Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reading: "Worlds of their Own" by Robert Schadewald

I recently completed reading "Worlds of their Own" by Robert Schadewald.  This book was brought to my attention from podcast interviews (Skepticality #119, January 5, 2010; Point Of Inquiry, April 30, 2010) with Robert's sister, Lois Schadewald, who had compiled her brother's work into this volume.  In terms of quality and depth of research, I rank it highly with Bob Park's "Voodoo Science" which covered many of the same topics.

I need to apologize in advance for the rather vague referencing in this review.  I purchased "Worlds of their Own" as an eBook and have discovered a major inconvenience with this format for doing serious research.  With a regular eBook format, which allows font size changes and page re-flows, identifying precise locations of references can be difficult at best, as the page number can change depending on your individual settings.  The best I can do is reference the chapter number for specific quotes.

On with the review…

In many ways, Schadewald's book illustrates how little things have changed in the psychology of pseudo-scientists.  Mr. Schadewald was writing mostly in the 1970s to the 2000s but many of his insights into the psychology of cranks still applies today. 

The writing is very witty, much of it based on the author's direct interaction with some of the cranks he explores.  It is tempting to quote many large sections of the text since it is so well written.  To give you an idea of the flavor of the book, this opening quote in the Author's Forward really sets the tone:
"It is my intention to be open-minded. Alternative scientists, or more appropriately pseudoscientists, tend to misunderstand open-mindedness. Given two conflicting ideas, many of them believe that one should consider both equally probable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In science, being open-minded merely means being willing to evaluate an idea on the basis of the evidence, rather than on the basis of preconceived notions. Thus, I claim to be open-minded about James Smith’s theory that pi = 3⅛. I’m not prejudiced against it, but I happen to know it’s false. Not only have mathematicians calculated a different value (3.14159+), but I have calculated it myself. The sad truth is that pseudoscientists are themselves, by any definition, less than open-minded. They frequently display a devotion to their ideas, which is not remotely scientific. To them, it is inconceivable that they could be wrong. When conventional scientists reject their theories, they are convinced that it is pure prejudice, or a “guild mentality.” Never do they seriously entertain the idea that they could be wrong. While orthodox science has had its share of egomaniacs, unorthodox science attracts even more."
Mr. Schadewald proceeds to explore a number of topics, describing a lot of their history, some of which I had not read before.


Schadewald explores the history of the Velikovsky affair and calls to attention how the scientific community's strong initial reaction against Velikovsky (Wikipedia) probably attracted more attention, and subsequently support, than Velikovsky would have received otherwise.  Today, this is kind of backfire is sometimes called the "Streisand Effect" (Wikipedia).

Years ago, one of the Velikovskians' biggest problem was their claimed trajectories for Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Earth and how this game of 'celestial billiards' would take place.  When challenged to demonstrate that such orbits can actually occur, the Velikovskians' made nothing but excuses:
"But this sort of “put up or shut up” attitude merely enrages the Velikovskians. No such orbits exist, so they can’t put up, and they are psychologically incapable of shutting up. Therefore, instead of dealing with the fundamental problems inherent in Velikovsky’s theory, the Velikovskians specialize in nitpicking, the rationalization of failures into victories, and personal attacks on Carl Sagan and others who have the temerity to suggest that Velikovsky’s genius was misguided." (Chapter 1: Velikovsky's Collision).
The modern day Velikovskians, the Electric Universe (EU) advocates, still have not rigorously demonstrated that these orbits can occur.  Today, I have raised more problems with their claims about 'Electric Sun' models, since they require a radically different environment in the regions of the solar system where we routinely fly spacecraft.   Electric Universe advocates balk even more when I point out that they have failed to demonstrate that their "Electric Sun" models can produce an accurate prediction of the heliospheric environment suitable for planning space flights better than the existing internally-power solar model.  Examinations of Electric Sun models based on EU advocates descriptions (and there are at least four radically different 'Electric Sun' models at my last count) indicate the radiation hazard would be far more severe than even the largest known solar radiation events (see "Death by Electric Universe" articles @ Challenges for Electric Universe 'Theorists').

One of the more interesting topics covers the attempts by Velikovsky supporters to compare Velikovsky's claims to those of Alfred Wegener, the discoverer of continental drift (Wikipedia).  The most important aspect of this comparison is that while Velikovsky and his supporters never rigorously addressed any of the actual arguments against their claims, such as the planetary orbits noted above, Wegener continued to explore the arguments brought by geologists against him and made modifications to his theory accordingly.  Another important point was that the original problem with Wegener's idea was not so much the idea that the continents moved, but his proposed mechanisms for the continental motion, which turned out to be completely wrong. (Appendix: If Continents Can Wander,  Why Not Planets?)


Free Energy

Schadewald explores some of the characters behind various versions of perpetual motion machines, some of which were also examined in Robert Park's "Voodoo Science".  Here's a quote from Chapter 4 where he defines "Schadewald's Law" about the design of perpetual-motion machines:
"There is a reason why many of the designs are so complicated. We might call it Schadewald’s law of perpetual motion: A perpetual motionist typically concocts a scheme so complicated that he can’t see why it won’t work. He then assumes that it will work." (Chapter 4: The Idea of a Free Lunch)
As is often the case, cranks who can't get support for their claims in the scientific community often resort to political mechanisms, in the case of Joseph Newman who 'invented' yet another perpetual motion machine using magnetism and rotation (Wikipedia: Newman's Energy Machine).
"Not surprisingly, Newman has supporters in Congress, and at least eleven bills have been introduced to force the patent office to grant him a patent. None has passed." (Chapter 9: You Want Really Advanced Technology?)
A copy of the test report of the Newman energy machine performed by the National Bureau of Standards is available at (link to report).

