On Robert Anton Wilson

Robert Anton Wilson was a writer of fringe topics in both fiction and non-fiction. For a non-physicist, he had a skill at turning the concepts of early quantum physics theory into quite readable narratives. He was quite clever, as evidenced through his fiction and non-fiction.

Unfortunately, he was also quite smug, clearly carrying anger toward certain people and groups, and also had an apparent support of certain pseudo-sciences. Of course, he and his fans would argue “who is to know what is science and what is not?” And a look at the Amazon reviews or various RAW forums and websites will reveal that Wilson has a cult-like following not unlike Ayn Rand, though not nearly as pervasive.

It seems that Wilson had a long, admiring relationship with Dr. Timothy Leary, and Wilson alludes to LSD trips in several writings. Perhaps that explains his fiction; perhaps not. I really had hoped to be more objective, but in reading his stuff, the natural skeptic – something which is apparently the height of intellectual dishonesty to Wilson – in me took over and as I read more and more, I found myself actually shaking my head figuratively and physically as I researched points and references. The three non-fiction pieces of Wilson that I finished read (to me) like a persecution manifesto mixed with just about every tin hat story found in Weekly World News or National Enquirer and their predecessors, with a sprinkling of quantum physics throughout. For some reason he had a serious bone of contention with CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal…now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) in general and Martin Gardner in particular. Why CSICOP? I’m guessing because articles published in CSICOP’s journal Skeptical Inquirer panned much of the pseudoscience that Wilson apparently liked. Why Gardner? I believe Wilson irrationally associated a single article Gardner wrote in 1950 (but later expanded in his 1952 collection In the Name of Science and republished in 1957 as Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science) with the unfortunate story of Wilhelm Reich and extended that irrational dislike (one might even think hatred) to all things Gardner – except his mathematical games.

On the recommendation of a commenter to a thread on a Dangerous Intersection discussion, I set aside other reading and writing projects to read Wilson’s The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and Citadel of Science. I had one of those “that name sounds familiar” moments and checked my book database. I discovered that I had Wilson’s Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy up in my library. I remembered trying to read it, but disliking it so much that I didn’t get very far – nor had I a desire to ever get very far. I really don’t like to get rid of books, and knowing full well that just because I didn’t like something doesn’t mean others won’t, I still had it. Besides, I have been known to change my opinion about something upon re-reading it some time (usually many years) later. So I pulled it off the shelf. The same commenter recommended Wilson’s Quantum Psychology as a starting point. So I read it first, Cat second (admittedly disparaging review found here) and struggled mightily to get through Inquisition. Not because the material was challenging – it wasn’t – rather, it was the compounding of fallacious arguments was so irritating.

Wilson felt the pseudo-sciences (not his term) were not given a fair shake…and that dogmatism must necessarily be avoided. Unfortunately, Wilson equated skepticism with blind faith and dogmatism, seemingly advocating accepting everything as possible and decrying the skeptics that demand proof. Further, Wilson disregards (or ignores) the natural skepticism inherent in science – the skepticism that requires a body of proof  – and focuses on the same treatment of the pseudo-sciences as unjust. I’ll address the Wilson-on-Gardner issue in my comments on Quantum Psychology, and The New Inquisition but I want to share a couple of Gardner’s observations (from Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.)

[…] the best means of combating the spread of pseudo-science is an enlightened public, able to distinguish the work of a reputable investigator from the work of the incompetent and self-deluded. This is not as hard to do as one might think. Of course, there always will be borderline cases hard to classify, but the fact that black shades into white through many shades of gray does not mean that the distinction between black and white is difficult.

That makes perfect sense to me. As to how some stuff gets published by even large publishing houses, Gardner says:

No one with any respect for independent thinking would propose that a publishing house or magazine be compelled, by any type of government action, to publish only material sanctioned by a board of competent scientists. That, however, is not the issue. The question is whether the voluntary code of ethics, so painstakingly built up […], is worth preserving.[…] The issue is not a legal one, or even a political one. It is a question of individual responsibility.

But here’s the crux:

An even more regrettable effect produced by the publication of scientific rubbish is the confusion they sow in the minds of gullible readers about what is and what isn’t scientific knowledge. And the more the public is confused, the easier it falls prey to doctrines of pseudo­science which may at some future date receive the backing of politically powerful groups.

Sound familiar? Written in 1952, those words couldn’t be more appropriate with today’s yellow journalism, urban myth emails and a viral internet. Gardner discusses the degrees “to which a scientific theory is confirmed by evidence” from theories that are almost certainly false through those with insufficient data, to those almost certainly true. He noted that the “problem of determining the degree to which a theory is confirmed is extremely difficult” and yet not really all that much of an issue. Gardner addresses the issue of argument from ignorance and the necessity for scientific dogma:

Actually, a certain degree of dogma – of pig-headed orthodoxy – is both necessary and desirable for the health of science. It forces the scientist with a novel view to mass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained. If this situation did not exist, science would be reduced to shambles by having to examine every new-fangled notion that came along. Clearly, working scientists have more important tasks. If someone announces that the moon is made of green cheese, the professional astronomer cannot be expected to climb down from his telescope and write a detailed refutation. [and quoting Prof. Laurence J. Lafleur, “in his excellent article” on “Cranks and Scientists” {Scientific Monthly, Nov., 1951)]: “…and it is therefore not surprising that the scientist does not find the undertaking worth while.”

But such scientific, rather, skeptical dogma is an anathema to Wilson. Wilson uses needling arguments throughout the two non-fiction books I read (and even in the Trilogy, but as it is fiction, it need not be considered in a discussion on the merits of the non-fiction theories) to try to discredit his critics before they can respond. To a skeptic, the tactics are obvious, even when cleverly disguised by someone as smart as Wilson in his narratives (though the effort to uncover is proportional to the level of fallacy…Wilson was quite good.)

I’ll summarize Gardner’s five characterizations of the pseudo-scientist/crank, but you can read the full text of his introductory chapter to Fads here.

  1. “He considers himself a genius.”
  2. “He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads.”
  3. “He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against.”
  4. He has a strong compulsion to attack the most prominent scientists and the best-established theories.
  5. “He often has a tendency to write in complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.”

Reading Wilson, and about Wilson’s pet likes, you might see these tendencies.

Gardner says the “amount of intellectual energy that has been wasted on these lost causes [the pseudo-sciences] is almost unbelievable.” If I had not been here with myself, I would not believe the amount of intellectual energy I wasted reading and dissecting Wilson. But, so that my effort is not in fact wasted, I’ll share my thoughts. I fully expect skeptical criticism of my skeptical criticism. I would hope that it is just that, though, and not the automatic gainsaying of anything I said.

I’ll start with Quantum Psychology, as it was easier to dissect. The New Inquisition was so filled with regurgitated anecdote after anecdote that eventually I gave up on pulling the thread on so many outlandish statements, conclusions, inferences and misleading remarks, as well as incorrect information. But, I have comments on it (of course).

I wonder if Wilson actually believed anything he wrote, or if he was a Howard Stern of the pseudo-science world. He was involved in Discordianism. Coincidence? Yes? No?

Maybe.

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5 responses to “On Robert Anton Wilson

  1. Pingback: Robert Anton Wilson redux | Random (or not) Musings

  2. Pingback: Wilson…still! (oh yeah…and dances, movies, books and beer) | Random (and not) Musings

  3. Pingback: Public Courtesy…plus Arts, Design, and Life | Random (and not) Musings

  4. Pingback: Discord or dat chord | Random (and not) Musings

  5. Pingback: Wilson! | Random (and not) Musings

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