Jon Ronson is someone with whom you could sit down and just start up a conversation like you have known him for years. In fact that happened to me a few years back when Jon sat down beside me at a conference, I introduced myself and we started chatting. I feel I could always just start chatting to Jon. This is why his books are so enjoyable to read and how he gets people with interesting stories to talk to him.
I was very eager to read his newest book, So You’ve been Publicly Shamed, because I was sure he would tease out some amazing insights into this phenomena of the 2010s – the age of perpetual outrage.
The last time people were subjected to such public backlash, Jon writes, was almost 180 years ago. Stocks meant you were on display in the public square. You could not hide. The media does this very efficiently now but social media, namely Twitter and Internet search engines, are the most destructive of the current shaming tools.
Jon writes that public shaming is like mirrors in the funhouse – the image is so distorted that it makes the individual look monstrous. The small indiscretion gets blown far out of proportion; we overreact to the distorted story. I had a shaming attempt imposed on me one time years ago when a then-notable female skeptic with whom I was only casually acquainted decided that I should be “ashamed” of following a satire account on Twitter, one she felt was personally degrading to her and her friends. She announced this out of the blue in public to her followers. Who the hell did she think she was?
Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News
by A. Brad Schwartz, 2015
“Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see.” – Poe
This quote is the frontispiece to this book. Hits me right in my skeptical soul. I run Doubtful News, a site that deals daily with questionable claims in news media. I don’t like fake news. But the story of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’s historic radio drama that was said to cause a National panic, was NOT fake news, nor was it a panic.
It was perceived as fake news; it was always intended to be a drama, nothing more. What surprisingly spiraled from it is at the core of this book. The story of the National panic over a Martian invasion was what turned out to be fake. The US ended up with a giant storm about censorship and media trust in a time of uncertainty and change.
Paul Cropper sent me a copy of his new book with co-author Tony Healy, Australian Poltergeist: The Stone-throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. He must have known how much I love this topic and was eager to learn about various cases around the world.
I learned about the concept of poltergeists before many of today’s weekend ghost hunters were out of diapers. It seems like today’s paranormal investigators do not know much about the long and detailed history about this particular type of haunting. I didn’t know as much as I wanted to but Australian Poltergeist gave me great info but also an increased interest in seeking out more.
I like reading historical books when the narrative flows and the information is new and intriguing. I really liked A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience by Emerson W. Baker, a professor at Salem State College.
I’ve read some about the Salem witch trials but this book was from another angle. We get a look into the widespread problems faced by the Massachusetts Bay Colony including the cold summers that hindered food production, illness, fear of raids by the natives, and fighting over land holdings from small to large tracts including the concern of wars.
Baker notes that science can’t solve all the mysteries of the past but concludes that conversion disorder, psychological trauma, and sleep paralysis played a role; ergot poisoning, the paranormal, or real demons did not.
I am now aware of the troubles with Reverend Samuel Parris in the town and can imagine how the tension in the community was so thick that one would have trouble breathing there. Because of the turmoil with the colony’s charter, legal conflicts went unresolved and festered. The economic, social, political, and spiritual factionalism that existed certainly led to the unique situation in Salem.
Baker goes into the history of the people involved and winds the threads together so that we see a tinderbox of trouble ready to catch on fire. Simple explanations of “why Salem?” fall short. But it was clear that Puritanism was under threat, capitalism was a growing trend, and the community was unstable. It did not take much to convince people that the town was under siege by Satan.
My favorite part was learning about lithobolia, the stone-throwing demon. This sparked a new interest for me in the poltergeist- and Bigfoot-related activity of rock assaults. The lithobolia incident mentioned was not in Salem but in Great Island, New Hampshire ten years prior. Thankfully, Baker wrote an entire book about this event which I picked up right after finishing Storm called The Devil of Great Island.
In this book, we can see community factors in common between Salem and Great Island, both of which had increased tension and crushing factionalism. The situations were very similar – bitter disputes about the formation of a new parish, religious tension, outsiders, and difficulty resolving political and economic disputes.
