Confessions of A Fortean Sceptic

Jerome Clark
Magonia 12, 1983

The nadir of my career as a Fortean was reached in 1973 when I was researching and writing an article which subsequently appeared in Fate, and was later incorporated into the text of The Unidentified, a book co-authored by Loren Coleman, who is blameless in the horror story to follow. Years before then, back when I was 11 or 12 years old, I was rummaging through the library of the small Minnesota town where I grew up. I came upon a book entitled The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It dealt with a series of photographs taken by two young English girls who claimed that they regularly encountered fairies in a wooded area near their Cottingley, Yorkshire, home. In due course they produced pictures of these beings. The pictures, which appear in Doyle’s book, struck me as hilariously unconvincing. The fairies resembled nothing so much as cardboard cutouts.

Many years later I read Jacques Vallée’s Passport to Magonia and was taken with his attempt to link traditional fairy lore to modern flying saucer lore. I began reading in the considerable scholarly literature on fairy beliefs. In one of these books, Katharine Briggs’s The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, I came upon a brief account of the Cottingley episode, about which Dr Briggs, one of Britain’s leading folklorists, wrote: "As one looks at these photographs, every feeling revolts against believing them to be genuine". Yet, noting some of the unexplained aspects of the affair, she went on guardedly to suggest that the pictures might be psychic photographs.

She was troubled by a few odd items of evidence, such as the testimony of three photographic experts who said they didn’t know how the pictures could have been faked.

Intrigued, I reread Doyle’s book and two others on the subject. I was impressed not so much by the testimony of the photographic experts as by the demonstrated inability of would-be debunkers to come up with plausible, non-extraordinary explanations. Typical of the blunders was Houdini’s bold assertion that the models for the fairy figures came from a certain advertising poster. This allegation was widely published and uncritically accepted. But eventually, when investigators located copies of the poster in question they found that the fairies depicted on it looked not at all like those in the Cottingley pictures.

I was also interested to read that as late as the early 1970s, over fifty years after the events in question, the two photographers, both now elderly women, seemed to stand by their earlier testimony.

So, following Briggs’s lead, I cast all caution to the wind. I was at least wise enough to concede that the Cottingley fairies didn’t look real but dismissed that as a subjective consideration. To me the absence of convincing negative evidence, coupled with the presence of positive evidence (however thin), added up to the conclusion that these might be authentic thoughtographs much like those Ted Serios is said to produce.

To this day I can’t believe how stupid and how credulous I was.

As we know now beyond any reasonable doubt, the Cottingley pictures are clumsy and absurd fakes. In his 1978 book Ghosts in Photographs Fred Gettings reveals that the models from the figures came from a popular children’s book of the period. Photo-analysis by William Spaulding’s Ground Saucer Watch has shown that, yes indeed, the figures are of cardboard, just as my 11-year-old eye had told me many years ago.

Robert Sheaffer, in his effort to debunk the story, contributed to the grand tradition of misleading nonsense by claiming, on the basis of the thinnest possible circumstantial evidence, that Theosophical writer Edward Gardner was the mastermind behind the hoax – an assertion that quickly fell victim to Occam’s Razor, but not before proving once again that the Cottingley affair could as easily make fools of disbelievers as of believers.

In their recent books, non-admirers of mine like Sheaffer and Martin Gardner have resurrected my foolish remarks on these non-fairy/non-thoughtograph pictures in an effort to discredit me. Sheaffer even claims that he, as the man who commissioned Spaulding to analyse the pictures in 1977, forced me to relinquish my support. He doesn’t mention that, on the contrary, I accepted this first truly solid negative evidence with almost unseemly haste, in part because I like to think I am intellectually honest and in part because on some level – specifically the level of my psyche at which the embers of common sense still glowed, however faintly – I had long suspected that in taking the pictures seriously I was making a very, very dumb mistake.

Another mistake was in assuming the existence of thoughtographs , the evidence for which is shaky at best. In other words, I had attempted to explain a dubious claim with another dubious claim. Realising belatedly that I was lost deep in a jungle of Fortean unreality, I decided that it was high time to cut and slash my way through the undergrowth and return to safety, sanity and scepticism. At the end of my harrowing adventure my hair was whiter but my head was clearer.

The moral of the story is this:
■ (1) There is something to be said for common sense.
■ (2) Just because the debunkers are wrong, it doesn’t necessarily follow that therefore the proponents are right.
■ (3) The time had come for this proponent to do some serious rethinking of his position.

There is a wonderful piece of verse by Spiritualist poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox. Its title is Credulity and it goes:
If fallacies come knocking at my door
I’d rather feed and shelter full a score
Than hide behind the black portcullis Doubt
And run the risk of barring one Truth out.

