Monthly Archives: May 2011

50 books or series I’ll read again

This was harder than I thought, in part because so many of these are collections of three or more, which would have filled out the list very quickly had I listed them individually.

I do like to reread books, usually in parallel with other books and all the new material I stumble across every day. So many books, so little time!

  1. Dune by Frank Herbert
  2. The Lord of the Rings (trilogy) by J. R. R. Tolkien
  3. The Well World series (five plus three and two) by Jack Chalker
  4. The Amber series by Roger Zelazny (ten total, but until I’ve read the last five, I don’t know if I’ll reread them)
  5. Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen – this book shook the sense into me; can’t trust history books, and if there are no sources cited, it’s even worse
  6. Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science by Martin Gardner – the original skeptic; okay, modern skeptic; valuable even if 60 years old
  7. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  8. Modern Times by Paul Johnson – my first “real” book on history post-high school (actually, no high school books count – see #5 above)
  9. A Brief Glimpse of Time by Stephen Hawking
  10. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  11. The Timewars series by Simon Hawke – twelve books, science fiction based on historical works of literature
  12. Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
  13. The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality by Brian Greene – brilliant descriptions of cosmological theories
  14. Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al Franken – because it’s quite funny and I remember laughing out loud on a flight back from somewhere when reading about what he did to Bill O’Reilly
  15. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn – I get something different out of it with each read
  16. The Incarnations of Immortality series by Piers Anthony – eight books, interesting enough to reread
  17. The Apprentice Adept series by Piers Anthony – seven in this series, I like his games
  18. Rama series by Arthur Clarke – four books (the two by Gentry Lee don’t count)
  19. A Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – great science fiction
  20. Ringworld by Niven and Pournelle – more great science fiction; might also include the sequels
  21. Losing Faith in Faith by Dan Barker – a little refresher now and then
  22. Harry Potter and the … by J. K. Rowling (all seven)
  23. Four Lords of the Diamond by Jack Chalker – I really liked this series (of four)
  24. Math and the Mona Lisa: The Arts and Sciences of Leonardo da Vinci – it may yet help me bridge the gap between my mind and art
  25. Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono; more gap bridging
  26. A Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan; I read through it too quickly the first time
  27. Gödel, Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter – this first taught me about the math in music, despite playing trumpet for seven years when I read it
  28. Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos – he had some great observations in this book
  29. The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I didn’t like it the first time oh so long ago so I wonder if I’ve changed
  30. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  31. Space by James Michener – think of it as a fictionalized Right Stuff; it’s the only Michener book I could ever finish…and I finished it twice, so far
  32. The Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer – an all time favorite
  33. 1984 by George Orwell – to see what I’ve forgotten, and what he got right
  34. Letters from a Nut by Ted Nancy – this guy really makes me laugh out loud
  35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – for some strange reason, this story disturbed me so much as a 11 or 12 year old I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it and have never wanted to find out why; maybe someday it will be time to find out
  36. Silverlock by John Myers Myers – I didn’t get a lot of the references when I first read it, and I started again a few years ago, this time with the internet, but got distracted
  37. Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris – because he put in one small book so much of what I think needs to be said again and again in the US
  38. The Riftwar saga by Raymond Feist
  39. A Warlock in Spite of Himself by Christopher Stasheff
  40. The Wizard of 4th Street series by Simon Hawke; and…
  41. The Reluctant Sorcerer (trilogy) by Simon Hawke – both because they’re good light reading and fun to boot
  42. The Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov – I’m reading his entire universe from I,Robot through to Foundation and Earth, so will catch these along the way
  43. Some Clive Cussler – call this an odd pairing, because I am not really fond of his writing style and his conclusions are always too pat, but they’re good yarns
  44. Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto – because it is the eye opener on what is wrong with compulsory education
  45. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson – another strange one; his pedantic style and deliberate thesaurical (coined that word just now) irritates me, but the first trilogy was quite imaginative
  46. The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – because I skimmed it in high school for a book report and have no idea what it is about
  47. Ghost Boat – and…
  48. Thin Air by George Simpson and Neil Burger – both good sciency fantasy fiction; I’m not sure how The Philadelphia Experiment (1979) wasn’t plagiarism of Thin Air (1977)
  49. The Matarese circle by Robert Ludlum – I used to enjoy his fiction, and this one was pretty good (BTW, The Bourne Identity was so much better than either of the movies)
  50. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – this is speculation, but I suspect in a few years I’ll want to check it out again
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50 People or Groups, Living or Not, Real or Maybe Not…

… I’d like to meet and spend maybe a half hour talking to. In no special order, and totally topical – the list would most likely be different next year or last year. Let’s assume we’d be able to converse regardless of the respective languages, and that they’d have to answer my questions honestly, even if such answers deflate the myths.