Devil is loaded with historical context. It reminds us that it was unpleasant to be unlucky with your inheritance or societal position, or a woman in these early colonial times. A “monstrous” birth could get you accused of cavorting with the devil.
Baker shows us that the lithobolia incidents that occurred in New England had strong human motivation behind them when there was little recourse to punish a social enemy. You pelted their house with rocks, making trouble, or destroyed their fences, and then perhaps accused each other of being a witch or wizard. Sound unfun.
In Storm, Baker concludes by examining the aftermath of Salem that surprisingly still bubbles with trouble to this day. Salem struggled with their history like a “Scarlet Letter” but then the majority choose to embrace the wild aspect and now Salem is a tourist trap, especially at Halloween (no significance to the history). It’s all very sobering and sad that things turned out the way they did and many important lessons were forgotten (and reappeared in the Satanic Panic and modern cases of conversion disorder centuries later).
Great Island, now New Castle, did not capitalize on their famous demon attack of 1682. Curiously, stone throwing (outside and inside a house) was a hallmark of poltergeist activity up until a few decades ago, although, some similar cases still occur. Bigfoot is also described as throwing stones. Curious indeed. Stone throwing remains an act of aggression and defiance. There are “demons” involved for sure, but your characterization of them will vary. What’s going on? Each case may have unique secrets of their own at the core.
Sometimes publishers and authors send me stuff. I’m not sure why they think I’ll suddenly be open to unscientific, fringe ideas about how the world works and overthrow what we know via just one book. Yes, that’s right, KNOW. This book, Paradigm Busters, from the Atlantis Rising magazine library, starts off by confusing conditional scientific knowledge with belief. “We don’t KNOW, we BELIEVE”. Maybe YOU do, but that’s not how I roll. Science is the most reliable way of gaining knowledge, in short because it removes as much error as humanly possible and is open to many people’s scrutiny and new evidence as it comes along. Some knowledge is certainly tentative but your kooky theory about pyramids is not going to overturn the entire field of archaeology and Egyptian history.
“Know” is interchangeable as “believe” in this book, that’s clear: “We already know… [that ancient spiritual places concentrate electromagnetic fields]” Oh? Where are the scientific references? There are none. This book is a collection of terribly researched, mystery mongering speculation and hopeful belief in something beyond reality.
We go way off on the wrong path right from the beginning as one writer suggests that magicians and entertainers may indeed have paranormal powers; that is, David Copperfield is NOT doing an illusion, he’s really supernatural! This book also suggests that people really are magnetic (nope), chi (which you can’t measure) could be the primal source of all matter and energy, animals can do complex math equations (in English), there are healing properties of coral slabs, energy beams are focused by the Georgia Guidestones, Mary Magdalene founded the Royal Dutch House of Orange, spirits can invade humans, ETs have visited us in the past, and that ideas about quantum physics were known in ancient Egypt. All baseless.
The contributors disregard normal explanations and sneer at anything related to orthodox “science”. Appealing to neuroscience and psychology, they still use sciencey language in that typical “I hate you but want you to accept me” relationship. Science is wrong, they conclude, let us upturn it for you.
Old and investigated tales are taken at face value with the non-supernormal explanation rejected out of hand (or not even mentioned). Therefore, there is more to fire walking than simple physics of insulation and heat exchange, the DaVinci code is real and reveals ancient secrets, and the Montauk Monster was a mutant from Plum Island research facility, not a long-drowned raccoon. It’s pretty much ridiculous stuff like this cover to cover.
I don’t have anything positive to say about a conspiratorial, anti-science book written by non-specialists who seem to have never studied the foundational literature of these fields. Oh, I didn’t find any typos and the grammar was acceptable. There.
I had such high hopes for Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot, by Marc E. Fitch (2013). I found it in an academic library, it was hefty, and the topics covered were ripe for exploring: paranormal culture in America, tourism, television, popularity.
Alas, it turned out to be a bloated, credulous, rambling mess. This was a book that screamed for better research, a fact checker, a skeptical approach, and a good editor.