And if pretension for a time deceive
And prove me one too ready to believe
Far less my shame, than if by stubborn act
I brand as lie, some great colossal Fact.
That sounds to me like a prescription for the kind of open-mindedness that permits the brains to fall out of one’s head. But it is an apt description of a mentality we encounter all too frequently on this side of the paranormal controversy. It’s the Will to Believe coupled with the Refusal to Disbelieve. It is the mindset that is sceptical only of claims of fraud or error.

To achieve it, one starts with the love of mystery. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. The problem is that some of us, even after all this time, even after we have no excuse for not knowing better, seem more interested in pursuing mysteries than in securing answers. To some, mystification is the beginning and end of paranormal enquiry. Mysteries are to be preserved and defended at all costs. And that may be why, after all this time, all we have to show for our efforts are a seemingly unending number of unanswered questions and a certain grotesque satisfaction in declaring, as one of the literature’s enduring clichés goes, that such-and-such a mystery remains unsolved – proclaimed, incidentally, as an expression of triumph, not as an admission of defeat.

If we are to make any progress in our
enquiry, we would be better off celebrating
the solutions of mysteries rather than the perpetuation of mysteries

I suggest we take a fundamentally different view. If we are to make any progress in our enquiry, we would be better off celebrating the solutions of mysteries rather than the perpetuation of mysteries.

Charles Fort himself was less a lover of mysteries than an eccentric with a perverse taste for the kind of pompous humbug associated with authority figures who feel they must account for unaccountable phenomena about which they not only know little but apparently prefer to know little. The resulting explanations are predictably preposterous and it is not hard to conclude that the explainers suffer from a case of anomaly phobia sufficiently advanced to severely impair their reasoning faculties.

Anomaly-phobia, of course, continues to claim its victims. We all remember how the Air Force dealt with UFOs – identifying them, for example, as astronomical bodies not even visible at the time of the reported sighting. We have all seen the inept criticisms of psi, lake-monster reports and other anomalous claims. We have listened incredulously to self-appointed protectors of the public welfare who assert, apparently with straight faces, that acceptance of unexplained phenomena is not only wrong but dangerous, perhaps even conducive to the collapse of civilisation. Some of us have exposed the errors and baseless claims of the debunkers and recently we have seen scandalous revelations about the way these would-be defenders of science and reason deal with evidence that runs contrary to their beliefs.

Reading Fort and tracing all that has happened since his time, a number of paranormal proponents seem to have concluded that because some mundane explanations are bogus, most or all are bogus. In ufology, for instance, the standard line has it that 90 to 95 per cent of raw reports are potentially explainable; still, to some in the field, just about any specific raw report of an object in the sky is of a UFO. Some enthusiasts still believe that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, not the planet Venus, and that many astronauts encountered UFOs in space.

More Forteans than we might care to admit still consider the Bermuda Triangle a genuine mystery, despite Larry Kusche’s masterful exposure in The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved. In fact, the Triangle, along with its similarly fictitious counterparts, the vile vortices of the world, still occupies a prominent place in the fertile imaginations of a few theorists. The alleged powers of Uri Geller and other metal-bending wonder-workers are blithely assumed to be real and incorporated into extraordinary explanation schemes, even though the only thing about metal bending that has ever been established with undeniable certainty is that fraud figures largely in the phenomenon. And our ranks are infested with guileless souls who still look to the novels of Carlos Castaneda as support for their metaphysical views. All things are possible in a separate reality, we are told, but we are not warned that all things are possible as well in Cloud Cuckooland.

Those who wish to return to earth might consider some ways of getting back. Here are a few:

(1) Don’t assume that the experts are always fools. Scientists and other scholars are not infallible, it need hardly be said. They are human beings and they have human failings, prejudices and blindnesses. But at the same time we must always remember that as specialists who have devoted their professional careers to their special areas of interest they are likely to know far more than you do about these subjects. If you take issue with them, chances are they are right and you are wrong. It is even possible that you are a crank.

On the other hand, if a scientist pronounces on something outside his area of expertise, then he is an amateur and he has no greater claim on the truth than any other untrained commentator. When an eminent astronomer presumes to tell us what to think about UFOs, it is often immediately apparent to anyone who knows the literature that the man is talking through his hat. When, however, that same astronomer talks astronomy, better listen. And if you don’t agree with him, proceed very cautiously.

(2) Don’t believe every story you hear. Some months ago my wife was babysitting for a married couple of our acquaintance. The man was an officer in the Army reserve, holding a high security clearance which rendered him privy to various military and intelligence secrets. He worked as a research scientist at a major university.

