From Exploring the Unknown
by Charles J. Cazeau and Stuart D. Scott, Jr.
(1979, Da Capo Press)
Introduction: Realms of Reason and Unreason
A Gallup poll reported by Newsweek (June 1978) shows that "Nearly six Americans in ten believe in flying saucers." This translates to about 138 million people. The same survey indicates that 60 million Americans believe in astrology. The elusive "Bigfoot" is thought by more than 30 million people to live on the fringes of civilization. An equal number are certain that the Loch Ness monster exists.
These statistics appear to be borne out by librarians, who are unable to keep up with the enormous public interests in books dealing with these and other allied subjects.
Is there any proof that saucers and monsters exist? That astrology influences our character and personality?
In our own examination of books on these subjects, a major characteristic emerges, and that is that the authors take facts and observations and manipulate them to arrive at apparently new truths. Involved in this process is the use of reasoning and logic, and interpretation of data. There are both correct and incorrect ways to do this. Those who have employed data and reasoning incorrectly to foster offbeat and often unfounded theories have been called pseudoscientists, especially by the scientific community. In this chapter we describe scientific thinking and the scientific method, and contrast them with the kind of logic and analysis drawn from what is labeled "pseudoscientific literature." We hope this will serve as background for reading the chapters that follow.
The Highland Bivouac
The following story is true. It illustrates what science would consider to be evidence leading to the proof of an idea conceived during the gathering of data or information.
Two American archaeologists had been excavating at Tikal, a famous Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala, during the winter of 1959. They decided to take a break from their work and go camping for a few days in British Honduras, which lay to the east. They loaded a Land Rover and set off. They picked the almost uninhabited Mountain Pine Ridge District of central British Honduras to establish their camp and then began leisurely to explore their immediate surroundings.
An open, flat area soon attracted their attention. They sauntered over to it, observing that it was about 100 feet square, and that the grass had been tramped down. Their curiosity aroused, they began poking around and asking each other questions. What was this place? Who had been here before, and when? For what purpose? At first there seemed to be few, if any, clues to help in answering these questions.
Then one man found torn fragments of paper. The scraps contained writing and it was in English, but they could not make out the exact meaning. The mystery deepened. The scientific instincts of the two men held them to the site, patiently probing the matted grass. Clues emerged. Narrow holes in the ground, shrouded in grass, were arranged in a rectangular fashion. Tent stake holes, perhaps? What was puzzling was the presence of shallow dents in the ground, in triangular groupings of three. Inexplicable, it seemed. But then, here were tire tracks, dim but distinct. Not simple single, but also double tracks, suggesting some kind of heavy-duty vehicle. The remains of campfires were discovered, partially concealed in the grass. Finally, maybe luckily, a critical clue was found -- a button. It was engraved with what appeared to be a military insignia. With that discovery, the enigma started to dissolve.
The two men reasoned that the square area had been a military bivouac. Because of its size and the areas enclosed by the tent stake holes, the soldiers numbered no more than 20 or 30. They had arrived in heavy, double-wheeled troop transports, set up tents, and staked their rifles tripod fashion in groups of three in front of their tents. This explained the groupings of three dents in the ground, made by the rifle butts. It might suggest also that there were three men to a tent. How long had they stayed? Unknown, but probably more than a day. Possibly several days. Time enough for a button to become lost. Time to eat meals over campfires, and for the comings and goings of booted feet to flatten the long grass. Time enough to write or read letters, tear them up, and scatter the scraps.
Armed with the tentative hypothesis that the square area was a military encampment, the two archaeologists then agreed that a garbage dump should be somewhere in the vicinity. They found it within minutes, just beyond the encampment area. The garbage, consisting mainly of empty cans, indicated that the troops had brought their own food with them, and had not lived off the country to any extent. No remains of game were found, strengthening this assumption.
A few days later the archaeologists verified their theory by consultation with local officials. They were informed that the British government kept small detachments of troops in British Honduras, that they were equipped with heavy vehicles, and that they did conduct maneuvers in the highlands. It was indeed they who had camped for a few days on the spot visited by the archaeologists.
