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Science or Psuedoscience

Henry H. Bauer

Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies

(University of Illinois Press)

The Why Files

Reading was such an oddity at one of my old jobs that people would stare at me in the employee lounge and lean down to see what book could possibly be so interesting someone would want to read it. This was only a minor annoyance unless I was reading a book about UFOs (It’s not like I read UFO books all the time, but once in a while something like David Jacobs’ The Alien Agenda makes for fascinating reading). If one of my coworkers spotted a UFO book, they would immediately interrupt. “Does he believe it’s real?” was always the first question, followed by “Do you believe in that?” They always wanted to know what I thought before admitting what they thought. I started hiding the UFO books in brown paper covers.


To answer the immediate, inevitable question about Henry H. Bauer’s Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies, yes, Bauer supports investigating what some term pseudoscience or paranormal activity and believes that some of it will turn out to be true. Bauer, professor emeritus of chemistry at Virginia Polytechnical Institute, has written in the past about the scientific method and the enigma of Nessie (the Loch Ness monster, in case you’re not on a first-name basis).


I should disclose that I am not a scientist. In fact, I can barely brew beer without blowing out a wall in my house. But Science or Pseudoscience is neither a scientific treatise nor an argument establishing the veracity of paranormal phenomena. Instead, it is a sociological examination of studies derided as pseudoscience and a philosophical defense of their worth. Bauer argues that the study of UFOs, parapsychology (i.e. ESP), cryptozoology (the search for possibly mythic animals, like Yeti), bioelectromagnetics, healing touch, and other fringe subjects cannot and should not follow the same methodologies and meet the same expectations as mainstream science.


In the opening chapters, Bauer compares what he calls “anomalistics” with mainstream science and social science. It shouldn’t be surprising to find differences between a government-funded scientist in a lab working on the Human Genome Project and a guy in a duck blind looking for UFOs with a flashlight, but Bauer’s comparisons are thought-provoking and explain some of the dilemmas of anomalistics. Science depends on reproducibility. Anomalistics is the study of things that do not repeat. If ghosts always appeared, the question of their existence would be answered. As Bauer states, “If their facts were reproducible, cryptozoology would be zoology and parapsychology would be psychology.”


Mainstream science strives for connectivity with the known - or assumed - body of knowledge while anomalies by definition are disconnected from the expected. Somewhat unoriginally, Bauer terms these two worlds the “known unknown” - for example, the scientist labeling new DNA, whose existence is already verified - and the “unknown unknown” - as in our ufologist in the duck blind. The ufologist can’t know what to look for or how to look for it. Bauer notes that scientific progress usually occurs incrementally with small advances in method, data, or theory. For progress in anomalistics, your average Fox Mulder gambles on advances in all three areas - new data, new methods to gather it, and new theories to explain it.


A skeptic would argue that these considerations for anomalistics read like excuses. UFOs are hard to find, they would say, because they don’t exist. Bauer aptly points out that dismissing something out of hand is hardly scientific. He remains fair and logical, noting that science has itself pursued some red herrings like N Rays and dismissed some genuine discoveries like ball lightning. He also admonishes those in anomalistics to be more honest about the charlatans and hucksters in their ranks. None of this will turn non-believers into believers or vice versa, but it does clarify the issues and make for interesting reading.


Bauer also provides brief histories and comparisons of fringe movements which have occurred within - and far outside of - mainstream science, like the theory of polywater, the Velikovsky affair, the search for the Loch Ness Monster, and the controversy over bioelectromagnetics. Science or Pseudoscience contains several interesting though dry dissections of mainstream science’s accidents, hypocrisies, and hasty condemnations. Though not a postmodernist, Bauer writes, “In my own view, ‘science’ is not the only worthwhile human intellectual activity, nor the only proper or possible source of knowledge, nor the only arbiter of what correct knowledge is.”


Several flaws hinder the book’s overall energy. Bauer tackles each subject methodically. Subject headings are used regularly and much comparing and contrasting is done. Although clear, this style falls far short of lively, which is surprising given the variety of fascinating subjects. Also, Bauer too often refers to something interesting like a group’s schism or a hoax but instead of providing details, he refers to his bibliography. Under the broad scope of Science or Pseudoscience some issues inevitably get left out. Science driven by agenda, be it money or ideology, does not get the scrutiny to equal its public impact.


Though not as engrossing as a book on this subject could be nor as spirited as a philosophical manifesto should be, Science or Pseudoscience strongly defends the trial and adventure of anomalistics and challenges the hold of science on the truth.

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