07/28/2017

Hollow Earth, Cosmic Calamities, And Other Pseudoscientific Fads

17:21 minutes

Phrenology illustration. Photo by Crafty Dogma/flickr/Phrenology

Pseudoscientific ideas are alive and well today. Climate deniers claim to disprove the established science on climate change, and anti-vaxxers cling to outdated research and fringe “experts” for their medical information. But in his book “Fads and Fallacies,” published in the 1950s, science writer and mathematical puzzle enthusiast Martin Gardner chronicled a quirkier, and perhaps less politically polarizing, set of pseudoscientific ideas.

[How to talk about climate change with a denier.]

Take the view that the Earth is hollow, or the concept that the movements of celestial bodies were to blame for historical calamities on Earth. Other fads he chronicled no longer seem that off-beat: vegetarianism and organic farming, for example. In this segment, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg walks us through Gardner’s catalog of pseudoscientific ideas, and talks about the parallels between then and now.

[Carl Sagan on pseudoscience and UFOs.


 

Segment Guests

Jordan Ellenberg

Jordan Ellenberg is the author of How Not to Be Wrong (Penguin Press, 2014). He is also the John D. MacArthur Professor of Mathematics
at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re a science fan like I am, it’s easier than ever to peruse scientific journals and track down real scientific papers on everything from the Big Bang to the latest genetic innovations, new medical research. Forget trekking to the local library to find a dusty copy of a scientific journal. You know, you can find it all online.

And yet just as easy to find online are web sites peddling packets of wellness pills for $90 a month, designed to put pep in your step or rev up your metabolism. And oh, by the way, none of that’s been proven or vouched for by the FDA.

Or websites where so-called climate skeptics– we’ll call them climate change deniers– tear down the peer-reviewed research of well respected career scientists with their own back-of-the-napkin calculations that supposedly disprove the science. And yes, there are the anti-vaxxers. They’re alive and well too. This is the age, of course, of alternative facts, after all.

But today I want to take a trip back to an earlier time, to the 1950s, when pseudoscience was alive and well, with some ideas far more colorful than the ones we have today, ideas like the hollow Earth or events on Earth being controlled from space, almost like science fiction. And the guy who chronicled it all was a writer and mathematical puzzle enthusiast named Martin Gardner. He wrote all about it in his book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.

Gardner passed away in 2010, but my next guest grew up reading Gardner’s columns. And he’s here to help us survey the pseudoscience. Jordan Ellenburg is the MacArthur Professor of Math at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and author of How Not to Be Wrong. He joins us from Wisconsin Public Radio. Welcome back, Jordan.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Great to be on the show again.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you here. Just a reminder that we’re not taking calls today. But you can tell us what you think on Twitter, @scifri. Jordan, like you I was a great Martin Gardner fan. I loved his columns in Scientific American.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Yeah. I used to get the dusty copies of those books. I don’t know why you denigrated going to the library and getting dusty copies of old books, one of the great pleasures of life, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s certainly how I read Martin Gardner’s books when I was a kid, in the Montgomery County Library.

IRA FLATOW: Did he inspire you to go on to better things?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Yeah. I mean, coming across those books, I think probably every kid who was interested in math– and I think this is still true today, just as it was in the ’80s when I was a kid– comes across these books, these volumes of his collected columns from Scientific American, which he wrote for almost 30 years, and it’s just a revelation. On every page, some kind of fascinating piece of mathematics that’s accessible to any interested party, like from a child to an adult. I mean, what he wrote about didn’t really require a lot of technical training.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. He was really– he was really great. Let’s talk about the book Fads and Fallacies, and some of the pseudoscientific ideas Gardner reviews in the book.

And let’s begin with the Hollow Earth and the Flat Earth theories. People really believed in those?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: They did. And you know, even today I think we use a Flat Earther as a kind of generic term for someone who is absolutely resistant to the pull of all evidence. And he writes very entertainingly about people’s kind of competing cosmologies.

By the way, I discovered that Flat Earthism is not over. There’s Flat Earth Twitter. I recommend that you go on Twitter and sort of like delve into this community and its disdain for people like you and me, who are called Globe Heads, those of us who believe in the spherical Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Globe Heads. I would be afraid of falling off that Twitter place.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Exactly. Well, as they would point out, the fact that you don’t fall off by them is very potent evidence that we live on a flat Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: If it’s spinning so fast, they say, how do you not fall off? How does the water not all slosh off? There’s lots of deep questions on Flat Earth Twitter.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’ll have to check it out.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: But of course, yeah, what’s amazing is that there are people for whom the Flat Earth theory is not exotic enough, and who believe, as you said, that the Earth was actually hollow. Some people thought– there was a very popular theory then. The Earth was hollow and there were actually five spheres concentrically arranged within each other. There was a big hole at the North Pole, where the water sort of flowed from one Earth to the next. And people wanted to mount expeditions to go through the hole and find out what was going on in the inner Earths.