In the preceding story, the two archaeologists, perhaps unconsciously, were using the scientific method in their analysis of the military bivouac. They gathered clues without jumping to any final conclusions. When they reached a tentative judgment of what the situation represented, they looked for garbage to test their hypothesis. Later, they sought verification from local authorities. In contrast, a typical pseudoscientific author might have taken the single clue of the military button and constructed an elaborate theory with the button as proof of the presence of a British Army detachment. To the scientific investigator, the button was no more than a single piece of information to be incorporated into an array of data before any conclusion could be reached. Furthermore, the button and the other observations made can only be construed as evidence when they are used to prove a point.
Scientific method stands apart from other varieties of thinking because it can be visualized as a group of guideposts and procedures to be used in dealing with problems or mysteries. Generally, scientists abide by these guideposts or rules in their investigations. The step-by-step approach follows this general form:
1. Recognition of a problem or mystery.
2. Formulation of a preliminary hypothesis to explain it.
3. Acquisition of additional facts through observation and experimentation.
4 Formulation of a new hypothesis.
5. Testing of the new hypothesis for its explanatory or predictive value.
Steps 3 and 4 may be repeated many times before we get to step 5, additional facts forcing us to modify our hypothesis, acquiring still more facts, formulating still another hypothesis, and so on. Our "final" hypothesis, in the eyes of the scientist, might still be tentative. Scientists hate to be dogmatic. This is because they use so much inductive reasoning in their work. Inductive reasoning is essentially a matter of the degree of probabilities. For example, if a bee lands on your arm and stings you on three occasions, you might well form the hypothesis that when a bee lands on you, it will sting you. However, there is no guarantee that on a fourth occasion the bee will harm you. With repeated stings, your original hypothesis will be strengthened, but only in the degree of probability. Nonetheless, the scientific method offers the best approach to gaining proof of an idea. It is useful in critically examining evidence presented by sensationalist writers. In addition to scientific method, we can use the interesting concept known as Occam's Razor.
Imagine that you are walking along a snowy street. Ahead of you is a man wearing a tall black top hat. To a group of small boys on the opposite side of the street, the hat presents a tempting target. One of the boys throws a well-aimed snowball at the hat. Let us propose two explanations of what happens to the hat. First, at the moment of impact, a band of angels swoops down and invisibly lifts the hat from the man's head. Or second, the snowball itself strikes the hat from the head. Obviously, we chose the latter explanation.
This is a simple illustration of the general scientific "principle of parsimony." Sometimes known as Occam's Razor and named for William Occam, a 14th-century English philosopher and theologian, it is the principle that the most likely explanation is best. We would add, at least until further evidence can rule out the most likely explanation.
Pseudoscientific authors often violate the principle of Occam's Razor, as we shall point out in the following chapters.
Fallacies and Their Recognition
The Importance of Fact. Facts determine whether statements are true or false. They are supposed to be hard bits of truth -- the bricks in a wall of reality. They exist independently, regardless of the opinion of others. The earth is round, and that is a fact. It was still round in pre-Columbian times even though most people thought it was flat. Although facts are regarded as solid, unyielding sorts of things, we all know that facts can be ignored, distorted, embellished, invoked for irrelevant purposes, or otherwise abused so as to impede progress toward truth. If an author who says he or she is clearing up mysteries of the earth abuses facts, then the effort is self-defeating. Abused facts, and the faulty reasoning and conclusions that follow, lead only into what we call the realm of unreason.
In our examination of writings which deal with mysterious events on this planet, we find many authors who take liberties with facts. We drew up a casual list (Table 1-1) showing some of the ways facts and logic can be misused. (We exclude lying and typographical error. We have no reason to believe that any author is a deliberate liar, and of course no books are entirely free from typographical mistakes.) Our list is not exhaustive, nor are the categories mutually exclusive. For example, a false assumption can be seen as factual error if one wishes to do so. Our list is merely a convenient reference for surveying some examples from actual books to illustrate some of these abuses of fact and logic.
Table 1-1. Some Ways in Which Facts and Logic Can Be Abused.
Distortion or exaggeration
Failure to specify
Appeal to pity
Argumentation ad hominem
Appeal to authority
Factual error. If a reader spots an error of fact, there is a temptation to be suspicious of everything else the writer says. For example, in his book Our Haunted Planet, John A. Keel is talking about Easter Island (p. 57):
On Easter Sunday, 1722, Dutch admiral Jaakob Rogeveen landed on an island in the Pacific some twenty-two hundred miles from the coast of South America. The first things he saw were hundreds of giant statues squatting near the water line, staring out to sea.
