Sunday, July 13, 2008

"Epic, ground-breaking, rocks science to its core..."

Let me note the recent passing of Lyall Watson, aged 69, author of the super bestseller Supernature, published in 1973, just in time to ride the tsunami of New Age fads that defined the time. The book had the subtitle "A natural history of the supernatural," which might seem an oxymoron, but was the key to the book's success: psuedoscience with a scientific gloss.

I don't dismiss Watson out of hand. He was a very smart fellow, well trained in science, who had an eventful and useful career that took him from his native South Africa to nearly every continent, ending up in the west of Ireland. But it was as a proselytizer of the paranormal that he rocketed to international fame.

I have the book at my side as I write. The illustration on the jacket shows a flowering orchid hatching out of what would appear to be a chicken egg. Nothing is impossible, was Watson's message; the margins of science are frayed, the boundary between the known and unknown is indistinct. He plied his trade in the fuzzy marches, offering what he claimed to be scientific evidence for just about every brand of the paranormal, from astrology to ESP to the antics of spoon-bender Uri Geller.

Our apparently insatiable appetite for the paranormal has always mystified me. Why get all atwitter about UFOs, crop circles, crystals, pyramids, poltergeists, auras and clairvoyance when the extraordinary ordinary lies just outside the window? Michael Faraday famously said, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true," which New Agers are quick to quote back at science. He might also have said, "Nothing is too true to be wonderful."

Watson's book was followed by a flood of paranormal bestsellers by other authors, on subjects ranging from quantum healing to alien abductions. In Skeptics and True Believers, I gave some suggestions for hitting the big time with psuedoscience:

1) Give your ideas a superficial aura of real science. Use words like cosmic, morphic, plasma, energy matrix, astral, etheric, resonance, chaos. As a justification for your unconventional physics invoke the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (see! even scientists are uncertain), or, if you want to sound really sophisticated, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Paradox (what's that? never mind, it sounds impressive).

2) Flaunt your credentials. If possible, put M.S. or Ph.D. after your name on the cover of your book; it doesn't matter in what field of study you acquired the degree.

3) Make sure your ideas are easy to understand. You may use schematic drawings of warped space-time, but, please, no mathematics.

4) Don't hesitate to point out all the things that real science can't explain: the origin of life, the development of embryos, memory, dreams.

5) Remember, your pseudoscientific ideas need evidence. A good rule of thumb is this: You can always track down at least a dozen purported occurrences of any phenomenon.

6) Distance yourself from the most simplistic superstitions. For example, make fun of newspaper horoscopes. But also make sure your new theory is roomy enough to allow for -- or, at least, not prohibit -- astrology, ESP, psychokinesis and other popular paranormal phenomena.

7) Keep your pseudoscience human-centered. Real science tends to make people feel isolated, generic, like cogs in a machine. Good pseudoscience makes every individual the center of a cosmic web of influences.

8) Learn from the masters. In this respect, I mentioned the prolific Dr. Watson, on the occasion of his book The Nature of Things: The Secret Life of Inanimate Objects.

9) Don't be afraid to evoke the wrath of the scientific establishment, as this will prove you are on to something big. The best thing that ever happened to Rupert Sheldrake was a bit of intemperate editorializing in the science journal Nature. When Sheldrake's A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation was published in 1981, Nature called it an "infuriating book...the best candidate for burning there has been in many years" -- and propelled the book into the stratosphere of New Age popularity. Subsequent editions of Sheldrake's book featured Nature's denunciation as a publicity blurb. Is the establishment running scared? Could it be that...?

10) Remember those famous lines from Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Scientists don't know everything. The key to success for any good psuedoscience is to amass enough anomalies, coincidences, oddities, exceptions, prodigies and wonders that the sheer bulk of your data will convince the reader that your theory is correct. After all, if orthodox science can't explain ALL OF THIS, then supernature or morphic resonance or ...(insert your own theory)...begins to look better and better.

Lyall Watson and other purveyors of the paranormal celebrate the ordinariness of the supernatural. I would rather celebrate the extraordinariness of the natural.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.