This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 18, Issue 3, from 2005.
Unlike Hilary Evans, I don’t have a picture library, but in twenty-odd years of freelance writing and reviewing I’ve collected various prose fragments which seem vaguely relevant to The Skeptic and its readers. Here’s a random dip into the sceptical scrapbook, or Skrapbook for short …
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US critic Edmund Wilson (1952) concludes his essay on Houdini with a couple of catty anecdotes:
The real situation, however, is of course that with the people who frequent séances, the difficulty is not for the mediums to convince them that the phenomena are genuine but for the tricksters to handle things so badly as to make their clients suspicious. A friend of mine was once told by a professional medium of a séance that had gone wrong when he had found that he could not get his hand free; he had tried to represent the spirit by touching the client with his cheek and then in a panic remembered that he had not yet shaved that day; but the lady allayed this fear, as soon as the séance was over, by telling him that the manifestations that day had been certainly their most successful, since the supernatural essence of the spirit head startlingly communicated itself by a sharp electrical pricking. One thinks also of the French savant who, as a result of methodical research, undertaken at the behest of the government, reported his success in establishing that spirits had hair on their heads, that they were warm, that they had beating hearts, that their pulse could be felt in their wrists, and that their breath contained carbon dioxide.
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Terry Pratchett (personal communication, 1991) reminisces about strange encounters in the days before he reached best-selling fame:
I remember, as a journalist, patiently investigating the claims of some apparently perfectly normal people who had, once you worked out the details of the glowing hemisphere that they had seen, watched the sun set.
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Julius Caesar (1980, translated by A. & P. Wiseman) whose interest in nature rarely went beyond the availability of trees to be felled and converted into endless bridges or fortifications, veers aside to discuss German wildlife for a couple of delirious paragraphs in which he seems to be channelling Herodotus:
There is an ox shaped like a deer; projecting from the middle of its forehead between the ears is a single horn that is straighter and sticks up higher than those of the animals we know, and at the top spreads out like a man’s hand or the branches of a tree. The male and female are alike, with horns of the same shape and size. There are also creatures called elks. These resemble goats in their shape and dappled skins, but are slightly larger than goats and have only stumpy horns. Their legs have no joints or knuckles, and they do not lie down to rest: if they fall down by accident, they cannot get up or even raise themselves. When they want to sleep they use trees: they support themselves against these, and in this way, by leaning over just a little, they get some rest. When hunters have noticed their tracks and so discovered their usual retreats, they undermine the roots of all the trees in that area, or cut the trunks nearly through so that they only look as if they were still standing firm. When the creatures lean against them as usual, their weight is too much for the weakened trunks; the trees fall down and the elks with them.
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A lady friend passed on this tale (Maple, 1964) of a 19th-century haunting with the delighted comment, “I may have found a vocation for my old age:”
Early in the 19th C, […] the ghost was first seen by a discharged soldier on tramp, a wild man who had broken every commandment and whose conscience was overloaded with crimes… One night, unable to find a sleeping place in the workhouse, he made up a bed for himself in a corner of one of the wards. He was discovered in the morning a changed man. He […] described the apparition in tones of terror. A thing had descended the stairs at night on three hoofish legs and with a voice like that of a roaring jackass bellowed through a grating where he was sleeping. It was a dreadful nightmare which came night after night. Watch was kept, and one night an old woman who walked with a stick was caught roaring and braying through the grating. Asked to explain herself, she said that this was her way of converting the tramp to a Christian way of life.
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Diana Wynne Jones (personal communication, 1991), a leading children’s fantasy author whom genre insiders rate much higher than J.K. Rowling, sings the praises of Alternative Medicine:
I don’t think I’ve ever been so ill so long and so bizarrely. I mean, I know ridiculous things are always happening to me, but who else in your acquaintance gets themselves poisoned by a homeopath? My agent kept ringing me up and protesting, “But they mix it with water so many times that they don’t give you enough to poison you!” Yes, they did. Did you know that in the back-to-front world of homeopathy, the more times you dilute a given poison, the more potent it is said to be? The one I went to kept bleating that she knew I was likely to react strongly, so she only gave me a very low potency – in other words, she gave me quite a hefty dose of some obscure poison, and my body, being unacquainted with Looking Glass World medicine, promptly went on the blink for three months. I feel quite sorry for it.
