Fortissimo

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the strange world of Forteana, suggesting that it was the sort of thing that would probably appeal to me. She was right in this belief – in fact, I’d come across the work of Mr Charles Fort before. I’d often passed the house in Bloomsbury where he lived in the 1920s while studying at the British Library (it’s on Marchmont Street, marked with a silver plaque, if you’re interested). I’d looked into the work of this fellow, and discovered that, unconsciously, I was already familiar with it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weirdness – ghosts, alien abductions, monsters in lakes, the lot. Believed in most of it, too. It was only when I got a bit older, developed the ability to think critically and learnt the difference between “true” and “things you really want to be true” that I developed that healthy level of scepticism that has prevented me from, e.g., giving heinous amounts of money to a homeopath every time I get the sniffles.

Charles H Fort is legendary in the circles that take an interest in strange phenomena – in fact, he more-or-less invented the concept of paranormal studies (or Forteana, as such studies are often called in tribute to the man). It may come as little surprise to sceptics among you to learn that he was not a scientist himself – in fact, he was a writer by profession. As anyone who’s read Dianetics can tell you, few things are more irritating than a writer who acts like he has scientific expertise without any actual academic study.

However, he did read widely. From a young age he took a great deal of interest in science. Like Yr. Humble Chronicler, he would appear to have been a science groupie rather than an actual scientist. He was born in New York in 1874 and, from a fairly young age, showed an independent streak (which I think is a polite way of saying “obstinate little bugger”).

His interest in science, combined with his rebellious tendencies,logically led him to take an interest in anomalies that science couldn’t explain. Anything weird and paranormal seems to have entered this field of interest, from spontaneous human combustion to rains of fish to UFOs. The only thing uniting his collection of oddities was the fact that science did not have a definitive explanation for them.

This, disciples of Fort are keen to emphasise, was the point of his work – that science does not have all the answers, and we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the opinion of the scientific establishment. This, I think, is a very fair point. After all, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have come from going against what is generally accepted as truth. It used to be accepted that the sun revolved around the earth and that ants have eight legs, but now we know better. Similarly, what we now consider to be a scientific truth may tomorrow be equally discredited.

Unfortunately, it’s here that Fort’s lack of a scientific background makes itself evident. The trouble is that, for all his impish mischief, Fort’s assembly of strange phenomena doesn’t really say anything to the scientific establishment that the scientific establishment doesn’t already know. No legitimate scientist would claim to have absolutely all the answers. Even theories that are pretty well established are constantly being refined and modified as new evidence comes in – consider the effect that the discovery of DNA had on studies of evolution, for instance.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the time, it’s the Forteans themselves who more closely fulfil the stereotype of the stubborn and short-sighted student of science. There is a tendency among believers in paranormal phenomena to say “If not X then Y,”  e.g. “If those lights in the sky are not any of these things, they must be alien spacecraft!” That is to say, they have no evidence specifically for their conclusions and don’t admit to the possibility that there may be yet another explanation that hasn’t been considered. This, to me, is just as narrow-minded as outright denying the existence of flying saucers, sea serpents, the Duck Beast of Wincanton &c, &c.

One wonders how seriously Fort himself intended his theories to be taken. His sources were often very dubious, he seems to have simply taken every record of weirdness at face value with no discrimination between scientific studies and anecdotal evidence. Some of his followers view him as a genius shining a light on the falsehoods of the scientific establishment, others view him as a Swiftian satirist out to troll everyone. Perhaps the final word on the matter should come from the man himself.

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud. Accept everything. Then explain it your own way.

Make of that what you will.

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1 Comment

Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, History, Lies, Literature, London, Museums, Notable Londoners, Paranormal, Science

One response to “Fortissimo

  1. Ignoring the scientific method seems to have been more common in Fort’s time, but there is no scarcity of that today. Very well written post.

    As an aside, I love how our advances in DNA analysis has opened up our understanding of evolution. One looks back and wonders how Darwin got so much right without an understand of even the concept of DNA.

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