The statues were not "staring out to sea." With few exceptions, they were staring inland. Most of the statues were not in a squatting position, but in a standing position. Trivial? Maybe not. The orientation of the statues no doubt had important implications in the islanders' world view, religion, or other cultural aspects (see Chapter 8). Such errors of fact are a disservice to the writer, who wants to be believed.
Contradiction. This is closely related to factual error because indeed factual error is involved. A difference is that the reader has an opportunity to see such contradictions and become aware of error even though the reader is not an expert in the subject being discussed. A good example may be found in No Earthly Explanation by John Wallace Spencer, who in describing radiocarbon dating (p. 46) states:
The limit of the radiocarbon clock is no more than forty-thousand years because after that time very little carbon-14 remains in fossils.
So far, so good, until you come to the next page (p. 47) where Spencer notes that ". . . The fossil find was carbon-14 dated as being 135,000 years old." Could this date be a typographical error? We don't know, but at least we know there is an error somewhere.
Distortion or Exaggeration. The distortions are most evident on the covers of paperback books. The cover of Elizabeth Nichols' book, The Devil's Sea, proclaims:
Here are terrifying findings about the mysterious, deadly stretch of water where snips, planes, passengers and crews have disappeared without a trace to this day!
There are two distortions here. First, a careful reading of the book shows that a substantial part of it deals with UFOs and other subjects only vaguely related to the Devil's Sea (or, as it is more popularly known, the Bermuda Triangle). Second, at least half of the plane and ship losses did indeed leave "traces" such as wreckage (see Chapter 9).
Innuendo. An innuendo implies something that is not necessarily evident from the facts. It is so common an abuse of fact in the sensationalist literature that a single example will suffice. The reader can find many more with only casual research. In Spencer's Limbo of the Lost, he tells about the loss of a PB-4YW in 1945, and then observes (p. 19):
It was as though a small dress rehearsal had been conducted by whatever lurks in the Limbo of the Lost.
This kind of statement would be a tantalizing turn of phrase on a midnight horror show, but not in a book of serious inquiry.
False assumption. Often a writer will make a statement that he regards as true. However, sufficient and accessible evidence exists to cast serious doubt on the validity of the statement. We think of these as false assumptions.
In discussing the Maya civilization, Eric and Craig Umland (Mystery of the Ancients) make the false assumption that most scientists consider the Maya to have been a very primitive, unsophisticated people. As they put it (p. 36):
Can we continue to believe what we are told -- that the Maya were a "simple, agricultural people" with no knowledge of technology?
We cannot speak for all scientists, but in cases such as this it is instructive to consult an encyclopedia because it usually offers a view or views that represent a consensus. Here is what the Britannica says about the Maya:
The outstanding intellectual achievements of the Maya were in the fields of hieroglyphics, astronomy, and the calendar. . . . In architecture the Maya were far ahead of any other people in the new world. . . . Maya sculpture . . . is now acclaimed as one of the great art styles of the world. . . . Little wood carving has survived, but it is of superb quality. . . . Lapidary work, particularly in jade, is of extremely high quality.
Clearly, the scientific world has great admiration for the Maya and does not consider them as having been a simple, primitive people.
Irrelevant data. Information that has little or no bearing on the question at hand is frequently introduced by popular authors. In her introduction, Adi-Kent Thomas Jeffrey (The Bermuda Triangle) assures the reader not to be frightened of the Triangle because the tragedies are, statistically, very small. She then says:
This book is intended to stir up inquiry and answers; not panic and pandemonium.
Her objective, to "stir up inquiry," lies dormant throughout the first 41 pages (or 22%) of the book. These pages are devoted chiefly to the wreck of the Sea Venture in 1609 on Bermuda as a result of a storm, the loss of four out of five vessels from a Spanish treasure squadron in 1750, also because of a storm, and other documented history. These first 41 pages, although well written and very entertaining, have little bearing on the stated purpose of the book.