Even more entertaining is Schadewald's exploration of the psychology of 'Free Energy Machine' advocates by 'inventing' his own device, the Schadewald Gravity Engine, making it available on April 1, 1978.  He received many inquiries on how the device worked (which he admitted it did not), but he apparently received no offers from oil companies to 'bury it.' ;^)

Flat Earth

Probably the most interesting part of the book for me were the articles on the history of the Flat Earth movement, largely because it was something that I had not read much before.  Schadewald covered the history of the movement from ancient times to the 20th century version (Chapters 10-13).  The stories about the 1800s revival of flat-earthism are particularly fascinating as a number of debates and public challenges were made.  One defender of the spherical Earth was Alfred Russel Wallace (Wikipedia).  Schadewald also described the flat-earth theocracy of Zion, Illinois which existed in the early 1900s (Wikipedia).

For the 20th century incarnation, years ago I had seen Charles Johnson's Flat Earth Society (wikipedia) website, and Mr. Johnson's claims of its Biblical basis.  Mr. Schadewald writes a great deal on the history and tells about how he was a member of the Flat Earth Society, at one point removed, and later reinstated. 


Schadewald's sections on Creationism explored many of the older claims which enjoy occasional resurrection on online creation-evolution discussion forums.  Many of Schadewald's rebuttals are familiar to those who've dealt with this topic for years.  More interesting are his explorations into the psychology of the pseudoscientist.  He makes the comparison of creationism with Flat Earth beliefs.
"Finally, the creationists have painted themselves into the same emotional and intellectual corner that the flat earthers did. They have staked their emotional well-being on the absolute truth of the Bible, and the truth of the Bible on their own interpretation of it." (Chapter 14: Palming Off Religious Dogma as Science)
Because arguments for a geocentric Earth, and even a flat Earth have a Biblical basis, I've always regarded young-Earth creationists who do not also hold those positions as somewhat hypocritical, picking-and-choosing the parts of the Bible they want to regard as symbolic vs. literal.
"Essentially, science is an open system based on skeptical inquiry, and its ultimate appeal is to evidence. Scientists use inductive reasoning, formulating general laws from specific observations of nature. A pseudoscience is a closed system based on belief, and its ultimate appeal is to doctrine. Pseudoscientists base their systems on deductive logic, deducing how the universe must act to conform with their doctrines.  Pseudoscience is deductive." (Chapter 19: Creation Pseudoscience)
There is also this great quote about the psychology of the two-types pseudo-scientists, which certainly applies to many (but not all) of the cranks I have encountered…
"Pseudoscientists are of two types. One group consists of ordinary cranks, self-proclaimed geniuses who seem motivated by contempt for conventional scientists. George Francis Gillette, discoverer of the remarkable backscrewing theory of gravity, was an excellent example. The other type of pseudoscientist seeks to justify some sort of ideology with scientific arguments. Examples of this type range from Nazi anthropologists to scientific creationists. Both types of pseudoscientist usually harbor feelings of personal greatness." (Chapter 19: Creation Pseudoscience)

Science vs. Pseudoscience

One of my favorite chapters is Chapter 21, Science vs. Pseudoscience, which does a meta-analysis of the psychology of pseudo-scientists.  Again, many points he makes are realizations that many of us who've been in this battle for a number of years have understood, but have rarely expressed so well.
"1. Pseudoscience appeals to democratic ideals, and followers demand fairness or equal time. (Actually, they usually are only interested in limited democracy, embracing their theory and the prevailing theory, and this only until they can throw the prevailing theory out.) Two good examples are the Velikovskians and the scientific creationists. This is consistent with the pathologically open mind characteristic of pseudoscientists; many of whom seem to think that, given two ideas, both are equally probable (except that the one he wants to believe is more probable). But science is elitist in the extreme, and only the best ideas get attention."   (Chapter 21: Science vs. Pseudoscience)
Schadewald then procedes to describe how pseudo-science takes a 'political' view of science, viewing scientists like political appointees who obtain their jobs by connections, that 'Truth' is what you can make someone believe, and so many more.  He also points out the notion of 'science as fashion', so common among pseudoscientists and promoted by various post-modern philosophers of science (Wikipedia: Fashionable Nonsense):
"2. Pseudoscientists tend to reject or ignore the correspondence principle. Pseudoscientists believe that theories come and go largely as a matter of fashion. Carried to its logical conclusion, this assumes that there is no ultimate truth, that 2 + 2 may someday equal 5. However, we will never go back to the flat-earth theory, to the theory of immovable continents, or to a very young Earth. All three ideas are very thoroughly contradicted by the evidence. This does not, however, mean that our ideas about the precise shape of the earth, the motions of the continents and the age of the earth are unchangeable." (Chapter 21: Science vs. Pseudoscience)
I found Schadewald's book an enlightening and enjoyable read, where I was introduced to realms of pseudo-science which are not ordinarily high on my list.  Schadewald's book should be on the shelves of anyone dealing with pseudoscience in the physical sciences and wants a good summary, and reference, of some of its history.

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