Misguided Ideas of Fringe Thinkers

Review by Donald Simanek

Worlds of Their Own: "A Brief History of Misguided Ideas: Creationism, Flat-Earthism, Energy Scams and the Velikovsky Affair" by Robert Schadewald. Xlibris, 2008.

Paperback $19.99. Hardback $29.99.
Paperback ISBN: 1-4363-0434-2
Paperback ISBN 13: 978-1-4363-0434-4
Hardback ISBN: 1-4363-0435-0
Hardback ISBN 13: 978-1-4363-0435-1

272 pages

Bob Schadewald was fascinated by independent thinkers. He followed with great interest the writings of people who refused to accept conventional and accepted science, preferring to invent their own personal world-view. Bob felt that to fully understand what science is and how it is done, we should also look at the misguided and eccentric ideas of those who don't fully grasp the methods of science, or who reject them. Bob considered these people to be mostly harmless eccentrics.

This posthumous selection from Bob Schadewald's published and unpublished essays (skillfully edited by Bob's sister, Lois) is an account of several varieties of pseudoscience, including flat earth, perpetual motion, Velikovsky, creationism and predictions of the end of the world. It explores the ideas of "fringe thinkers" who create their own versions of reality, contemptuous of established mainstream science. Bob knew many of these people personally. He treats them with respect, while, clearly revealing why their ideas were flawed and mistaken. His chapter on "The Philosophy of Pseudoscience" explores the similar thought processes of these independent thinkers.

Here you will find the story of Immanuel Velikovsky who rewrote the book on solar system astronomy to fit his own reinterpretation of human history. In the process he did violence to both science and history. You will meet Charles Johnson who knew the earth was flat as a pancake and the space program a hoax. You will be entertained by the story of John Worrell Keely who claimed he could tap etheric energy to power a freight train coast-to-coast on a gallon of water. These colorful characters provided an entertaining sideshow, but did no serious harm to science. But Bob also tells of various creationists who freely engaged in "lying for God" in their efforts to deny evolution and replace it with "creation science". They would be as irrelevant to science as the flat earthers, were it not for the fact that their theories are even today persuasive to religious fundamentalists, especially in the USA. Their motivation isn't scientific inquiry. They have a social and political agenda. What do all of these have in common? The book title says it. These "independent thinkers" build an elaborate world-view of their own, as an alternative to the accepted scientific world-view. Scornful of the "authority" of science, they are fully confident that their own intuitive "common-sense" is sufficient to answer the great questions that the collective scientific enterprise can not. Nor do they doubt that their personal naive insights, uncorrupted by higher education, can reveal truths that highly trained scientists are too blind to see. Bob had a special interest in folks who proposed and sometimes built perpetual motion machines, ever confident that they could achieve the goal of producing energy from nothing with a machine that put out more energy than it took in. Of course none of these ingenious devices have ever worked. The classic example was John Worrell Keely who, in the late 19th century, headed the Keely Motor Company of Philadelphia, with investments of 4 million dollars. The company continued for 30 years without ever paying a dividend or producing a product. It is now generally acknowledged to have been an elaborate scam.

Bob tells of more recent perpetual motion scam artists, some of whom he investigated personally. Arnold Burke built a machine he called "Jeremiah" that was supposed to recycle and burn its exhaust gases, needing nothing more than some circulating water to keep it running. But Bob outdid them all when he proposed his own perpetual motion machine, the B. S. Gravity Engine, unleashed upon the world in the April 1978 issue of Science Digest, under the title "What Goes Up." (The April publication date was no coincidence.) This classic spoof (included in this book) describes a simple wheel with an off-center weight. Bob argued that if the gravitational constant decreases over time (as some theoretical physicists speculated at the time) then the falling weight would gain more energy than it needed to rise to the top again, and the excess energy could be tapped to perform useful work. So ingenious was Bob's deception that even scientists were perplexed, and some embarrassed themselves with incorrect explanations of why it wouldn't work. Some argued that this thought-experiment proved that gravity couldn't be decreasing. Others suggested that the B. S. engine might actually work, and even if it only produced a ridiculously small amount of energy, it would demonstrate a flaw in the laws of thermodynamics. Still others conceded the machine would work by tapping the stored potential energy of the universe, leaving the thermodynamics laws intact. Bob never revealed the explanation, so far as I know, being greatly amused at the many failed attempts to solve his puzzle. You can read Bob's original spoof and a discussion of it at my Museum of Unworkable Devices 'What Goes Up'... Is Basis for a Breakthrough.