Failure to specify. Here is a quote from Timeless Earth by Peter Kolosimo (p. 26):
A human skeleton 17 feet tall has been discovered at Gargayan in the Philippines, and bones of other human creatures over ten feet tall have been found in south-eastern China. . . . In Ceylon explorers have found the remains of creatures who must have been about 13 feet tall, and at Tura in Assam, near the border of East Pakistan (Bangladesh), a human skeleton measuring 11 feet has come to light.
Unfortunately, these reports are not specific. Who discovered these remains? When? Were they deeply buried or near the surface? Are there artifacts associated with them? And most importantly, where are these bones today?
We think these are valid questions. The authors who report such finds do not ask these questions or investigate them, but seem to pass on quickly to other matters. This is strange. To examine, describe, and display such giant human skeletons, if authentic, would be an archaeologist's dream. For a layman, such a discovery would bring fame (and probably fortune). Lack of specification quickly calls into question the validity of the assertions.
Speculation. Of all the ways facts can be compromised in sensationalist literature, speculation is most rampant. Actually, a speculative journey can be most fruitful, creative, and rewarding if one undertakes this trip armed with facts. Charles Darwin, for example, arrived at the concept of natural selection after contemplation of (or speculation about) the thousands of observations he had made around the world as geologist-biologist during the three-year voyage of the research ship Beagle.
On the other hand, one who sets off upon the sea of speculation armed only with a few scattered facts and a heavy cargo of hearsay and conjecture is like a person cast adrift in a pinnace without a sextant. In many of the writings we have studied, speculation, in order to reach its end point or conclusion, involves some or all of the other abuses of facts we have already considered separately.
To exemplify speculation, let us examine a rather lengthy quote from Eric and Craig Umland, Mysteries of the Ancients (p. 103):
Doorway to the past. In the 1950s a story was made public that a map of the far side of the Moon -- the side never visible from the Earth -- had been discovered carved on a secret, round door in a recently discovered Mayan temple. No further information was ever released on this map; the story has been "forgotten" by scholars and government officials alike.
How could the Maya have been able to make such a map unless they had been on the Moon, or unless they had orbited it in some type of spacecraft?
The Mayan Book of Gold, which gives the complete history of the Maya, was hidden when the Conquistadors arrived -- hidden in a secret tunnel as yet undiscovered. A temple in Peru bears an ancient inscription that is said to reveal the location of a "tunnel" leading to the Ancient Lost World -- a world which is just possibly the Maya's home planet. For, if the Maya had bases on the Moon, they could easily have considered them as their doorways, or tunnels, to the ancient lost world of their original solar system.
The first paragraph is simply a rumor -- hearsay. The Umlands do not specify where they obtained this information, nor where this temple is located. Who identified this map? In the 1950s no one had ever seen the far side of the moon, so how could anyone have a basis of comparison for claiming that this is what it was? Note also the innuendo that there may have been a cover-up by scholars and officials. Who and why?
The second paragraph, expressed as a question, shows that the Umlands accept without question the proposition that such a map exists and move forward in their speculative journey to the proposition that the Maya had been to the moon.
In the third paragraph it is stated that the Book of Gold is hidden in a tunnel that nobody knows about (note: on page 37, the authors say that the book's existence was a legend, and that it was hidden in a temple). Here we have hearsay evidence, acceptance of legend as fact, and contradiction. The authors then shift attention rather suddenly to Peru to mention alleged tunnels leading to a lost world -- hearsay -- and from this they arrive at the unsubstantiated conclusion that the tunnel leads to the Maya's home planet, assuming they had one. The final assertion, again without evidence, is that the bases on the moon (?) are the tunnels to the Maya's original solar system.
This statement by the Umlands is a fine example of pure speculation. The following abuses were made:
1. Accepting hearsay as evidence
2. Failure to specify
4. Acceptance of legend as fact
5. Unsubstantiated conclusion
7. Irrelevant conclusion
There is not one substantiated fact offered in the entire passage. If one allowed oneself to be amused, it would be at the realization that there are no errors of fact in the entire passage because the entire passage contains no facts.