  1. Stephen Hawking
  2. Albert Einstein
  3. Charles Darwin
  4. Thomas Jefferson
  5. J.R.R.Tolkien
  6. Isaac Asimov
  7. William Shatner
  8. The cast of Star Trek (the original)
  9. The cast of Firefly
  10. Abigail Adams – because she fascinates me
  11. The person who first figured out how to make chocolate
  12. Rush – the Canadian band, not the Limbaugh
  13. Rosa Parks
  14. Bill Gates
  15. Grace Hooper – for her contributions to COBOL, a language I never learned
  16. Jesus, to see if he really existed, said all the things attributed to him, and ask what he thinks about the current state of his religion
  17. William Shakespeare, to see if he really existed and wrote all the things attributed to him
  18. Siddhārtha Gautama, to see if he really existed, said all the things attributed to him, and ask what he thinks about the current state of his religion
  19. Mohammed, to see if he really existed, …you get the drift
  20. Abraham Lincoln
  21. Josephine Smith, my grandmother, to tell her the Red Sox finally won another World Series
  22. Joseph Smith, to have a look at those tablets
  23. Dian Fossey
  24. Bob Hope
  25. Gary Larsen
  26. Benjamin Franklin
  27. Marie Antoinette
  28. Reiff Lafleur, because I’m curious how his life has been
  29. Aretha Franklin, to give her some r-e-s-p-e-c-t
  30. The native Americans – to warn them
  31. Gustav Holst, because I really like his suite, The Planets
  32. Jules Verne
  33. James Clerk Maxwell
  34. The Beatles, particularly John Lennon
  35. Mary Shelley
  36. Winston Churchill
  37. Marilyn Monroe (who wouldn’t?)
  38. Marie Curie
  39. Amelia Earhart, to find out what happened
  40. Werner von Heisenberg
  41. Galileo Galilei
  42. The designer of the Great Pyramid of Giza
  43. Leonardo da Vinci
  44. Nikola Tesla
  45. Martin Gardner
  46. Alan Turing
  47. M.C. Escher
  48. Captain Lipfert, to thank him for advising me that a degree in physics post-Navy might not be as valuable as one in engineering
  49. Clause Shannon
  50. Orville and Wilbur Wright

As I said at top, I’m sure this list would be different tomorrow.

R.A. Wilson’s The New Inquisition – a review of sorts

The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and Citadel of Science, by Robert Anton Wilson, is according to Wikipedia, “a book about ontology, science, paranormal events, and epistemology.” It is supposed to tear down the dogmatism of traditional (the Citadel) science. Maybe it does, but the entire book undermines its own objective with a who’s who (what’s what?) of fallacious arguments. Wilson purports to challenge the scientific establishment, accusing it of dogmatically dismissing, and even suppressing out-of-the-norm theories. Unfortunately, Wilson attempts this with unsubstantiated anecdote after anecdote, as if the “they can’t all be wrong” argument is sufficient. Unlike Quantum Psychology, which had moments of rational reasoning, The New Inquisition is more of a rant against CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal…now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and a select few of its fellows.

Right in the Introduction, Wilson draws the line in the sand:

This book speaks of a New Inquisition, a New Idol and a New Agnosticism. By the New Inquisition I mean to designate certain habits of repression and intimidation that are becoming increasingly commonplace in the scientific community today. By New Idol I mean to designate the rigid beliefs that form the ideological superstructure of the New Inquisition. By the New Agnosticism I mean to designate an attitude of mind which has been elsewhere called “model agnosticism” and which applies the agnostic principle not just to the “God” concept, but to ideas of all sorts in all areas of thoughts and ideology.
[…]
This book is deliberately polemical because I believe models, as tools, should be tested in that kind of combat which Nietzsche metaphorically called “war” and Marx called dialectical struggle.

Well. You’re right. Argument over. Let’s all go out and have a beer.

Okay. I’m being unfair. Unfairly dismissive. The thing is, he has a point…to an extent. Blind faith dismissal of every new and out of the norm idea (I’m guilty of referring to them as “fringe”) doesn’t serve intellectual and scientific advancement well. But Martin Gardner, Wilson’s apparent arch nemesis, has more and better points (darn that subjectivity of mine slipping in there). Acceptance of every new and out of the norm idea without rigorous evidence or critical analysis not only doesn’t serve intellectual and scientific development, but it reverses progress made (that’s my assessment…I am pretty sure Gardner never said something close to those words, but that’s the sentiment).

As Gardner notes in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, scientists cannot be expected to stop what they are working on and write detailed refutations of every theory and pseudo-theory that comes along. The nature of science is self-policing. First the scientist is expected “to mass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained.” Then he (pardon the sexist “he” – those who know me know that I strive for generic applicability and political correctness, but he/she gets to be clumsy) must endure the skeptical analysis of his peers. And if the process reveals flaws or errors, the burden of proof is on that of the claimant. Not that of the detractors. Why is that so conveniently ignored by Wilson? If the theories he supports stood the test, then he wouldn’t have had anything to write about.

Now would be a good time to admit an eye-opener I uncovered when researching points made in this book. Bertrand Russell, in his Our Knowledge of the External World collection of essays said

The belief or unconscious conviction that all propositions are of the subject-predicate form—in other words, that every fact consists in some thing having some quality —has rendered most philosophers incapable of giving any account of the world of science and daily life. If they had been honestly anxious to give such an account, they would probably have discovered their error very quickly; but most of them were less anxious to understand the world of science and daily life, than to convict it of unreality in the interests of a super-sensible “real” world.