Immanuel Velikovsky wrote four books, the first being Worlds in Collision (1950). They presented a fantastic scenario of a renegade comet expelled from Jupiter, which wandered about the solar system, occasionally brushing earth, and causing the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the sun standing still for Joshua. It finally settled into orbit as the planet Venus. Velikovsky peppered his books with historical references, obscure to most readers, and scientific explanations equally obscure. Scientists complained that his science was fatally flawed, but granted that his history might be correct. Historians faulted his interpretation of historical sources, but conceded that his science might be sound. Religious folks took inspiration in the fact that Velikovsky's books seemed to support the Biblical accounts of miracles, unconcerned by the fact that Velikovsky was treating these as natural events, not supernatural ones.

Underlying this fantastic scenario was Velikovsky's conviction that there was no such thing as universal gravitation. (In this, he was in harmony with the flat-earthers.) He thought all interactions in the universe were electromagnetic in nature. So murky were his books that many readers didn't pick up on this theme, which Velikovsky had earlier presented in a little-known pamphlet.

Bob followed this scientific brouhaha with amused interest, and in 1979 he had the opportunity to interview Velikovsky in his home. It was Velikovsky's last interview, for he died a week later. This book includes that interview.

Bob considered Velikovskyism a "relatively harmless delusion". But he was not so complacent about "Scientific Creationism".

"The same cannot be said for the pernicious "scientific creationism," which seeks to force the Genesis account of creation to be taught in public schools in the guise of science. For the past year I've been concentrating my efforts on creationism. I will return to Velikovsky and similar ideas when the creationists have been driven back into their caves."

Bob never got the chance to see that happen. He attended every national creationisst conference from 1983 through the mid '90s, and in spite of his strong feelings about their goals, he remained on friendly terms with the major players in the creationist camp. He even spoke of their conferences as "great entertainment". Bob also helped to found the National Center for Science Education and was a board member and editor of its newsletter. This organization has been in the forefront of the effort to preserve the integrity of science education in opposition to the efforts of creationists to redefine science content in the public schools. Where does the flat earth fit into all of this? Bob not only draws the parallels between flat-earthism and creationism, but he also shows that they arise from common historical roots. Of course you cannot read these essays without noticing that in all cases religious fundamentalism and Biblical literalism are at the heart of the matter. Velikovsky made use of Biblical accounts as evidence; all of the flat-earth proponents used the Bible as support for their views; and nearly every perpetual motion inventor holds fundamentalist religious views. Bob said that the flat earth idea was his "favorite" pseudoscience. Here he tells its whole history, including the famous 1870 wager between naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace and flat-earther John Hampden on the flatness of the water in the Old Bedford Canal.

The last spokesman for the flat earth idea was Charles Johnson of California, who headed the International Flat Earth Society. Bob and Charles became friends, and at one point Charles even asked Bob to be his successor as head of the International Flat Earth Society. Bob declined, claiming he was unqualified (since he did not believe the earth was flat). Charles had suspected as much, and revoked Bob's membership and refunded his dues, but their friendship continued. Bob considered it an honor to be the "only person ever kicked out of the flat earth society."

A persistent characteristic of pseudoscientists is their distrust of mainstream science and the "scientific establishment", combined with a supreme confidence in their own na´ve "common sense". The flat earthers distrusted the "hypothetical" method of science. Perpetual motionists reject the laws of thermodynamics, and any other law of physics that might stand in the way of achieving energy for nothing. Creationists reject anything with the word "evolution", including biological and cosmological evolution. Creationists and intelligent design advocates both reject scientists' assumption of "methodological naturalism", which creationists equate with materialism, and which they consider the source of most evil in the world today. To them, a science that doesn't mention God is a godless science, which, cannot be a good thing.

Science frames hypotheses, based on, but going beyond, what is already known, then examines the logical consequences of the hypotheses and compares them with experimental facts. If there's good agreement, for an abundance of confirmed data of considerable range and scope, then we grant a hypothesis provisional acceptance. If it continues to meet the test of experiment, is in harmony with other established science, and motivates further research, we may label it a "law" or "theory", terms that denote a well-tested and reliable model of nature. But we never should make the mistake of confusing laws and theories with "truth". We must always keep in mind that these are models describing nature. We should not call them "laws of nature" but "laws about nature". This is accepted scientific method, but pseudoscientists reject it, at least where it impacts their own cherished beliefs.

Pseudoscientists trust their gut feelings more than mathematics and logic. They imagine that there are truths—absolute truths. To them the "proximate truths" of physical laws and theories are not perfect, as scientists freely admit, so they must therefore be untrue and should not be trusted.

What do pseudoscientists propose instead? The flat earthers were quite firm in advocating that one must argue only from observed facts to inescapable conclusions. They called it the "zetetic" method, and so the 19th century flat earthers called themselves Zetetics. The word means "seeker", reflecting their skepticism of conventional science.

Concluding chapters deal with "The Philosophy of Pseudoscience" and "Science Versus Pseudoscience." Though this book may seem to cover disparate subjects, one comes away with a clearer understanding that they all have a lot in common. This is an informative and entertaining book of continuing relevance, for ideas of this sort never die, but are perpetually reborn in new clothing.