you have to suffer my prolixity.

I finished reading Science and the Paranormal, edited by [UCLA Astro prof] George Abell and Barry Singer. It's a generally skeptical look at various paranormal topics. It's kind of interesting that it was published (in 1981) by Scribner's, rather than some teeny-tiny skeptical press. The individual essays are mostly a few years older, and a couple were familiar to me. As a review of the book, I can say that a few of the essayists were a bit too far on the stereotypical armchair scoffing side, while others really brought their A game.

More interesting, I think, is how the book is like a time capsule of common nonsense, circa 30 years ago. Maybe it's not entirely gone, but I think we can say that biorhythms are on a negative part of their cycle. I can remember biorhythm vending machines in the 70's that would print out a little card or scroll with your chart on it. Now, even the pictures of them 404. Now, of course, you can get software to make your sine waves wiggle in 23, 28 and 33-day cycles, starting from your date of birth.

Similarly, we don't hear too much about the Bermuda Triangle anymore. I think the availability of GPS, weather satellites and other navigational aids have made travel safe enough that no one has much fear about it, which makes the non-phenomenon of the Triangle too boring to be able to sell books. Or maybe it was just a fad. Books on the Triangle were published through the 70's, but the trend peters off rapidly.

Kirlian photography is another fad that seems to have passed its prime.

Then there's the opposite - trends that have flared up since the book's publication. The chapter on UFO's is devoted to lights in the sky. No discussion of alien abduction, recovered memories, anal probing. Even the word 'Roswell' appears nowhere. How can the most popularized account of a UFO not make it in the book? Well, it's because the story of Roswell started to mutate starting with a book published in 1980, written by Charles Berlitz of Bermuda Triangle and language-tape fame.

The discussion of survival after death is also interesting from the historical perspective. By the time of the book, the age of spiritualism and the séance was largely over. By 1980, no one was producing ectoplasm out of their nose. And yet today a new fad has grown... that of spirits that communicate through frustratingly bad spelling: "I'm getting an M." But in the 1970s, NDEs were all the rage and the book reminded me of a film I'd seen back in the day: Beyond and Back, a 1978 'documentary' about NDEs mainly composed of reenacted recreations. I really don't remember it that well, but I do vividly remember seeing it with my cousins in San Jose... possibly at a theater at the Pruneyard.

Actually, the whole book is something of a walk down memory lane. Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, George Abell, all sadly passed away. James Randi, Ray Hyman, Martin Gardner, still with us, but for how long? And E C Krupp, now at Griffith, but I remember most from being at Kitt Peak and showing up frequently on Project Universe.
Frank Drake is still with us, too, and although I think his essay in this book is too optimistic about intelligent life elsewhere (though it's easy for me to say that after 30 more years of no results), you can hear the gears in Carl's head turning when he, no doubt, read:

This brings us to several important realizations. First, it is never worthwhile to send an actual object across space. It is always better to send the information detailing how to build an object than to send the object itself.

Okay, I think that brings my reverie to an end.
Tags: book, skepticism

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