Now, this is interesting to me, as Wilson spends some time trying to convince his readers that there is no reality…for different possible reasons. More on this later…

The “bad on me” eye-opener comes from Russell’s collection Mysticism and Logic

The logic of mysticism shows, as is natural, the defects which are inherent in anything malicious. While the mystic mood is dominant, the need of logic is not felt; as the mood fades, the impulse to logic reasserts itself, but with a desire to retain the vanishing insight, or at least to prove that it was insight, and that what seems to contradict it is illusion. The logic which thus arises is not quite disinterested or candid, and is inspired by a certain hatred of the daily world to which it is to be applied. Such an attitude naturally does not tend to the best results. Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him; and to read the book of Nature with a conviction that it is all illusion is just as unlikely to lead to understanding. If our logic is to find the common world intelligible, it must not be hostile, but must be inspired by a genuine acceptance such as is not usually to be found among metaphysicians.

The emphasis is mine. Confession time – I was reading this book to refute Wilson (didn’t see that coming did you?). Apparently, that was not the way to understand him. Oh well. As I’d already started…

Wilson give himself another “out” in that Introduction. He said, “[a]bove all, I still think the scientific establishment being satirized here is not nearly as nefarious as various religious establishments, especially those of Christianity and Islam.”

“Satirized”? Sarcasm and ridicule. And just how does one expect to be taken seriously if that is the structure of one’s argument? I can deduce that Wilson probably expected to be panned, thus was trying to clip the knees of the critics – a pre-emptive strike. He has lots of those derisions tucked in the book.

Chapter One, titled “Models, Metaphors and Idols” surveys traditional Aristotelian logic, criticizes Pure Reason and pronouncements (“is-isms” or “is-ness”…addressed more deeply in Quantum Psychology) and re-labels conventional concepts with fuzzy terms. “Matter” is cast as a metaphor, which daisy-chains into “time” and “space” needing to be cast as metaphors as well. In for a penny, as the proverb runs. Wilson starts out strong, but his asides begin to annoy immediately (“…using this more modern metaphor throughout this chapter, I am yet comprehensible even to those who are more accustomed to the pre-Einsteinian metaphors of ‘space’ and ‘time’ as separate substantives.”) My aren’t we a bit smug?

A couple of pages on Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment, containing a form of one of Schrodinger’s equations I’ve not seen (it may be a typo), but seems more correct than not. Curiously, Wilson quotes ”a friendly physicist”, Saul Paul Sirag in explaining the state vector term (of that equation). I couldn’t find a detailed biography of Sirag, but several references stated he is a physicist. I did find links to parapsychology and Sirag (and an Amazom.com review by Saul Paul Sirag of a book titled “Psychic archeology stranger than fiction” – the pieces begin to come together). A discussion/interview with/by author Jeffrey Mishlove (Sirag has a composing credit on Mishlove’s Book “The Roots of Consciousness”) relates consciousness with “higher dimensions” and speculates that we’re projections from a “greater mind”. Um. Okay.

Moving on, after a nice summary of Schrodinger’s mixed state results, Wilson asks “do we believe mathematical physics or do we believe common sense?” He follows that immediately with an accusation (“Readers familiar only with one form or another of Fundamentalism will assume I am about to answer that question.”) and a disclaimer (“I am not.”) But he really does…in a long drawn-out diatribe. In a footnote to the chapter, Wilson cites his other work Prometheus Rising on humans as domesticated animals and tells the reader that he dramatizes comically (my italics) the same in Schrodinger’s Cat. Hmm. I must have missed the comedy when I read the trilogy. I did learn something in the first chapter of Inquisition: I had no idea Margaret Mead was a proponent of parapsychology. Now, I only knew of her, and read a bit about her, so I dug deeper an read further that she campaigned to have the Parapsychological Association affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Whoa.

Chapter Two is where Wilson starts to take off. He uses a lot of devices – italics, “quote marks” and direct narrative to play at “I’m not saying this stuff is true. I’m just presenting it…you decide.” A lot of correct, but unnecessary words, too. I am guilty of that – trying to use a technically correct word, but losing the audience in the process – so it’s hard for me to fault him on that.  He does make a good point in “[i]t is possible that ‘truth’ only exists when one has already specified the context or field within which one is speaking.” And another in the “only escape from the trap [of saying that something is impossible], as far as I can see, is to be skeptical about one’s own skepticism.” Agreed…to a point.

Here’s an example of Wilson’s pronouncement that he decries in others; he relates an article by Professor Mario Munge in the Fall 1984 Skeptical Inquirer in which Munge says “Likewise telepathy may be a fact after all – though not clairvoyance, precognition, or psychokinesis, all of which conflict with basic physical laws.” Wilson comments

Leaving aside Prof. Minge’s odd tolerance about telepathy – Black Heresy to get printed in that journal! – note well what his sentence says and what it implies. It seems to me that it implies that he already knows all the laws of the universe, or all the important ones; and that is what I mean by a huge and audacious faith.

No. Munge says clearly “basic physical laws” – no implication of “all” laws. It seems to me that Wilson intends to frame skepticism as blind faith when good skepticism is not. Blindly dismissing without critical analysis may well be equivalent to blind faith, but true skepticism involves investigation. Still, sometimes one need not investigate too far to dismiss.

Page 37, Wilson sets the stage again – “Since this book is a venture in guerilla ontology…it will predictably be denounced by the Citadel….” Persecution complex. More pronouncements and judgments follow on the same page.

Page 38, Wilson begins talking about Wilhelm Reich, one of his favorite victims of the Citadel, and Martin Gardner, one of his favorite targets. He cites a book by Colin Wilson (clearly not a fan of Gardner), The Quest for Wilhelm Reich, describing how Reich’s work was burned by the FDA and he was imprisoned.

