Dawkins, ID and Forteanism

Looking through this month’s copy of the Fortean Times, a monthly dedicated to reporting the weird and bizarre, I was particularly struck by two letters to the magazine from readers defending Dawkins from criticisms made by two of the FT’s long-term columnists, Noel Rooney and The Hierophant’s Apprentice, and the columnists’ replies to the letters. What I found particularly remarkable about the comments of Dawkins supporters wasn’t their defence of Dawkins’ attacks on religion, but the fact that they found his views Fortean. The author of one of the letters stated that ‘I consider Dawkins to be most ably informed on the excesses of religion and the myth of belief and to be doing a particularly fortean job in exposing the fallacies of religions, the religious and the religious principle in all its forms’. 1Now there is some similarity between Dawkins’ views on the paranormal and the type of philosophical scepticism adopted and recommended by Charles Fort, the compiler and publisher of weird and scientifically inexplicable facts after whom the Fortean Times is named. Dawkins’ view that if the paranormal exists, then it is ‘perinormal’, that is, it is not totally outside science but will eventually become incorporated into a scientific paradigm when enough evidence is accumulated to allow this, is close to Fort’s own observations that previously damned data – facts ignored or denied by conventional science – may become accepted by science through a change in the scientific paradigm, or the Dominant as Fort himself termed it. Nevertheless, at the risk of slavishly defining Forteanism according to Fort’s own personal philosophy, something that Fort himself did not want and which Noel Rooney in his reply also criticises, there’s a big difference between Dawkins’ scepticism towards the supernatural and Forteanism.

Dawkins own scepticism is very much that of 19th century Positivism, which believed, following the theories of Auguste Comte, that religion and metaphysics had been superseded by science. Indeed the university chair Dawkins holds, that of Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, has a strongly Positivist tone, suggesting that there is a single, absolutely authoritative view of science about which the public must be informed, but must not question. This is not an ‘anti-science’ view. I recall one scientist, who certainly showed Dawkins’ concern for better communication of science, making the same arguments in an opinion article published in the ‘Forum’ column of New Scientist in the 1990s. Fort, on the other hand, while not religious, directed his scepticism very much at science and the claims of scientists who presented as objective fact a view of reality based not so much on evidence as on their own, personal beliefs, in defence of which they excluded and suppressed any scientific data that could not be fitted into it, or which actively appeared to contradict it. Fort’s Book of the Damned begins by stating this very clearly:

‘A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded.’ 2

Fort’s scepticism, rather than being Positivist, appears to be closer to that of the ancient Greek Sceptics like Pyrrho and Heraclites. These ancient Greek Sceptics believed that reality was fundamentally unknowable, in that nothing definite could be said about it, and so argued for a complete detachment from belief. 3 The great Sceptical philosophers, Carneades, was notorious for being able to argue both for and against a given position with equal force. While he also considered that reality was fundamentally unknowable, he considered that some impressions were more persuasive than others, and more servicable through closer inspection and corroborating impressions. They were thus more credible, though not more certain. 4 Fort’s view that everything was in a state of intermediacy, and striving to become ‘more nearly real’ while gradually blurring into everything else, was also similar to the view of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus that everything was in a state of flux, and that nature operated through the union of opposites, stating that ‘Combinations – wholes and not wholes, concurring differing, concordant discordant, from all things one and from one all things’. 5 Fort’s scepticism towards dogmatic science was also shared by the militantly atheist Nietzsche, who also considered reality to be a flux that was only imperfectly caught and described in the net of language, and declared that any view that claimed objective validity was a ‘shadow of God’ that oppressed humanity.