Which reminds me that after an uncritical BBC programme on homeopathy in the 1980s, the author Bob Shaw (sadly no longer with us) sent a wide-eyed letter to the Radio Times asking whether, by the theory of Dilution Is Strength, you should give children twice as many pills as you would take yourself. He was severely dealt with in the letter column. Any dilution or addition made by a layman, it seems, would not be a true homeopathic process and would not count; and the kids should get a half pill just as in real life. The logic of all this is elusive.
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By eerie coincidence – or can this be coincidence? – SF author Ian Watson and our old friend Colin Wilson offered the identical insight into mathematics just a few years apart:
The moment you draw a circle, pi exists. Yet it’s entirely irrational. There’s no rational answer to the sum ‘twenty-two over seven’. You can divide twenty-two by seven for ever but you never get a real definite answer (Ian Watson, 1977).
Ironically, the Pythagorean ideas suffered their greatest blow through one of the master’s most interesting discoveries – the so-called irrational numbers. The ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is 3 1⁄7. But if you try to turn this into decimals, it is impossible; the decimal for one-seventh begins .142857, and then repeats itself an infinite number of times.” (Colin Wilson, 1980).
For non-mathematicians, I should note that this is doubly silly. First, 3 1⁄7 (another way of writing 22⁄7) is only a rough approximation to the value of the mathematical constant . Second, a rational number is simply the ratio of two whole numbers – if pi equalled 22⁄7 it would be rational by definition. All repeating decimal numbers (like 22⁄7 = 3.142 857 142 857 …) are provably rational; the tricky thing about pi is that it doesn’t repeat in that simple-minded way.
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Again in the world of science fiction, I’ve been hearing about the Seattle-based rock band Blöödhag which promotes books and whose lyrics are all about SF authors. For example, this haunting couplet from the song “Alfred Bester”:
When Campbell fell under L Ron’s spell
Alfred said, “Man, you can fucking go to Hell.”
Of course Bester (1976), an author with a living to earn, said nothing of the sort when John W. Campbell – the incredibly influential editor of Astounding SF magazine – fell for Dianetics in the 1950s and started babbling things like, “It was discovered by L. Ron Hubbard, and he will win the Nobel Peace Prize for it”. Bester describes the embarrassing lunch with Campbell that followed:
Suddenly he stood up and towered over me. “You can drive your memory back to the womb,” he said. “You can do it if you release every block, clear yourself and remember. Try it.”
“Now. Think. Think back. Clear yourself. Remember? You can remember when your mother tried to abort you with a buttonhook. You’ve never stopped hating her for it.”
Around me there were cries of “BLT down, hold the mayo. Eighty-six on the English. Combo rye, relish. Coffee shake, pick up.” And here was this grim tackle standing over me, practising dianetics without a license. The scene was so lunatic that I began to tremble with suppressed laughter. I prayed, “Help me out of this, please. Don’t let me laugh in his face. Show me a way out.” God showed me. I looked up at Campbell and said, “You’re absolutely right, Mr. Campbell, but the emotional wounds are too much to bear. I can’t go on with this.”
He was completely satisfied. “Yes, I could see you were shaking.”
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Finally, a recent bulletin from Whitley Strieber (2002) reveals what hideous fate lies in store for courageous men like himself who oppose the global UFO cover-up conspiracy…
What has been happening to me is this: every night as I go to sleep, something begins moving against my skin, creeping like some sort of very slow insect. I have seen and held this object. I have tried to crush it. But I cannot. I cannot get a sample. It seems like a living thing, but I do not believe that it is alive in the same sense that we are.
About a week ago, I woke up and found it penetrated into my chest just above my collarbone. I pulled it out and tried to crush it between my fingers, to gouge it with my fingernail. It struggled furiously in my hand. It would not break up. I turned on the light and sat up, with the intention to take it into the bathroom and capture it in a water glass. But when I relaxed my grip just a little, it disappeared before my eyes, for all the world like some kind of a magic trick.
It has tormented me night after night….
Some of us suspect that the great man would do well to abstain from cheese at bedtime. Further Skrapbook instalments may follow, unless my editors think better of it.
- Bester, A. (1976). Starlight. 1976 New York: Berkley.
- Caesar, J. (1980). The battle for Gaul. (A. Wiseman & P. Wiseman, Trans.). London: Chatto & Windus Ltd.
- Maple, E. (1964). The realm of ghosts. London: Hale.
- Strieber, W. (2002). The coming of the dark side and how we can defend ourselves. Retrieved 4 January 2004
- Watson, I. (1977). Alien embassy. London: Gollancz.
- Wilson, C. (1980). Starseekers. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
- Wilson, E. (1952). The shores of light. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Young.