There are an awful lot of academic fields which I adore, but forced to pick one, I go for anthropology. Happily, it’s such a big grey field that it winds up encompassing all the others sooner or later anyway. I love it, the study of people, how they live, how they get along (or don’t), and what makes cultures tick. But what surprised me when I went to study anthropology is that early on, you aren’t allowed to pick a specialty area. Later, you can choose cultural, physical, or what have you. Initially, it’s one overview…and that was brilliant, because had I picked, I wouldn’t have learned about the wonderful world of pseudoscience, which is like catnip to me.
Pseudoscience is a big fancy word for things people believe in which are utterly unproven, but which are frequently put out into the world with a veneer of not-quite-science about them. Whether it’s UFOs, Bigfoot, Atlantis, fake medical treatments, physics, ghosts…they are all under the big umbrella of pseudoscience, and I adore them. (People always think when I talk about these things and the people who believe in them, that I’m laughing at the people. I’m not. I’m just excited and delighted.) With this in mind, let’s look at some books, shall we?
Charlatan is the story of of John R. Brinkley, a trickster who set himself up as a “doctor” and introduced a revolutionary medical treatment for helping restore, or enhance, male virility. It was a ridiculous method, but not in 1917, and it’s fairly jaw-dropping to discover how long John Brinkley got away with his fake medical career, partly thanks to his magnetic personality and also his astonishing understanding of the budding medias of the age: advertising and broadcasting.
This is a brilliant book. That’s underselling it. It’s not just Pope Brock’s excellent writing and wonderful ability to tell a story (even when the story he’s recounting really did happen), it’s the astonishment of reading about John Brinkley and how much he got away with. My poor wife can attest to how much I adored the book, because I made it about half a page every time before I was reading her passages in excitement. This was my favorite book of 2011, out of the 70-ish I read, and I’m about to revisit it. It’s a very light, very fast read, but it’s completely charming.
Instead of exploring an individual and his scam, like in Charlatan, this is a more academic and educational book which charts a range of popular frauds and myths throughout the ages. Covering topics such as Atlantis, the Piltdown Man, Ancient Astronauts, Psychics, and a whole host of other topics. It examines such popular notions in great deal, while also exploring why people believe these sorts of things, what they’re for, and why we need to think about these topics.
It isn’t as easy a read as Charlatan was, simply because it’s meant to be more of a textbook than anything. That said, this isn’t a dense text, and it isn’t tedious or dry. Kenneth Feder takes some delight in these topics, just like I do, and it comes through on the page. You can hear him having fun. It’s exciting and a delight to read, but it’s also thorough enough to work as a serious guide to this field and not just a fun to read story. (Although you do get to learn all about Arthur Conan Doyle, who, despite creating the world’s greatest detective was himself a man who would believe in anything at all. He once accused Harry Houdini of having performed real magic and then “lied” by calling it a trick.)
One of the core ideas in anthropology (one which I responded strongly to almost instantly) is the idea that you observe other cultures and people, other beliefs, but you don’t render judgment on them. You learn to recognize that other people live differently than you do, and that is, by itself, neither good nor bad. You observe, you study, but you leave it alone.
That was part of the reason I became disappointed with Why People Believe Weird Things, a book that seemed right up my alley (and which is impossible to avoid if you start wandering further in this field). This is a more political book than the others I’ve mentioned, which is also possibly part of what soured me (I am not a political person, to put it mildly). Here we cover another vast array of topics, but I quickly found the book settling into a pattern of 1) look at this dumb thing people believe 2) what a dumb thing! Who would believe that? These people are very dumb!
I don’t have a lot of time for dismissing people (whether what they believe is wrong or not). I don’t think anything productive comes out of pointing and laughing and then dismissing. I gave up on the book three-quarters of the way through, despite it being all about topics that I adore reading about.