Alhtough they aren’t Sceptics, in many ways the adherents of Intelligent Design have a far more Fortean approach to science than Dawkins. As Intelligent Design, by suggesting that living creatures are the product of an intelligent designer rather than chance Natural Selection, is very much contrary to existing orthodox evolutionary science, its supporters are, like Fort, critical of the claims of scientists to proceed through the dispassionate evaluation of objective evidence. Philip Johnson, one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design, has supported his arguments in this regard using the views of the physicist and philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend, like Thomas Kuhn, considered that scientific progress largely consisted of the change of one set of self-consistent scientific concepts with another, only marginally based on the empirical evidence and not really constituting anything like progress in knowledge. 6 Although a controversial view, the history of science does provide examples of the way scientists have acted to suppress facts that do not support their current paradigm, and supporters of Intelligent Design have documented and publicised these incidents. For example, a recent post for the 26th May, ‘Can Science be Unbaised’, at the Intelligent Design site, The Design of Life, by Jane Harris Zsovan noted the intense controversy surrounding the views of Steven Shapin and Simon Shaffer in their book, Leviathan and the Air Pump. Examing the debate about the usefulness of experimental in constructing a true model of the world between Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, Shapin and Shaffer concluded that scientists were no more objective in their view of the world than other people. In November 2007, Shapin and Shaffer in an edition of the Canadian TV science programme, Ideas, that after their book came out they suffered personal abuse and even threats of sacking from their colleagues, because of their rejection of the claim that science proceeds through complete objectivity. Thus, Denyse O’Leary, another leading supporter of Intelligent Design, has stated on her blog that ID is not the first or even the only scientific debate in which one side has been attacked and declared to be ‘anti-science’ by another.

Now this does not mean that Dawkins’ view of evolution is necessarily incorrect. It just means that in this instance, his view of science is less Fortean than that of the supporters of Intelligent Design, even though they aren’t sceptics like Fort himself. However, I do find interesting the recommendation of one of Dawkins’ defenders in their letter that Dawkins’ successor as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science should be invited to take part in the Fortean Times’ annual Unconvention and debate the motion ‘this house believes that all science undergraduates should be made to read Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned’. 7 My guess is that they wouldn’t, especially if the similarity between Fort’s views appeared to support the wider philosophy of science expressed by Intelligent Design.


1. Philip Bolt, ‘Dissing Dawkins’, in Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008), p. 74.

2. X, ed., with introduction by Bob Rickard, Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (London, John Brown Publishing 1995), p. 1.

3. ‘Scepticism’ in J. Speake, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy (London, Pan Books 1979), p. 314.

4. ‘Scepticism’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 314, and ‘Carneades’ in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 56.

5. Aristotle, On the World, 396b7-8, 20-25, cited in Jonathan Barnes, Early Greek Philosophy (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1987), p. 114.

6. ‘Science, Philosophy of’, in Speake, ed., Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 320.

7. ‘Dissing Dawkins’, Jason Mills, Fortean Times, no. 237, (2008, p. 74.

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5 Responses to “Dawkins, ID and Forteanism”

  1. Ilíon Says:

    Speaking of “the weird and bizarre” and atheism, here is a link to a something I wrote about a dead (or “dead” if you’re an atheist) woman who is not dead: Your Brain Is Not You

  2. Feyd Says:

    Scientists deeply committed to a naturalistic belief system like secular humanism , or who otherwise deny the possibility of the supernatural , are probably best described as pseudo – sceptics rather than sceptics. They are close minded against anything that threatens their absurd materialistic conception of reality!

    It seems to me that scientists have became increasingly defensive in recent decades. Thomas Kuhn popularised the suggestion that science doesn’t always progress through complete objectivity in the early 60s, so why are folk being persecuted for saying the same thing today? Perhaps due to generally higher corruption in science resulting from increasingly fierce competition for funding, and possibly to scientists feeling threatened by the rising level of belief in the supernatural revealed by Gallup polls and the like.

    Its to be hoped that the publics declining faith in materialism is God’s will and relates to an increasing frequency of miracles or possible miracles like the recent one Ilion linked us to!

  3. Beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Ilion and Feyd.

    The piece about the woman coming back from the dead was very interesting indeed, Ilion. Thanks for linking to it. John Horgan, one of the journalists for the science magazine, Discovery , wrote an entire book a while ago pointing out that modern materialist views of the brain really didn’t explain it or the human mind. It’s another issue I’m going to have to blog on at some point. Also John Hicks in his book, The New Frontier of Science and Religion strongly attacks the notion that contemporary neuroscience has explained away mystical experiences.