He regularly confided some of these secrets to his wife, who then confided them to my wife, who then told them to me. Beyond recalling that all these presumed secrets were sensational in nature, I have forgotten most of them. Of those I remember, one – related in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis – was that our government knew that the Iranian militants had executed several of their American captives. My informant also said that on a particular date the United States would invade Iran. You get the idea.

I never believed any of this, needless to say, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to ask him – tongue firmly embedded in cheek – if, as a man well versed in hidden truths, he knew if there were any substance to those stories about crashed saucers and pickled aliens purported to be in the Pentagon’s possession. He immediately assumed a stern, official-looking expression and declared that that was something he couldn’t talk about. Not long afterwards, however, he added that the truth, if he were to confide it, would shock me. On two or three subsequent occasions he brought up the subject and let it be known that if I pressed him at all, he would tell me the whole story. For obvious reasons I never bothered.

The man has impeccable credentials,
he is a military officer with a high
security clearance; and he is a research
scientist at a major university. And he is also,
it is clear, a spinner of yarns.

I mention this as a cautionary tale. Remember, the man has impeccable credentials, he is a military officer; he does have a high security clearance; and he is a research scientist at a major university. And he is also, it is clear, a spinner of yarns. Next time you read a story about a crashed saucer told by a man with similarly impressive credentials, remember him.

In fact, there is a whole branch of modern folklore waiting to be seized upon and catalogued by scholars of popular culture. These are what I call Soldiers’ Tales, or, the Horrendous Secrets I Learned in the Service . We ufologists hear them all the time. A few even purport to be firsthand accounts describing involvement in retrievals of crashed spaceships, the taking of spectacular UFO films, the witnessing of a fatal encounter between an aeroplane and a UFO, and so on. Such stories – or at least those with enough specific detail to permit follow-up investigation – seldom check out.

I can only speculate on the motives of the yarn-spinners, but it’s not unreasonable to theorise that for many people the most important period of their lives was the time they spent in the military, when in fact some may well have been privy to secret information. All human institutions, including intelligence agencies, have rumour mills through which stories may circulate. The environment in which such fantasies are related may give them a false authority. Those individuals who pass into civilian life ,may repeat the rumours in good faith. Other persons, not acting in good faith, may simply place themselves inside the rumours to impress girl friends, wives and acquaintances.

(3) Don’t get emotionally involved. I have always been amazed at the tenacity with which some people hold to favourite beliefs and the rationalisations to which they will resort when these beliefs are threatened.

I remember reading an exchange in a Fortean journal between a critic of the Bermuda Triangle and a prominent promoter of same. The critic outlined some quite specific reasons for disbelieving anything particularly mysterious is going on in that fabled region. The proponent responded by remarking that the critic didn’t know what he was talking about because once, when the two were on a television show together, he had asked the proponent if the New Yorker were a newspaper!

Apparently this argument made sense to the proponent, but I can’t imagine its making sense to anyone else. It is an extreme example of how emotional commitment to a position or to a specific claim can close us to rational argument and open us to irrational defensiveness. It can lead us – and this, by the way, is as true of debunkers as of believers – to feel that the truth is greater than the sum of its facts.

It is easy to say that facts are all that matter. It is not always easy, however, to act on that knowledge. This is especially true at a time when paranormal and other anomalous claims are under attack by professional debunkers who gleefully jump on any mistake proponents make (while of course refusing to acknowledge their own) and do their best to paint these proponents as fools who can’t tell the difference between valid and invalid data. The effect is to force a proponent, if he isn’t sensible enough to know better, to assume a burden of infallibility.

Not long ago an ongoing controversy was settled when a certain item of information came to light. This new information proved that the claim in question was fallacious because it had been based on erroneous assumptions.

The controversy had gone on for several years, with debunkers on one side of the issue and a prominent proponent on the other. The proponent – let’s call him X – and his allies skilfully refuted the debunkers’ arguments, most of which were demonstrably false or irrelevant. But finally an independent researcher, Y, who had no particular stake in the controversy, discovered disconfirming data which showed that, while the debunkers’ arguments were mistaken, their conclusion – that the claim was unfounded – was correct. The critics, predictably passing over their own errors, equally predictably chortled about their victory and had fun at X’s expense.

X’s response was to cast aspersions on Y’s motives and to mount an emotional defence of the claim using post-hoc rationalisations and shaky arguments. When I talked with him about the controversy, X talked less about facts than about face – his own in particular and all anomalists’ in general – and about the use to which the debunkers were going to put Y’s information. He made it appear that the fate of all anomaly investigation rested on the preservation of the claim. To him it seemed the finding of facts had become distinctly secondary to the scoring of points, just as it always had to those debunking opponents whom he so long had criticised so eloquently.