Appeal to pity. This kind of approach usually depicts the author as pitting himself against the "establishment" of orthodox science. From the Umlands' introductions, Mysteries of the Ancients (p. 9):
. . . we have been forced to attack some of the "sacred cows" of modern archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians. We realize that we shall be criticized for doing so. In the search for truth, however, sacred cows must often be sacrificed.
The authors will be criticized by scientists for searching for the truth.
Argumentation ad Hominem. This type of argument is an attack on an individual rather than what he says, and often takes the form of ridicule and sarcasm. In his book The Gold of the Gods, von Daniken raises the question (pp.10 and 12):
Is man really prepared to admit that the history of his origin was entirely different from the one which is instilled into him in the form of a pious fairy story? Are prehistorians really seeking the unvarnished truth without prejudice and partiality?
These questions are an attack on the honesty of individuals rather than on what they say and document about man's origins. Von Daniken continues this theme a bit later (p. 34):
I should like to know what tricks scholars will use to displace this fabulous metal treasure of inestimable archaeological and historical value. . . .
Here is another attack on the honesty of scholars, generalized (apparently) to include all of them, and predicting that the scholars will be dishonest in the future.
Appeal to Authority. Certain arguments can be buttressed by calling upon an authority or expert. Many writers do this -- all well and good. However, one must be careful to note if the expert's testimony coincides with his field of expertise.
In an interview of infantry Captain John Alexander by author Brad Steiger (Mysteries of Time and Space), Steiger questions the captain about an underwater archaeological (?) site near Bimini which some regard as a part of the lost continent of Atlantis. In this interview, the captain is the "expert." His credentials are given as follows (pp. 55ff):
1. Alexander has a military background.
2. He is Silva Mind Control representative for Hawaii.
3. He has been around the world a couple of times.
4. He has studied Buddhism.
5. He is an experienced diver.
6. He is an underwater demolition expert.
This is a fine set of credentials if one wishes to interview the captain about infantry tactics or underwater demolition. On those topics we are reasonably certain his answers would be authoritative. The captain was not being questioned about these matters, but rather about his opinion of the presumed archaeological site he had observed during one or more dives. He was questioned (in part) on the following points:
1. Was what he saw at Bimini a small section of what was once a much larger city?
2. What was the composition of the stones?
3. Are the structures off Bimini the remnants of a precataclysmic civilization? (The captain said yes.)
4. Did he find any artifacts in addition to the structures?
5. How advanced were they? Our equals? (The captain was affirmative.)
The captain's responses, some at great length, show that he is neither an archaeologist nor a geologist, and his testimony is unfortunately useless on these points.
Complex Questions. Many books ask numerous complex questions. Indeed there would not be much left of some books if the questions were removed. These questions are posed in such a way as to presume that previous questions have been asked and answered satisfactorily. Richard E. Mooney (Colony: Earth) is a source of many examples. Here is one (p. 17):
if man spent thirty to thirty-five thousand years as a wild hunting nomad, why did he suddenly become civilized?
This two-part question ("if" and "why") is posed as though the answer to each part, given as propositions, is "yes." Questions such as this serve no purpose other than to confuse the reader. On the same page, Mooney also asks, "How and why was the Great Pyramid constructed?" This is a more meaningful question, for which archaeology has some answers and seeks others. However, when such a question, without being answered, is imbedded in the context of irrelevant questions, it takes on the "taint" or innuendo of the irrelevant question.
Hasty Generalization. We all sometimes make generalizations, especially in everyday conversations. However, they should not appear blatantly in a book that presumably has been examined by several knowledgeable reviewers. John A. Keel, for instance, in discussing the ideas of Velikovsky, notes (Our Haunted Planet, p. 79) that these ideas were not well received by the scientific community. He then says of scientists:
They resented the fact that a psychiatrist dared to speculate on astronomy and archaeology. He was an intruder. Above all they resented the fact that his book was very well written (most scientists are miserable writers).
Author Keel generalized the nature of the resentment of the scientific community as being due to (1) the fact that Velikovsky is a psychiatrist, and (2) the belief that Velikovsky's book was "very well written." We do not know how many scientists even knew that Velikovsky is a psychiatrist. Does author Keel? Whether the book was very well written is a question people can judge for themselves. A well-written book may be full of mistakes. Many scientists think Velikovsky is a fine writer, but do not admire his selective pruning of those facts that militate against his preconceived ideas (see Chapter 13). Keel's final generalization that "most scientists are miserable writers" has no foundation.