  4. Beastrabban Says:

    Regarding the defensive attitude of many atheist scientists, I think there are a number of causes for it, Feyd. I think you’re right about the increased awareness of the amount of corruption in science is probably one factor, but the others include criticism of science for its claims to objective truth from radical Postmodernism, some radical feminist ideologies that appear to see science as an exclusively male ideology that either oppresses women, or uses a methodology and a rejection of emotional engagement that is somehow held to be opposed to women and their values, and the rise of Creationism in the late 60s and 70s. Other factors include public scepticism and concern over the effects of some science projects on the environment and health, such as pollution from industry, GM foodstuffs and stem cell research.

    I also suspect that another reason for the increasingly defensive attitude of scientists is simply that there’s a decline in interest in science itself. Scientists are perceived as nerdish and the number of prospective students taking up some science courses is dropping alarmingly. A year or so ago Exeter University in the UK was in the news because of alarm amongst the Chemistry faculty that there weren’t enough students enrolling to make the course viable. Other universities in the UK have said the same thing. The other problem is that much of the big science that captures the public imagination, like CERN and the other particle accelerators, is very, very expensive, and so subject to government cutbacks.

    Regarding the negative view of science articulated by radical Postmodernism and certain forms of feminism, Sokal and Bricmont, the American physics professor and Belgian philosopher, did a very good job of demolishing these arguments in their book, Intellectual Impostures , which critiqued the abuse of science and scientific terminology by radical Postmodernists in order to make their texts more obscure, and so seem more profound than they actually were. One of their arguments is that the radical feminist rejection of science actually was sexist, as it acted to prevent women from taking up careers in science in a way that was extremely similar to the arguments advanced against women being allowed to enter the scientific profession in the Victorian era.

    As for Creationism and, more broadly, religious belief being somehow hostile to science, this has been challenged by a number of studies. There have been a number of studies that show that the people least inclined towards superstition and pseudoscience tend to be the traditionally religious. One of the articles I found on the Creationist site, Answers in Genesis , cited papers published in very orthodox science magazines like New Scientist and Sceptical journals that the people with the highest trust in science, who were least superstitious were, paradoxically, Creationists. Of course, Creationism is still very much opposed to the conventional scientific account of the origins of species and the cosmos, but this does show that scepticism about one aspect of science does not necessarily translate into an anti-science viewpoint as a whole.

    As for the numbers of people going into science dropping, my guess is that it’s due more to changes in the social and industrial structure of society than anything to do with the rise of scepticism against science. Back in the 1950s when Britain had a much larger manufacturing sector than it does now, many more people would have entered science and engineering courses as there were far more job opportunities in those sectors. Moreover, science was glamorous in a way that it probably isn’t today. There were predictions of a glorious technological future, with advances in aviation, rocketry, trains and unconventional methods of transport like the hovercraft. Now these forms of transport have been around for so long that they’re pretty much taken for granted, and so don’t quite have the wonder they once had.

    As for job opportunities, New Scientist reported that most mathematicians ended up working for insurance companies rather than in science. I can believe that – there’s probably better job opportunities and career prospects there. There’s also a lack of science and maths teachers in schools, or there was. I can’t say I’m surprised at that, as there is, or can be, immense pressures on teachers, so recruitment generally has been difficult, and in specialist areas like maths and science it’s not surprising that it’s particularly difficult in these areas.

    As for the health scares, one scientist interviewed several years ago now on BBC Radio 4 said she really didn’t blame the public for becoming sceptical about scientists and their claims when something that is declared to be safe or beneficial one year is then declared to be harmful the next. The changes in scientific opinion means that the general public, which looks to scientists for advice and guidance, becomes confused and then sceptical.

  5. Feyd Says:

    Yeah its not the best time to be a scientist Beast. In addition to the social and economic issues you’ve talked about there are technical and conceptual problems making further major breakthroughs increasingly unlikely, as discussed by John Horgan in his excellent book “The end of Science”

    Christian optimism is needed by scientists as never before – its regrettable that leading atheists have been campaigning to try and make faith and even agnosticism something to be embarrassed about on the university campus. How they need the light!!

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