This was not “back in the dark ages”; it was only a few years ago. [1957]

Hello? Note the date: Um, McCarthyism, anyone? Wilson’s accusations ring hollow. Reich “annoyed” the American Medical Association. How exactly can a single fringe psychologist do that? Reich also “annoyed” the powerful American Psychoanalytical Association. Again, how? You can read on your own about Reich, his mysterious new energy “orgone” and the very unfortunate treatment of him and his work by overzealous members of a government agency. I want to address Wilson’s words on Martin Gardner.

The propaganda war against Reich had been led by Martin Gardner, a Scientific Fundamentalist whom we shall meet many times in these pages. Mr. Gardner has an infallible method of recognizing real science and of recognizing pseudo-science. Real science is what agrees with his Idol and pseudo-science is what challenges that Idol. Colin Wilson has written, “I wish I could be as sure of anything as Martin Gardner is of everything.” Not all the Popes of the 20th Century collectively have dared to issue as many absolutes dogmas as Mr. Gardner; no man has had such superb faith in his own utter correctness since Oliver Cromwell.
[and later…]
While Mr. Gardner, and several others, denounced Dr. Reich in the media, members of the American Medical Association and American Psychoanalytical Association pressured the government to prosecute Reich as a crank or a “charlatan.”

Wow.

I wish I could be as sure of anything as Wilson is as sure on his version of the story of Reich. And anyone reading Wilson without a critical, skeptical mind might buy into what he is saying. Fortunately, research is easier these days.

Why does Wilson (and others) single out Gardner for his comments on Reich’s different theories? The New Republic published an article on May 26, 1947 by Mildred Edie Brady, titled “The strange case of Wilhelm Reich”. You can read the article on Brady’s daughter, Joan Brady’s website (here and in part here). Perhaps the reason she is not called out for her damning article is that her point was to urge the standards of American Psychoanalytical Association be established as law (can’t practice without credentials, etc. She closes with

The only answer which established, well trained analysts have been able to give to this question of public protection is the old one of publicity. Educate the public to recognize the unsound practitioner, they say. But such education would appear to call for more hearty cooperation from those recommending it than has been given in the past. And the case of Wilhelm Reich shows how unreliable a reed publicity can be when it, alone, must carry the burden of public protection.

“Educate the public to recognize the unsound practitioner.” Harsh assessment. Now, Martin Gardner first wrote of Reich in an “Antioch Review” article published in December, 1950, titled “The Hermit Scientist”. Two thirds of the short article discusses L. Ron Hubbard’s then recently published Dianetics, Emmanuel Velikovksy’s Worlds in Collision, and George McCready Price’s The New Geology. Gardner observes that McCready, in 1950, enjoyed “the distinction of being the last, perhaps the greatest, of Protestant opponents of evolution.” Would the Gardner of 1950 have been surprised at the resurgence of opposition? Gardner then shifts to Reich with “But enough of Price. Let us turn to a more colorful scientist whose work has recently become a lively cult among the more Bohemian intellectuals of New York and elsewhere — the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich.”About 1,200 words later, Gardner hits hard,

The reader may wonder why a competent scientist does not publish a detailed refutation of Reich’s absurd biological speculations. The answer is that the informed scientist doesn’t care, and would, in fact, damage his reputation by taking the time to undertake such a thankless task.

Now Gardner, in a footnote, acknowledges that just because some scientists operate as hermits does not mean their works should be dismissed. The note bears quoting in its entirety:

It should be emphasized that the isolation of a scientist, the novelty of his theories, or the psychological motivations behind his research provide no grounds whatever for the rejection of his work by other scientists. The rejection must be solely on the basis of the failure of his work to meet standards of scientific adequacy. It is not within the scope of this paper, however, to discuss technical criteria by which hypotheses are given high, low, or negative degrees of confirmation. Our purpose is simply to glance at several examples of a type of scientific activity which fails completely to conform to scientific standards, but at the same time is the result of such intricate mental activity that it wins temporary acceptance by many laymen insufficiently informed to recognize the scientist’s incompetence. Although there obviously is no sharp line separating competent from incompetent research, and there are occasions when a scientific “orthodoxy” may delay the acceptance of novel views, the fact remains that the distance between the work of competent scientists and the speculations of a Voliva or Velikovsky is so great that a qualitative difference emerges which justifies the label of “pseudo-science.” Since the time of Galileo the history of pseudo-science has been so completely outside the history of science that the two streams touch only in the rarest of instances.

(emphasis mine)

Gardner revisited Reich in his 1952 book In the Name of Science, expanding the original article into several essays. Apparently, the book sold so poorly that it was largely ignored until it was republished by Dover in 1957 with the new title, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. By that time, the FDA had already done its work. The state of Maine was granted an injunction in 1954 preventing Reich from shipping his orgone accumulators out of state as well as banning some of his writings (overreact much?) but the actual injunction required destruction of the equipment and all written material relating to it (now overreact much?).  After acting as his own attorney when tired for violating the injunction, Reich was found guilty of contempt of court.  The FDA made his staff destroy the machines and burn the books and Reich went to jail. Tragic. No doubt at all.

