There is a long list of natural phenomena and human inventions that lurked on the fringes of science before they became officially credible. At the end of the 18th century, the French Academy of Sciences said with impeccable Gallic logic that, as there were no rocks in the sky, no rocks could fall from the sky. In 1803, more than two thousand meteorites fell on a village in Normandy – after that, and an investigation by the scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot, the Academy was less sniffy. The eminent scientist Lord Kelvin said that Roentgen’s X-rays were a hoax. Edison’s electric lamp was declared an impossibility, and because it was an impossibility his fellow researchers wouldn’t go to see it even when Edison used it to light up the streets around his laboratory. From 1904, the Wright brothers made flights over fields bordered by a main highway and a railway line in Ohio: but though hundreds of people saw them in the air, the local press failed to publish reports because they didn’t believe the witnesses, and didn’t send their own witnesses because it couldn’t be true. Two years after their first flight, Scientific American dismissed the feats of the flying brothers; if there had been anything in it, the journal said, wouldn’t the local press have picked it up?
But maybe it’s easier now to evade taboos and get a hearing for nonsense. The internet has so vastly increased the potency of urban legends, so quickened the circulation of rumours, that we may soon be the most deluded generation ever born. It seems strange that some scientists are so angry with the sacred books of old-time religions, when so many challenges to rationality are generated by half-understood, miscommunicated information, much of it masquerading as science, available online and in the press. The internet is the great source of light and of darkness; it trashes the status of knowledge, undermines its ownership, and scants the principle of editing and review. The laconic conventions that govern online communication favour the proliferation of irony, of a two-way split of meaning in every line, so that the knowing prevail effortlessly over the naive. Fleeting and flitting, self-generating, double-faced, the internet is the natural home for anomalous phenomena, which have a primitive quality, yet track social paradigms; like science fiction, they dance like sprites around the scientific consensus, sometimes seeming to follow, sometimes to lead, sometimes to head off by themselves into an ancient inner landscape.
Until the idea of space flight became credible, there were no aliens; instead there were green men who hid in the woods. In the same way, psychotic delusions keep up with scientific change: the people once pursued by phantasms of the dead are now pestered by living celebrities who watch them from inside their TV sets, and those who used to confess themselves possessed now say there is a bomb inside them. The dictionary attests to the power and antiquity of the need to believe we are sharing the planet with beings not animal and not human, with ‘little greys’ from spacecraft, with goblins and domestic deities: beings who suspend the laws of nature wherever they pop up, and suspend moral laws too, for household sprites and pucks often have a fierce, childlike sense of justice, and retaliate without fear if they are slighted; aliens who want sex never ask nicely. On the lonely road by moonlight, the parts of ourselves oppressed by our intelligence come out to play. We meet ancestral selves, neither gods nor demons but short semi-humans with hairy ears and senses differently attuned – the eyesight of an eagle, the nose of a hound. The phenomena are internal, generated by the psychological mechanisms that connect us to each other and to our evolutionary past.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Paranormalists from Toronto
At the LRB, Hilary Mantel has an engaging piece on the Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained: