Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Of Quacks and Quackery, part 1

Revilo P. OliverA gallery of ancient and modern hoaxers

by Revilo P. Oliver (pictured)

FOR MANY YEARS, each issue of the Scientific American has been enlivened by a series of mathematical and logical puzzles presented, and often devised, by Dr. Martin Gardner. In June 1974, however, the ingenious mathematician tried his hand at broad humor, with the unexpected result that the June issue soon became sociologically the most informative that the periodical has ever published.

Starting on p. 116, Dr. Gardner, keeping a straight face in the manner of Baron Munchausen, reviewed the wonders of pyramids and led his amused reader to a tall tale about a certain Dr. Matrix, whom he had interviewed in a great laboratory and factory, a copy of the famous pyramid of Cheops, on the shore of Pyramid Lake, north of Reno, Nevada. That great numerologist, he said, had discovered that the roughly pyramidal monadnock from which the lake takes its name attracted and concentrated “psi-org” power from outer space, thus turning blue the waters of the lake. A sequence of ever more marvelous revelations followed, until Dr. Gardner ended his tale on p. 120 in a spirit of broad farce. Readers of the magazine, according to their temperaments, chortled or guffawed, and there the matter should have ended.

The Scientific American, though it frequently strays from hard science into pure sociological bunkum, is not one of the favorite journals of the feeble-minded, so what happened next must remain a mystery, unless we entertain the fearful hypothesis that it may be read by persons with enough scientific knowledge to understand some of the articles, but not enough common sense to recognize absurdity. However that may be, Dr. Gardner’s joke got into the hands of nitwits, some of whom rushed to Pyramid Lake to consult Dr. Matrix, while others offered Dr. Gardner honoraria for lectures on the miracles wrought by “psi-org.” It also came into the hands of one of the largest publishers in New York City, who at once wrote Dr. Gardner, flourishing a $15,000 check as an advance on royalties from a book on “pyramid power.” Astounded, Dr. Gardner explained that it was all a joke. “What of that?” the publisher replied in substance, “you write the book under a pseudonym and we take the suckers for lots of bucks, no?” Dr. Gardner refused the proffered shekels. Astounded, the publisher, doubtless concluding that Dr. Gardner must be lame in the head, found brighter penmen and soon the stands in drug stores and hotels were spotted with bound bundles of drivel about “pyramid power.”

This is a datum that must not be disregarded by anyone who is interested in the possible survival of our race. As Philip Morrison remarked in his review of Gardner’s new book The Incredible Dr. Matrix; “Such is the current state of the obsessive will to believe, and such is the cynicism of many who exploit it.” The first law of applied sociology, as formulated more than a century ago by one of the foremost experts in the field, P. T. Barnum, states that a sucker is born every minute. The birthrate, which Barnum may have underestimated, has naturally increased since his time, enormously so according to incontrovertible data that have become available during the past decade.

On the subject of pyramids, I should remark that I.B.M. manufactures office machinery that sells at prices that range from under $500 to more than $55,000. Such gewgaws are not likely to be found in the hovels of the “underprivileged.” The corporation has a competitor, which manufactures and sells supplies for I.B.M. machines, such as type fonts, carbon ribbons, and correcting tapes, and naturally sends its catalogs to the owners of such machines. It also offers its presumably literate customers an opportunity to buy a wonderful locket to hang about their necks. The locket has a picture of a pyramid on it and thus accumulates “pyramid power” from “bio-cosmic rays,” so that it “increases ESP, romance, relaxation, attract [sic] money, gives one a feeling of being truly alive and perform [sic] many experiments.” This magic device, which also has a “secret compartment” in which you can put a four-leaf clover or other charm, presumably to pep up the “bio-cosmic rays,” is certainly a bargain at $9.95, but if you have an office staff that you want to equip with “ESP” and fill with joie de vivre; you may obtain the miracle-making amulets for only $30 a dozen. Now I remind you of the class of prospective customers to whom these catalogues are sent, and I ask whether you do not feel cold shivers running up and down your spine.

Superstition will always be epidemic among ignorant persons, such as politicians and chimney sweeps, and among races of low mentality. What is noteworthy is the dire increase in credulity among members of our race who think themselves educated because they learned to read simple English while their minds were being pickled in the public schools and the institutions that still call themselves colleges. They form the principal market for the tons of printed piffle that is constantly manufactured by publishers who are, almost without exception, members of the predatory minority.

Comparatively innocuous are the wonder books concocted by Erich von Daeniken and his less cautious imitators, such as Andrew Tomas, who have learned the simple art of creating mysteries for the credulous. Nothing is more commonplace than sons who have been taught (perhaps mistakenly) how to read. Enterprising journalists have compiled almost unbelievable statistics about the number of persons who are now practicing such hocus-pocus, but even if we discount their figures for the galloping inflation normal in journalism, it still seems certain that all over the country thousands of mentally impoverished wights, male and female, regularly assemble in small covens to call up Sabathiel, Asmodeil, Sazquiel, Zaazonash, or another one of the thousands of mighty imps that were duly catalogued and classified by the Kabbalists when they were fleecing the Europeans in the Middle Ages. Now, week after week, the witches and warlocks must discover that, no matter how malodorous the grease with which they smear themselves, no matter how many salamanders they catch or buy from their supply houses, no matter how many grotesque capers they cut while the brimstone burns on their altars, they cannot get their message through to the demon of their choice. And even when they utter the secret names of Satan to put the heat on unresponsive devils, the invisible spirits presumably laugh silently. So night after night and year after year, the frustrated magicians must learn from experience that their antics are futile — must learn that the hallucinations produced by their overheated imaginations will have no effect on the world about them. Nevertheless, their teachers tell them, “You must have Faith” — and so they have. So great is their Faith, indeed, that they seem content with the rigmarole packaged for them by New York publishers, and lack even the modicum of mental energy that would send them to more authoritative grimoires, such as the compilations of Solomon, Pope Honorius and comparable masters of the occult science, from which they might learn more potent conjurations that would bring recalcitrant spirits to heel.