But for some reason, Wilson and his cohorts blamed and continue to blame Martin Gardner. The Wiki article on Wilhelm Reich has an image of a fragment of an FDA internal memo from 1947 that references a phone call in respect to the Brady article and the wiki article says that Dr. J.J. Durant of the Medical Advisory Division of the FTC asked the FDA to look into Reich. Not Gardner. I could only find three times when Gardner wrote about Reich (1950, 1952 and 1988 – the 1957 reprint had additional material relating the trial, but was not a separate treatment). Still, Gardner is blamed. That says volumes about Wilson to a discerning reader.

Wilson wonders if Reich might be partially “or occasionally right. After all, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” The analogy is absurd. A stopped clock is either broken or not working…the “right twice a day” is merely a coincidence of a cyclical measurement of time and of no bearing whatsoever on any rightness. Wilson cites a book by Charles Kelley (A New Method of Weather Control) containing “pictures that conclusively prove that Dr. Reich’s experiments work…” with a sarcastic “all photos that challenge the dogmas of the New Inquisition are by definition fakes, of course”. I saw the pictures. Pretty funny.

This leads into his next attack on CSICOP which, if I understand Wilson correctly, has an incredible influence over the entire scientific community. He accuses Gardner and CSICOP of diatribes yet the rest of chapter two (yes! Still only on the second chapter!) is a long sarcastic, and at times immature, rant against CSICOP, Gardner, peppered with stories of strange alleged events (somebody “swilling molten lead”?) with more than a few “of course”s thrown in. And disclaimers.

The stories Wilson machine guns are too numerous to address individually. Such an effort would require a review three times longer than the original book..But careful checking will reveal errors in his recounting, even errors in credentials he assigns (a book by “Mark Rodeghier, astrophysicist” – Rodeghier has a BS in astrophysics, but a MA & PhD in sociology; that is misleading). And as for misleading, throughout his adventurous survey through the world of the unexplained, much is left out of his snippets; on page 88, he relates a February 23, 1992 article from Nature about an “unexplanined explosion ‘of startling intensity’ over London”, neglecting to mention that later in the same issue of the journal the incident is explained (as a meteor).

He’s very good at cherry-picking. On page 106, Wilson uses an argument from authority (“I got it out of Scientific American”) to mislead the reader into thinking that SciAm published a story about a stone in Yacqui Valley in 1910 that fell from the sky with design on it. What Wilson leaves out in his account as he wonders “how many readers have ‘forgotten’ it already or ‘failed to notice’ that it came from Scientific American” is that the stone was “discovered” in 1910 and the falling from the sky was an old local legend never once treated as contemporary in the SciAm article. For shame, Mr. Wilson. How many readers are taken in by the Erich Von Daniken approach?

Another misleading (if not entirely honest) story involves Sir William Thomsen (Lord Kelvin) and a telegram supposedly sent to the Niagara Falls Power Company saying “TRUST YOU AVOID GIGANTIC MISTAKE OF ADOPTION OF ALTERNATING CURRENT”. Thomsen/Kelvin was part of the committee that selected Tesla’s AC. He did think DC was superior until he saw a demo in 1893. What he said in the cable was that they would succeed, but that he preferred DC. That’s a big difference. Wilson’s recount seems to present only one side – that of George Forbes, engineer for the project – but drilling further one can see that the company that did the work refutes Forbes and corroborates how I’ve presented the story.

Wilson includes Carl Sagan in his snide attacks – Carl Sagan, of CSICOP. No. Carl Sagan of…Carl Sagan. Wilson gives way too much credit to this mythical power of CSICOP. Wilson accelerates the sarcasm and ad hominem attacks as he progresses through the book. Page 127, he says “[t]he best books are called ‘unreadable’ because people at first do not know how to read them.” I’m thinking that’s a pre-emptive strike.

His logic is confusing at times. He relates in several places a story from 1905 of a woman who burned to death – while her room was completely undamaged. A considerable effort goes into railing against the Citadel for dismissing the incident, for dismissing paranormal explanations, and yet never once does he offer the simple explanation that perhaps the body was placed in the room after it was burned. Of course, that would require that things be made to look like it happened spontaneously and mysteriously, but no, we must consider paranormal activity. Nor can we ever consider that someone just made up the stories. Because then we’d be guilty of his New Idolatry.

Another argument from authority: January 1906, Scientific American “rejected reports of the Wright Brothers; first flight as a hoax.” The editorial title was “The Wright Aeroplane and Its Fabled Performances” and was in response to a letter written to SciAm by the Wrights. It was apparently not kind, but the crux was SciAm wasn’t going to acknowledge success based on a claim without witnesses, which the editorial asked for, the Wrights provided, and SciAm recanted with deference to the Wrights for their “unostentatious manner in which [they] ushered into the world their epoch-making invention…” Skepticism was criticized. Is still criticized.

Wilson’s sarcasm and whimsy start to shine even more with his later chapters. He goes on about coincidence and the number 23, draws odd conclusions while overlooking or ignoring simpler explanations, explains much later that by drawing attention to ‘23”, we notice 23 more.

He spent a bit of time on Joyce’s notes for Finnegan’s Wake, using them to posit that “we are too quick in pronouncing things ‘real’ or ‘unreal’”. There is merit in that judgment.