Let’s not be afraid to admit it when we’re wrong. And let’s not make the mistake of getting emotionally involved with – or staking our professional reputations on – a particular idea or a particular case. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t entitled to our opinions about the merits of various claims or that we should refrain from expressing these opinions and citing our reasons for holding them. It just means that we ought to understand clearly that what we believe and what is need not necessarily bear a blood relationship.

(4) Don’t hesitate to criticise. Throughout this article I have referred to our critics the debunkers. They call themselves sceptics , which they aren’t, and I think we ought to stop calling them that, too. Marcello Truzzi defines the difference between the sceptic and the debunker as the difference between one who doubts and one who denies. In the paranormal field there is, Fort knows, plenty of room to doubt.

Unfortunately we hear too much from the deniers and too little from the doubters. We are not likely to get rational arguments from those who choose to define the controversy in apocalyptic terms. Anyone who believes, as some debunkers say they do, that civilisation will collapse if too many people believe that Bigfoot exists is not likely to concern himself with such small matters as reasonable arguments. That is too bad for the rest of us because it means we have to look elsewhere for the kind of good critical review that anomaly studies urgently require.
(This is not to say, I wish to emphasise, that the debunkers are always wrong or that they have made no contribution whatever to serious research. Some of their work does withstand critical scrutiny. So, however, does some of the work of extreme believers. My point is that debunkers’ and believers’ claims must be approached with caution, with judgement reserved until all sides have been heard from.)

The true sceptics, at least those willing to put in the time to familiarize themselves with the literature, the issues and the personalities, are all too few in number. Most can be found in the pages of Truzzi’s superb journal Zetetic Scholar which I recommend to all serious anomalists.

But it appears that the major part of the policing of the field will have to be done by us. To our credit we have produced a surprising body of critical studies of various claims. But much, much more is needed.

The more we learn, the more we see the necessity for great care in assessing the data. Some stories hold up under the most searching scrutiny. Others, including some we hadn’t expected (such as the 1897 UFO calfnapping and the Barbados restless coffins ), collapse and blow away. We can be certain that more of the old favourites will meet a like fate.

I urge each of you to pick a particular case – one that everyone knows to be true but that has not been documented in our time – and follow it as far as it goes. If you are able to substantiate it, great; then we have a solid piece of evidence. If you disprove it, that’s great too. Who needs a bogus mystery when we already have far more real ones than we can possibly deal with?

Let’s not be afraid to criticise friends and colleagues – or even ourselves – when they or we stray from the paths of common sense and caution. Along the way some egos will get bruised, but if those you criticise – tactfully, I hope – are as concerned with fact-finding as you are, they’ll get over it. We all make mistakes. The only unforgivable mistake is the knowing perpetuation of error.

(5) Don’t assume that all mysteries, even the genuine ones, have extraordinary solutions. Once, reflecting on his involvement with the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster, Roy Mackal remarked to me that he could never understand the resistance of so many scientists to the idea of Nessie. After all, he said, Nessie is a "…rather mundane sort of idea. We already have other larger freshwater animals such as the sturgeon… Sometimes I think it would be almost worth the game if the phenomenon at Loch Ness were all that earthshaking. But it’s not. It violates no basic law of zoology to suggest that there are large animals in the loch".

Many of us have come to assume that we are dealing with phenomena that border on the miraculous, phenomena that if understood properly would shake the scientific establishment to its very foundations. That may be so in a limited number of cases, but in the great majority of cases I think it’s wiser to conclude that the various mysteries will eventually yield to solutions that are not only un-extraordinary but also uninteresting.

The late F W Holiday once wrote a book in which he contended that Nessie is a strange phenomenal manifestation from another realm of being. In reality, as Mackal and other zoologically trained investigators have shown, Nessie looks and acts precisely as any large animal would under the circumstances.

We read books that would have us believe fossilised footprints of Homo sapiens walked the earth millions of years ago. Yet a recent scientific investigation shows that the prints are neither of great age nor of human origin. They are almost certainly camel tracks and they may be only 8,000 years old. Skyquakes , sometimes attributed to UFOs, are now being studied by Thomas Gold and Steven Soter of Cornell University. They have leaned that such phenomena have a geophysical explanation. The fabled moving rocks of Racetrack Playa, California, are caused by the interaction of wind and rain.

And so on and on. We would do well to recall that before meteorites were understood they were considered so bizarre as to be utterly unbelievable. There was a time not so long ago when meteorites were Fortean phenomena.

It is high time that we get serious. And if we are going to be serious, then we are going to have to be cautious and careful. And if we are cautious and careful, we’re going to look a lot more like sceptics than believers. Which is fine, and in the true Fortean spirit. Charles Fort was sceptical of establishment humbuggery and so are those of us who follow in his footsteps. That hasn’t changed and I hope it never will. But now it’s time that we train a sceptical eye on our own humbuggery as well.