There are certainly many bits of good info in this book. Fitch, from his bio, writes fiction and works in the mental health field. But he clearly does not understand how science works or the value of a skeptical approach. He has obviously extended far beyond his realm of knowledge here. And, unfortunately went on and on about 150 pages too long.
His inspiration for the work, he notes, was Discovery Channel’s show The Haunting. This was a popular “reenactment” style paranormal television show of the kind that grew from 1998 onwards (the other two styles being “documentary style” and “reality-based”). At first, Fitch’s stance on paranormal reality was not revealed. His premise is that there has been renewed public interest in the paranormal at times of massive social change and uses examples such as the Salem witch craze, the rise of Spiritualism, the flap of flying saucers and Satanic Panic as connected to sweeping social change and scientific advances. He suggests all can be seen through the lens of social dissonance in reaction to science development. While he does remark that various factors came into play in these landmark cultural events, it seems that he stresses the importance of science in the equation. Oddly, he remarks that “proving” the paranormal would be “a moral and ethical bomb”. What “paranormal”? Ghosts? Alien visitation? Bigfoot? Religion? He’s lumped it all together in a premise that is not coherent. It’s all downhill from there.
While science gets mild cynical treatment, skeptics are represented as a straw man and outright mocked. First, he gives a pass to the well-known outrageous psychic, Eusapia Palladino. He calls her a “trickster” (and lauds Hansen’s book the Trickster and the Paranormal as one of the “best” books ever written on the paranormal, so he is invested in this concept) who presented a “great challenge to science”. Science is stuck within limits and boundaries of understanding so she did not fit into their framework. Not quite…
Fitch is not well-versed on the problems of perception (he states that the explanation of Venus as a UFO is “ridiculous”), or how science works to limit subjectivity and the ability to be fooled. Revealingly, he describes science as a matter of faith in the existing paradigm, like a religion. Nope. Wrong.
Once he characterized the “skeptic” as the “lonely nerd” sitting by him or herself at the lunchroom table, “a bit of a downer”, I began to see him arrogant and ignorant, with an agenda. [Ironically, Fitch will no doubt think of me as a downer since I’m not giving praise for this book. You can judge whether that is fair or not.]
Besides the formatting problems that make this book a chore to read at times – it’s highly repetitive with concepts and phrasing reused even in the same paragraph, has extreme amounts of quotes which makes sections feel like a high school term paper, and with rambling philosophical portions interspersed with personal anecdotes – there are two huge flaws with the work that make it unsuitable: it is poorly sourced and obvious mistakes abound.
My first thought, since this book was from 2013, was that it would draw deeply from Bader, et al’s Paranormal America (January, 2011). This source has become a definitive work with regards to modern paranormal belief in the U.S. and was based on sound research and field work. Fitch does not acknowledge it at all. It’s as if he hadn’t known of it and tried to invent his own wheel without proper planning and tools. He does use a Gallop poll from 2011 so he should have known of Paranormal America’s release. This oversight raised a giant question on the soundness of the work.
In two examples of misplaced trust in sources, first, his questionable conclusions about the War of the Worlds panic tale is taken from about.com. It’s been disputed whether there was mass panic over this radio broadcast. I disagree it should have been presented this way.
Second, he cites Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror novel twice in reference to the idea that this famous haunting was related to a Native American burial ground. He states that burial grounds were regarded as sacred by European settlers and cites a blog about Native American paranormal belief as a source explaining that Native Americans are more powerful in their burial and sacred places because they have merged their essence with the land. That is, their soul became one with the land and the land is unhappy when desecrated. Where are the solid references on folklore or archeology? None. He didn’t look past the fictional account. He didn’t go to available primary sources in these fields. From what I’d heard, Hans Holzer was the originator of this concept. He’s not mentioned either.
On page 15, Fitch names celebrity psychic John Edward as “John Edwards” multiple times. Such a mistake stands out to me as a lack of simple fact-checking. It gets worse.