Wilson commits a colossal error when he analyzes “Somebody does something that seems offensive to me.” He says the “Right Man approach – the modelthiest approach – is to decide ‘He is offensive,’ and to counterattack accordingly.” Then, looking at the issue from different reference frames, he says in Bohr, “He is offensive and he is not offensive”; in Buddhist Logic, :He is offensive and he is not offensive and he is both offensive and not-offensive and he is neither offensive nor not-offensive.”  How about, “He did something that offends me”? No judgment on the person, just the act. For one trying to challenge traditional thinking, he didn’t escape it himself.

Wilson uses arguments by scenario a lot. I presume he thinks he is clever, and to someone not reading the book with a critical eye, he might seem so. Pages 185-186 he tells a story about a “fashionable shoe” found on Mount Everest, followed by another story about a sled that flew 30 feet up over a house, crossed a street and struck a power line. Unrelated, implied psychic events, implied connections. “We report, you decide.”

I can’t tell if Wilson deliberately tried to annoy to provoke a response. I don’t know that he got many responses, save from fans. I don’t think he was relevant enough. I know that I couldn’t find any reference to Martin Gardner ever addressing Wilson (and cohorts) save in Howard Schneider’s testament to Gardner in which Schneider recounts a lecture of Wilson he attended.

Another time, when I was chatting with Gardner on the phone, I said that I had recently been present at a lecture by Robert Anton Wilson (the writer and somewhat eccentric science and societal pundit) and when I had asked a question and mentioned Gardner’s name, Wilson had drubbed him with some snarlingly bilious remarks. “He hates me!” Gardner exclaimed, but he seemed more upset that I had to endure Wilson’s bad manners than with his petulant comments.

Wilson is right in one respect – don’t take everything on blind faith. But he is very wrong in presuming that we can’t take most science on some level of faith (I’m not too keen on that word in conjunction with science, but I’ll stick with it for now.) Back to the observation of Gardner: the scientist with a novel view [has to] to mass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained. One of the Amazon reviews of this book said, “don’t believe everything you read.”

Especially this book.

For additional criticism of The New Inquisition, check out Kristin Buxton’s and Jim Lippard’s reviews.

R. A. Wilson’s Quantum Psychology – a critique

In Quantum Psychology, Robert Anton Wilson extrapolates quantum theory basics to metaphysical musings. Well, I don’t think he saw them as metaphysical. It’s a wandering trek from a reasonable survey of quantum mechanics through odd theories of something he calls Transactional Psychology, peppered liberally with his strong dislike of the Catholic religion and the skeptics of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal…now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and certain contributors to the CSI, ultimately arriving at his new quantum psychology.

I do think Wilson makes some good points in this book, but he also makes some very bad ones and fails to catch his own transgressions against the rules he is trying to promote. In his “Fore-Words”, he notes, among many other things, that “we […], quickly and unconsciously, ‘fit’ the data to our pre-existing axioms, or game-rules, of our culture (or our sub-culture).” I agree. His summary of pragmatism – “the best we can say of any theory consists of ‘Well, this idea seems to work, at least for the time being.’” – is spot on. Where I think he falls short is his rendering of quantum theory. I would argue that quantum “rules” do not apply to a macro level any more than Newtonian and Einsteinian “rules” apply on a quantum level. And certainly not to something as variable as psychology. Yes, given the statistical nature of quantum physics one might think they pair up well, but Wilson invents a quantum consciousness to explain non-local pairing of actions virtually anyone in the world would term coincidence.

For the quantum theory part of this book, the rewording of the complex concepts reflects well on Wilson’s journalist skills. His biases and smugness unfortunately detract.

Wilson is a fan of Bohr’s “Copenhagen Interpretation”, digging right into it in Chapter Two. He notes

The Copenhagen Interpretation then means, not that there “is” no “deep reality”, but that scientific method can never experimentally locate or demonstrate a “deep reality” that explains all other relative (instrumental) “realities”.

Maybe we cannot know “any” reality, but I think we can know “most” of a reality insofar as it is apparent to us. If the alternatives, theoretical or perhaps practical, are impossible for us to perceive, then aren’t they really irrelevant on a macroscopic scale? And he offers “In short, we can know what our instruments and brains tell us (but we cannot know if our instruments and brains have reported accurately until other researchers duplicate our work… )” I agree completely. But, the principles of convergence of data, corroboration of observations,… statistical majorities… mean that we can know most of what we observe is the best model for what we observe.

A few pages later, he hints at things to come:

You create your own model of reality, or you create your own reality-tunnel (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant, if much maligned, Dr. Timothy Leary), or (as they say in sociology) you create your own gloss of the “realities” you encounter.

Emphasis Wilson’s. (You’ll see a lot on Wilson’s favorites in his writings. Not a problem, but one will observe that those favorites number among those considered fringe.)

Chapter Three opens with a shocker: “By the way, I have no academic qualifications to write about Quantum Mechanics at all, but this has not prevented me from discussing the subject quite cheerfully in four previous books.” Okay, maybe not so shocking. He does a good job summarizing the concepts. But in this chapter he introduces his thesis taking the opposite position that “dares to disagree with [the] accepted wisdom” that “quantum uncertainty only applies to the sub-atomic world and that ordinary affairs ‘we still live in a Newtonian universe’” Where I agreed with his comment on observations and measurements, on this I couldn’t disagree with him more, as I’ve already indicated. Save for a statistically insignificant theoretical portion, our “ordinary affairs” are conducted in a Newtonian universe. We have to work very hard to confirm the Einsteinian relativistic models, and even harder to observe possible confirmations of quantum physics. In very nearly everything, the Newtonian model still works. It is “close enough.”