The witches and warlocks are a witless lot, but they are not Cajuns lurking in the delta of the Mississippi. The available information indicates that, although few covens are now operating on the campuses of colleges and universities, many of the adepts possess pieces of paper on which unscrupulous educators have certified that they have earned a bachelor’s degree or even the degree of Artium magister. This incidence of crackbrained superstition among the supposedly educated is a comparatively recent development. It was about fifteen years ago, as I remember, that youngsters at the University of Oklahoma were arrested for stealing consecrated wafers from Catholic churches, intending to use an aggregation of the magic crackers to resurrect a much admired cinema actor who had died some two years before, but who, it was assumed, would be repaired and put in working order before popping out of his coffin. The news seemed remarkable at the time; it would occasion no astonishment now.

Twenty years ago, newspapers and periodicals that sought to appear respectable carefully ignored the waning business of the astrologers. Today, very few papers are without their staff astrologers, and even some of the leading pornographic journals have found it profitable to keep their readers informed of the days on which the stars will favor intensive forms of endearment. It would seem that the obsession to believe what is preposterous has kept pace with the great increase in astronomical knowledge, and that literate boobs can put their trust in planetary “influences” at the very time that good photographs of the surface of Venus and excellent photographs of the boulder-strewn deserts of Mars are available for all to see.

Astrology, to be sure, was at one time an hypothesis that could be entertained by rational men, and that was true even after it became obvious that the planets were not celestial lanterns created and operated by gods. It has always been a matter of common observation that the children of one man by one woman, in circumstances that exclude a suggestion of adultery, invariably differ from one another, unless they are identical twins, and from their parents, and that the differences in temperament and mentality are far greater than the differences in color of hair and eyes, stature, and other physiological traits. In the days of Manilius and even in the time of Cardanus, the innate differences between offspring of the same parents, born at different times but in the same place and nurtured in the same way, could most easily be explained in four ways, viz.:

(1) Metempsychosis, it being assumed that living bodies are animated by immaterial but imperishable entities called souls, which, when one body dies, pass in some way into another; thus each newborn child was an incarnation of an individual soul that had a character formed by its own peculiar experiences in many former lives, which it had conveniently forgotten.

(2) Creation, it being assumed that each child was animated by one of the many souls created by a god who, like an artist fashioning figurines, made no two of his products exactly alike, and having accumulated a supply of his creations, either took one at random from a grab-bag when a woman was about to give birth to a child or selected a particular one from the shelves of the warehouse in which he kept his stock ready for use.

(3) Astrology, since time was the significant variable in the phenomena, the moment of conception and/or birth might be the determining factor, and since seasons of the year and phases of the moon were seen not to have such effects, the position of the various planets might correspond to the influences determining character.

(4) Unidentified natural forces that could not be observed.

Of these four hypotheses, the first two naturally commended themselves emotionally to persons who, sharing the instinctive fear of death that is common to all mammals, craved assurance that they were immortal. Men who could subordinate emotional yearnings to the capacity for objective observation that may be peculiar to our race, had to choose between the third and fourth, with a natural prejudice against assumption about unidentifiable causes. The third hypothesis, however, had certain corollaries. Character to some extent obviously determines a man’s choices and hence his life. For example, a man born with a pugnacious and adventurous temperament is much more likely than a timorous man to elect a military career, and hence more likely to die on a field of battle. Furthermore, if the various planets exert influences that form character, those influences over the earth must be continuous, and it is only reasonable to suppose that a man formed by a given influence will be affected by that and other influences throughout his life — conceivably even to the extent that his decisions will be made by forces acting upon him. Consequently, his belief that he has freedom of the will is merely an illusion. The corollaries create difficulties, of course. If it could be shown, for example, that all men who die in battle were born under specific planetary configurations, there would be no problem. But even a limited observation suffices to show that the corpses on a battlefield cannot be identified with any set or sets of planetary conjunctions or oppositons. Despite these and other difficulties in theory, however, astrology remained an hypothesis that could not be categorically rejected before the processes of genetics and heredity were scientifically ascertained.

Astrological theory, especially in the version that held that planets exert influences that are strong but not irresistible (sapiens dominabitur astris), might have become the universal belief of the Western world from the fourth century B.C. to Victorian times but for the opposition of the theologians of the various cults, who saw that any belief in natural laws would be very bad for businesses that depended on popular faith in a capricious god or gods who might do anything, if not properly informed and advised by expert holy men. The salvation hucksters, although competing furiously among themselves, all denounced “godless” astrology with the fervor with which the great spiritual shepherds of our own day denounce “Science,” which threatens impiously to diminish the flocks they lead to righteousness and the shearing-sheds. In the end, however, the more alert theologians had to compromise and devise the formula, imperant astra, sed astra regit Deus, thus conceding that human life was governed by the planets, but with the proviso that the mighty planets were themselves subordinate to an omnipotent and heavenly king, who had power to neutralize the astral influences and would often do so for his deserving subjects; if they solicited his intervention through the proper channels. Unable to overcome astrology, the nimbler theologians joined it.

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Source: Instauration magazine, August 1978

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