False cause. The confusion of cause and effect is a commonplace with which we are all familiar. You have a headache and take an aspirin. The headache goes away. Was the aspirin the cause? Not necessarily. The headache might have gone away anyway. It is difficult to determine without much experimenting. It is a bit easier to pinpoint false causes in the great mysteries. Here is an example from The Mystery of Atlantis by Charles Berlitz; speaking of the breaking of the transatlantic cable in 1898 about 500 miles north of the Azores (Atlantis "territory"), Berlitz says:
While the cable was being searched for, the sea floor in this area was found to be composed of rough peaks, pinnacles and deep valleys more reminiscent of land than of sea bottom.
Berlitz seems to be saying that the varied submarine topography found is more likely to have evolved as land above sea level and is now submerged. In response, we would point out that, especially since World War II, sea-bottom topography has been mapped extensively. Contrary to the old-fashioned visualization of the ocean floor as a featureless plain, the sea bottom around the world displays varied topography due to the operation of such well-recognized activities as erosive turbidity currents, submarine volcanism, and faulting. The features Berlitz describes are quite distinct from landforms, which are shaped by somewhat different processes, especially stream erosion and chemical weathering.
Another false cause appears in the same passage of Berlitz's book (p. 89) when he states:
Grappling irons brought up rock specimens from a depth of 1700 fathoms which proved, upon examination, to be tachylyte -- a vitreous basaltic lava which cools above water under atmospheric [Italics in the original].
To the logical layman, this would seem convincing proof that sea bottom 1700 fathoms (10,200 feet) deep had once been above water, a persuasive "plus" for Atlantis. However, it is another false cause. The cause that determines the evolvement of the rock type in question is the rate of cooling, not whether it was cooled above water. These rocks can form above or below water and under pressures other than atmospheric pressure (see Chapter 10).
Finally, we come to the question implicit in this chapter. Is pseudoscience harmful? There are two opposing views of the long-term effects of pseudoscience on society. On the one hand, some writers suggest that pseudoscience is a form of irrationality that may be dangerous and costly to society. This is the position taken by the American Humanist Association and its daughter organization, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Both have taken a strong public stand against astrology and publish a journal to promulgate their crusade against pseudoscience.
Physicist James Trefil considers it an overreaction. He writes ("A Consumer's Guide to Pseudoscience"):
Pseudoscience has been around as least as long as (and perhaps even longer than) conventional science. Perhaps it serves some deep need of human beings to believe that there is still some mystery -- something unknown -- left in life. Maybe the unknown thrives because people like to see the pompous scientific establishment discomfited ("Okay, Mr. Know-it-all, explain this one."). Or maybe it's just that P. T. Barnum was right about a sucker being born every minute. None of these interpretations constitutes a threat to conventional science. . . . At its worse, pseudoscience is a minor inconvenience of the cocktail party variety; and at its best, it is good entertainment.
Our own appraisal of sensationalistic pseudoscience covers a broad panorama. And we firmly believe that pseudoscience truly is an old stage with new actors appearing down through the years. But although it may be a natural condition of life, we do not feel that the collective world of pseudoscience can be dismissed as no more than a minor inconvenience. Take the individual case of archaeology. It is first of all a science that tells us about ourselves, from all times and places. It enriches our lives. But more than this, it is a major source of information on the background of our history, our diseases, past climates, and natural disasters.
To accomplish these things, archaeology depends almost entirely on public support. Yet when the adventures of Erich von Daniken are identified as archaeology, the public is misinformed. When films and magazine articles make selective use of evidence to argue persuasively that archaeologists have somehow wrongly reconstructed our past, the public is again misinformed. The vestiges of human prehistory are rapidly disappearing under the impact of 20th-century technology. Pseudoscience may be more than a minor inconvenience when fantasy competes with scientific empirical research.
This completes our introductory survey. It has not been our purpose to be supercritical of any of the authors we have cited; rather, our purpose has been to point out to the reader examples of the mistakes we see, and make the reader aware of them. In most of the following chapters in this book, we will be looking solely at specific subjects to see how well they stand up to the principles and concepts of reason and logic.
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