Wilson plays a lot with words. Stuff I call philosophical BS. “Is that a chair? Not a chair? Probably a chair.” He cites alligators in NY sewers and UFO sightings as challenges “premature certitudes of Dogmatic Believers and Dogmatic Deniers” claiming

…those who know the most about neuroscience display the greatest agnosticism about these critters and also have the greatest unwillingness to judge them

Where does that come from? I don’t think Wilson asked the right question. It shouldn’t be “can these things be true?”, but “why do people think these things are true?”

He spends a lot of time arguing circularly that the universe only exists in our heads which are contained within the universe we perceive. Page 55 rambles in a semantic sleight of hand, proving that we are our own grandparents (not really that example, but that’s the concept.) He then regresses into an exercise of infinite regression and circular logic in trying to identify how we can perceive that we perceive with “but wait, there’s more” just around the corner.

In Chapter Six (“The Flight From Reason & The Cult of Instruments”), Wilson talks about feedback loops of “increasingly subtle instruments” needed to tell us “where and when the Universe failed to agree with our Logic or our math.” But he hangs his argument refuting measurement and observation (two hands, hot & cold water, then together in one tepid bowl) without the explanation for the observation. It’s clear (to a scientist) that the self-correcting logic and measurement tandem work well to establish and refine models and theories. I recognize he’s arguing against Pure Reason, but I don’t think it’s a valid argument.

Wilson does note “the axioms (game rules) that seem natural or undeniable in one tribe or culture do not seem at all natural and are often denied in other cultures.” Excellent point. Rules are relative.

Chapter Seven (“Strange Loops & the Infinite Regress”) wraps up part One with speculation and the beginnings of deviation from – my assessment – sound science. Wilson in a single question without follow-up asks the reader if J.W.Dunne’s infinite regress of consciousnesses in time is expected. A little digging reveals Dunne believed he experienced precognitive dreams containing “past & future events”. So parapsychology is finally introduced (one should obviously expect so from a book titled “Quantum Psychology”.) I wonder if Dunne ever considered how his “knowledge” of the alleged future events affected the outcome of those events. Wilson cites coincidence as “inescapably link[ing] Quantum Mechanics with daily-life psychology or ordinary kitchen-sink consciousness.” He even posits “[a]t this point some readers may want to bail out or throw the book away” – but I persevered.

Wilson dismissed a thermodynamic probability that air being evenly distributed in a space is not 100% – he dismisses the insignificant as negligible yet cries about how do we know anything for sure?

I have called the ideas herein Quantum Psychology because the consequences of Relativity, Uncertainty and Indeterminacy have literally earth-shaking implications for our daily lives, our “mental health,” our relations with other humans, and even our deepest social problems and our relations with the rest of the Earth and the Cosmos itself. As Count Alfred Korzybski noted in the 1930s, if all people learned to think in the non-Aristotelian manner of quantum mechanics, the world would change so radically that most of what we call “stupidity” and even a great deal of what we consider “insanity” might disappear, and the “intractable” problems of war, poverty and injustice would suddenly seem a great deal closer to solution.

Why “literally earth-shaking”? And the italicized  is a rather bold statement – and without support. That is, Wilson provides none.

In the next chapter on quantum logic, Wilson talks about a coin flip and asks what state the coin is in before it hits the floor. He’s trying to set the Schrodinger’s Cat stage, but I’ll argue it doesn’t matter what state the coin is in – we’re only concerned with (we only measure) the end state. Now, if the intent of the experiment is to identify a state during the flip, then the conditions of the observation are poorly defined. It’s a misleading scenario, and one of many to follow. In the yes/no/maybe of John Von Neumann’s logic, Wilson says the coin during the flip is maybe. But is that even useful?

Wilson states that people ignore the quantum maybe because they haven’t heard of quantum logic or Transactional psychology. I submit maybe they ignore it because “maybe“ doesn’t always apply. Has nothing to do with quantum logic or Transactional psychology.

In Chapter Eleven (“What Equals the Universe?”), Wilson’s true colors start to show. He recounts (what he thinks) how the “pious Roman Catholics”, “pious Russian Communists”, disciples of Ayn Rand would answer the question the chapter’s title asks. And then…

However, aside from Catholics, Marxists, Objectivists and a few other dingbat groups like the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal or the Hard Shell Baptists, most of us, in this technological age, have at least a dim awareness that no coordination of words, however skillfully orchestrated, quite equals the whole universe.

Whoa. “other dingbat groups”? So Catholics, Marxists and Objectivists are dingbats? Not a good way to make your point, sir. And of course, CSICOP is lumped in there, because Wilson hates the organization. And any skeptical group like CSICOP that pans Wilson’s pet pseudo-sciences is necessarily dingbat.

He plays with semantics with an absurd train of thought about what does the word “water” mean and how the word does not only equate to a single experience but it cannot encompass all possible experiences. Um, okay. Who thinks it does? We’d have a Chinese alphabet of words – it’s bad enough how many are already in our languages. There is no one size fits all, and it is silly to think there could be, thus the argument is pointless. We use words to represent concepts. We need not know the mass and arrangements of the quarks that make up the sub-atomic particles that in turn make up the atoms that form the molecules that are water. That which we know as water is water, regardless of state. The rose is a rose argument. But I’m leading the conclusion Wilson is working toward….

