Is there ‘a rising tide of irrationality’?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Painting of a comet over sea by Herbert Barnard John Everett

I often come across the assumption, or assertion, that pseudoscientific views or belief in the paranormal are increasing. Yet the claim that there is a “rising tide of irrationality” seems to be backed by little evidence.

The “rising tide” comment is taken from a tweet by Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic magazine, who also recently tweeted:

I keep hammering on point that paranormal claims and attempts to get to bottom of them have always been with us, and always will be with us… 15 Nov 12

This certainly chimes with my view as an historian. Loxton also pointed me to a piece on the data collected since 1990 by Gallup that indicates “the public’s persistent belief in the paranormal”. While particular types of paranormal interest come in and out of fashion, overall it seems that views considered non-, anti- or pseudo-scientific have a fairly static presence.

So why the assertion that it is increasing? Perhaps today we can point to the potential for visibility and collective presence generated by the internet. There are also new ways in which unscientific views have entered the political arena, making them more visible and problematic – something recently discussed by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes inWhy Conservatives Turned Against Science.

But these factors don’t account for the perennial sense of a rising tide. Perhaps it is simply that the more sensitive to or aware of something you are, the more you keep on noticing it. In this case, much of the sensitivity is due to the fact that elements of what is branded pseudoscience can be deeply entangled and competitive with perceptions of orthodox science. (It’s worth having a look at Steven Shapin’s recent review of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars on the origins of the term.)

Take astrology, for example. It was once intimately connected with astronomy. The words were more or less interchangeable in the early modern period, although for simplicity we can characterise astrology as having been one of the most significant drivers for accurate positional astronomy, alongside timekeeping, surveying and navigation. By the end of the 17th century, for elite astronomers, this connection was disintegrating and, although their data continued to be used by astrologers, the borders between legitimate and non-legitimate uses of astronomy were redefined.

The astrologers did not go away, and popular belief in the effect of heavenly bodies on the mundane world – on individuals, nations, crops, weather or health – certainly remained throughout the 18th century and beyond. A market for astrological publications and symbolism continued to exist, even if it was not until the late 19th century that there was a notable revival of interest in astrology and other things esoteric and spiritual among more fashionable and educated audiences.

One place in which we can trace this ever-present undercurrent of astrological belief is, of all places, in the archive of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (now held at Cambridge University Library), where a quick search of the online catalogue reveals that Astronomers Royal throughout the 19th and 20th century had to deal with enquiries from the public relating to astrology. Undoubtedly there was such correspondence in the 18th century too, it simply was not kept as diligently.

Astrological enquiries of the mid 19th century – before the revivals of either late 19th-century esotericism or the 20th-century’s New Age – were also referred to in a published account. This was The Midnight Sky, written by one of the Observatory’s assistant astronomers, Edwin Dunkin.

In the second edition, Dunkin described the work of the Royal Observatory, where he had been based since 1838, and noted that,

there is one class of correspondence which, during the author’s long connection with it, he has never known to fail, and which should be alluded to here, to show that, even in this the nineteenth century, there are paradoxers of all kinds, both scientific and social, who call upon the astronomer for advice under difficulties. For it must be acknowledged that the Greenwich astronomer, in addition to his stated public duties, is also very generally supposed to devote some attention to astrology…

He went on to describe “individuals calling frequently at the Observatory gate, requesting information about their future destiny”, letters “enclosing Post-Office orders, requesting a nativity cast in return”, and how “On one occasion, a well-dressed young woman, apparently in great distress, called at the author’s private residence” asking for information about an uncle at sea. “She left in tears, because she was informed that the stars were unable to satisfy her wishes.”

Dunkin’s “final example of the march of intellect in the nineteenth century” was a letter received more than 30 years before: “I have been informed that there are persons at this Observatory who will, by my inclosing a remittance and the time of my birth, give me to understand who is to be my wife. An early answer, stating all relative particulars, will greatly oblige”.

Astrological questions, or ones on Mayan prophecy or UFOs, still come to places like the Royal Observatory. We can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that this puts us in esteemed company, and that ’twas always thus, and ’twill ever be.


3 thoughts on “Is there ‘a rising tide of irrationality’?

  1. I recently went to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich England, and took my GPS. Somewhat naively I whipped it out to read my longitude whilst straddled one foot on either side of the red line demarking the Prime Meridian reference for the Royal Observatory. To my utter surprise I found that I was actually standing EAST of the GPS Prime Meridian. The GPS Prime Meridian actually runs through the park next door to the west, ceremoniously marked by a charcoal grill. The GPS and historical reference had to be decoupled for a variety of reasons.

    When I asked the Royal Observatory watch officer as to why my GPS would show that I was 00.006′ EAST and not dead on the meridian, he replied “Well your GPS must be broken now isn’t it?” Occam’s Razor in action. The simplest explanation, founded by a myriad of furtive complicated underpinnings. No need to make unnecessary observations, I must ‘believe’ that the GPS was correct. I must ‘believe’ that the Prime Meridian now ran through the park to the west. My observation was a ‘claim’, a ‘belief’ – that way we do not have to actually do any actual science, in order to dismiss a threatening idea. It is a claim and a belief, I can rest in my skeptics’ armchair un-threatened and pontificating.

    Sometimes, one man’s increase in irrationality is another man’s change in paradigm. Those who refuse the new paradigm, especially in the case of an avalanche of new information (both verified and false), can be tempted to decry it all as ‘internet irrationality.’ But, I see this presumption as lazy critical blindness. What they call ‘beliefs’ – are actually being touted as ‘persistent observations’ by those who are doing the observing, to their contention. Observations unfortunately by the great unwashed public who are not authorized to observe, under the skeptic’s version of the Scientific Method.

    This is an unfortunate and failing aspect of misapplication of the Scientific Method which leaves our Royal Observatory Skeptics clinging to and defending with anger, old and outdated ideas, avoiding anything new with dutiful vigor.

    We should demand, rather than disdain for persistent disliked observations, demand that actual science be done. When skepticism becomes a substitute and an excuse, it is no longer skepticism – and its practitioners have no room to declare ‘increasing irrationality.’ Stupid is as stupid does (or lack-of-does in this case may be). 😎


    • I wonder if this was just a Visitor Assistant having a bad day 😉

      For the record, most of the VAs know about the difference in the GPS prime meridian, although it actually runs to the east, not the west, of the Airy Transit Circle’s meridian. Possibly this is why they thought your GPS was broken?

  2. Ah yes, as my memory has a very insistent habit of doing, it swaps registers simply to play tricks on me. Swap EAST with WEST for both points. Thanks! Perhaps he was having a bad day, but he seemed pretty insistent that the GPS 00′.006 W was incorrect. 🙂 But the Meridian looks to be 100 m to the East of the GPS Meridian, yes.

    Thanks and Cheers!

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