Fitch states the “earliest paranormal-based nonfiction program was Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” in 1980. This is just plain wrong! It was In Search of… in 1976. Maybe he should have checked my list of Paranormal TV shows. In Search of… was far more influential on a generation than Clarke’s show, giving American kids like me their first taste of the mysterious Loch Ness Monster and the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot. In Search of… is not even mentioned here! That egregious error was bad enough to want me to chuck the book out the window and conclude the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but then… he does something inconceivable. He compares UFO researcher Stanton Friedman to internationally influential scientist and communicator Carl Sagan. I slog through three pages of drivel such as “[Both were] men on a mission to change humanity for the better”, and how both were visionaries, urging us to embrace science. This is unforgivably absurd. I’ve tasted quite enough to know this meal is not worth finishing.
Yet, there was at least one more huge blunder I noticed as I scanned the rest of the text to the end. Fitch says that a surprise red panda fossil in Tennessee was revealed (“notably first reported”) by Cryptomundo “a site dedicated to the research and discovery of mysterious and unknown species”. He expands on this apparently momentous find referencing Huffington Post. (What this has to do with the paranormal, I can’t explain.) I don’t recall this event so I look it up – something the author might have reasonably done. It turns out that Loren Coleman of Cryptomundo was visiting the Tennessee fossil site in 2010 when he heard from the paleontologists that there was an as yet unpublicized find of a red panda skull. However, the animal, Pristinailurus bristoli, was known from the site prior to 2004 when it was named . So, while this 2010 skull was a neat find, it was not a new species discovered nor was it as remarkable as Fitch made it out to be. Lazy, misrepresented stuff like this kills credibility.
By page 220 (of 368, not including notes and index), I stopped reading carefully, skipping the rehash of several topics which appeared over again and more rambling speculation about the state of today’s paranormal horizon. It was not worth my time. He’d lost me at Stanton Friedman. But you can’t say I didn’t give it a chance. I wanted it to be good. It simply wasn’t. Lesson: Even if the premise for the work is good, you had better be prepared to throughly research it. Or else, it’s a dud.
The Undercover Philosopher: A Guide to Detecting Shams, Lies and Delusions
by M. Philips
I’m just going to do a quick review on this book which started out promising, lost me in the middle, and ended on an up note. You may be able to pull something valuable out of it, as I did, or you may end up soured and give up.
The beginning is a walk through how we are all hostages of our beliefs. This book, states the author, is about the obstacles and hazards we face on the road to an accurate view of the world. When Philips first talks about “skeptics”, this is the first “Hmm…” moment, and I was confused. He does not have the same definition of “skeptic” as I do. He considers them general doubters. I consider skeptics as seekers – after the best evidence. Throughout the book, however, Philips does stress the reliability of evidence and why it’s imperative that it be solid and reliable before we can rely upon conclusions. We have to work pretty hard to overcome our natural tendencies to be mistaken in how we gain our knowledge.
He introduces the concept of “knowledge machines”. I didn’t like this, it felt like an incorrect analogy, too mechanical. It is referenced throughout.
The book does not flow, heading into descriptions of post-modernism (it seems like “skeptics” in his sense are considered po-mo, contrasted with rationalists), taking a diversion into Malcolm Gladwell’s idea of intuition, talking about doctors and base rates of conditions – a worthy discussion but not explained well enough for me to grasp the big picture. There are good portions about memory and perception. Unfortunately, that is marred by a glaring misspelling of the phenomenon of pareidolia as “periodolia”.
There is a great concept the author relates about hearing bad science – it’s like listening to music out of tune. So, this book sounded like a week old garage band as the author describes how acupuncture is a sound treatment, a shame scientists were so slow to accept it. This surprising take goes against the rest of the book’s call for sound evidence! The justification for acceptance of acupuncture is hollow and, for me, just kills credibility. After this point, I really can’t bring myself to be interested in the sections that follow, about behavioralism and economics, which run on too long about subjects that don’t plug in well to the premise of the book.
There are certainly gems within that I wrote down and hope to use again, such as his description of post-modernism as a “litany of epistemic pessimism,” and the ending which declares that debunkers risk a lot – they are heroes.
It really is too bad the entire book was not solid.