This should tick you off:

Meditate on the difference between the two sentences following, and note how coding (typographical convention) helps us distinguish the two meanings:
1. Water is not a word.
2. “Water” is a word.
Got it? No, you probably haven’t. Not yet. You only think you’ve got it. ..

Arrogant twit. (I used a much less refined term in my notes. Bad me.)

A couple of the devices I noticed Wilson using are pronouncements without cites and name drops without lead ins. Page 149, he says of different personalities when drunk or sober, “[t]hus, most people have noted that something that happened to them while drunk appears totally forgotten, until they get intoxicated again…” Most people? I would challenge that, but of course, there are no references for the statement and Mr. Wilson is no longer available. And that observation appears to be a summary of a “Dr. Rossi” who had something to say about separate personalities. I looked up “Dr. Rossi”, found an Ernest Lawrence Rossi whose bio/profile fit the Wilson model (hypnosis) but didn’t have much to follow up on. Oh, LSD makes another appearance in the same paragraph.

He deteriorates miserably with

E.g., if raised Catholic, they seldom become agnostics or zetetics; rather, they will move, like iron filings drawn by a magnet to dogmatic atheism, or even a crusading atheist “religion” like Marxism, Objectivism or CSICOP.

Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive, one can ascribe to both. And religion in quotes doesn’t save you, Mr. Wilson – that’s immature. The ubiquitous direct dig at CSICOP is funny, because Wilson’s favorite CSICOP target, Martin Gardner, was a theist, not an atheist.

As a trained psychologist (from a university without accreditation that no longer exists) I am surprised that on page 151, Wilson implies that disturbed or unhappy “imprints” may account for opiate addictions. “May”? Is that like “alleged”? Where is the basis for that pronouncement? And has he no understanding at all as to how opiates affect the nervous system? “May” starts showing up a lot at this point in the story. He suggests a “Winner Script” (attitude?) as contributing to longevity and “may” account for Bertrand Russell writing at 99, George Burns working at 100. That “may” sidesteps other explanations such as different genetics. Benjamin Franklin appears (from the records) to have enjoyed life immensely, yet died younger than both Burns and Russell. Of course one can find instances to support the “may” conclusion, but if one counted all those that don’t as well, the “may” may well turn out to be an aberration. That’s manipulating the data and not scientific at all.

His explanation of drunks using phrases relating to the exit of the alimentary canal (“Up yours, buddy,”) as stemming from “toilet training and mammalians habits of using excretions as territorial fight-or-flight signals” is so bizarre at to be comical.

I guess Wilson was not privy to knowledge of animal intelligence as he states that language as a “time-binding function of symbolism gives humans problem-solving capacities impossible to most other animals (except, perhaps, cetaceans).” Or ravens, chimps, bonobos, elephants, octopuses, many other species of birds, etc.

But later on the same page 154, Wilson makes an observation that is dead on: “Most Americans seem quite happy in a mixed 19th Century Capitalist and 13th Century Christian universe,…”

My notes in the margins start getting longer at this point. He says electrons in quantum mechanics have a different essence each time we measure them and equates that to us jumping from different information systems. Electrons don’t have different “essences” unless he is saying that our readings change the actual electron. The information we know about an electron changes, but the “essence” doesn’t and the correlation is misleading, as humans use different information systems to process our perceptions. The logical fallacies mount up.

His biases accelerate, assigning absolutes to James Randi – as in Randi insisting on a fraud existing – in assessing an illogical thought experiment: non-locality effects illustrates by a billiard table without players and with no outside force, one ball suddenly turns clockwise and another turns counterclockwise. Of course Randi would cry foul…for the example cited…but I’ve never seen/heard/read Randi commenting on quantum mechanics. One of the problems of quantum concepts is trying to imagine physical corollaries to the theoretical and in this case, the billiard ball example not only doesn’t work, it can’t work. Has anyone ever made a claim of quantum non-locality applicability to billiard balls? In that respect, Randi would be right. On a sub-atomic level? Even Randi would not make that judgment as it would be unanswerable without the math and extremely special instrumentation. And for whatever reason, Wilson really didn’t like Catholics, or the Catholic religion. One can’t even try to use the “thinly veiled” argument – he is outright denigrating.

There are too many more problems with his train of thought to continue. But in addition to the ones noted above, I also liked other wonderful points Wilson sprinkled throughout:

  • “That rush for fictitious certainties explains most of the Ideologies and damned near all the Religions on the planet, I think.”
  • “Please remember that we deal always with probabilities, not certitudes, …” (But while this is a good point, I have to add that he never addresses that some things are so probable as to be certain – i.e. dropping a rock from a height above the ground will result in it falling due to gravity – regardless of whether gravity is a force or a warping of space-time, it will fall)
  • “I do not believe any model equals the universe, or universes, but I think alternative models will continue to proliferate because the data of modern science has grown so complex that many models will cover it.” (Many models will cover most of parts of it.)
  • (In a footnote on page 196) “Under the Reagan administration, Colonel Oliver North drew up the FEMA plan, allowing the President to suspend the Bill of Rights at whim. Similar plans appear whenever conservatives gain power anywhere.”