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.

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2 responses to “R.A. Wilson’s The New Inquisition – a review of sorts

  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

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