IRA FLATOW: This wasn’t having anything to do with The Hobbit, was it?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Oh, I think this was pre-Hobbit actually. I think– but yeah, Middle Earth I guess. I don’t think that’s what Tolkien had in mind. But he was drawing from an even older tradition than that.

And then you’re like, well, that’s got to be like the most exotic theory you can come up with of how the Earth is actually shaped. But no. There’s a whole ‘nother people who believe that– yes, they’ve said, we agree the Earth if hollow. OK. There you’re right.

But we live on the inside of the shell, not the outside.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: And the sun is in the middle.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: So this was a huge controversy, right? I mean, these people who were like, well, we agree on the basic point that the Earth is a hollow shell. But then there was very fierce dispute about whether we lived on the inside or outside surface.

IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing. Gardner also wrote about a guy named Charles Fort and the Forteans. Tell us more about that.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Yeah. Fort was an absolutely fascinating figure. He was– there’s a whole Fortean society built around his views. He was very interested and he’s sort of famous for being interested in rains of frogs. He was actually interested in rains of all kinds of subject, rains of worms, rains of gelatinous substances from the sky, rains of food.

This was somehow the idee fixe that he kept on returning to, these ideas of mysterious things falling out of the sky that couldn’t be explained by science. He kind of hung out in the New York Public Library just exhaustively cataloging all these reports of inexplicable phenomenon, writing about them in his magazine, which was called Doubt. He was this kind of extreme skeptic who just wanted to mess with people’s ideas that they understood the world.

IRA FLATOW: The director of the movie Magnolias says that the famous scene where there’s a hail of frogs falling from the sky, that he was inspired by Charles Fort.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

– How are there frogs falling from the sky?

[END PLAYBACK]

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Absolutely. And one interesting– so Gardner writes about Fort in depth. And one interesting thing is that reading Charles Fort– he writes this book Lo! in 1931. Lo! It’s very exciting. Lo, exclamation point, that’s in the title.

And it really does read like this kind of masterpiece of early 20th century modernist literature. You sort of can’t help but be compelled by it. He was actually very good friends with Theodore Dreiser, who is one of the– the novelist Dreiser, who is one of the people who really sort of brought him into American literary culture.

IRA FLATOW: Have you got a section you could read to us, give us a flavor of what he was like?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Yeah. Maybe I’ll just read you like the very beginning of this book, so you can imagine it being 1931 and picking up this book off the store rack. And so here we go. Here’s the beginning, Part 1, Chapter 1. Ready?

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: “A naked man in a city street, the track of a horse in volcanic mud, the mystery of reindeers’ ears, a huge black form like a whale in the sky and it drips red drops as if attacked by celestial swordfishes, an appalling cherub appears in the sea, confusions.”

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Wouldn’t you keep reading that? Wouldn’t you say like, something’s going on here?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I think a made-for-TV movie’s going to break out somewhere. Absolutely right. Wow.

And another name that everyone knew back at that time was Velikovsky, who had some shall we say unorthodox ideas about planetary science and the formation of the solar system in a famous book that he wrote, Worlds in Collision.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Absolutely. Fort did too, by the way. Fort did not believe in the hollow Earth. He agreed the Earth was a sphere. But he thought we lived inside a larger sphere, which was made out of a gelatinous substance. And it was chunks of that which would sort of break off and like fall into our atmosphere and fall to the ground.

Velikovsky, on the other hand, he had something in common with the Flat Earth people, which is that a lot of what they were trying to do was to develop a scientific theory which explained or ratified what was said in the Bible. This was a very popular activity.

And Velikovsky had a whole– can I say cockamamie on the radio?

IRA FLATOW: You certainly you can. You did.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: He had a whole cockamamie theory about how a comet erupted from Jupiter, flew past the Earth in a very complicated and gravitationally impossible loopy-de-loo, parted the Red Sea, stopped the sun at Jericho, and then settled into orbit and became Venus. So in his view, Venus is this kind of antique comet that had flown out of Jupiter, caused the miracles of the Bible, and then kind of settled down into a stable orbit.

And this was incredibly popular. It was a huge best-seller. And you know, Velikovsky went through this whole sequence of complaining about how he had been victimized by the scientific establishment. Why did they refuse to accept his theories? I mean, I remember even in the ’70s when I was a child, this book was still a going concern, with tons and tons of copies being sold and tons of arguments and television programs about this theory and whether it was being unfairly neglected.

IRA FLATOW: Back in the ’70s, I recall that Carl Sagan as he was rising and becoming popular and a TV star and even in Cosmos felt like he had to take on this theory, had to take on Velikovsky and challenge him.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Absolutely. This was sort of taken seriously enough. And the ’70s, of course, was the age of pyramid power. It was the age of biorhythms. I mean, we do sometimes speak as if in this moment we’re in an age of alternative facts. But you know what? We kind of always have been.

I mean, what the interest of alternative facts is changes. The locus of attention changes. But that phenomenon is always with us. And I think reading Gardner writing in 1951 about fads and fallacies in the name of science, it’s startlingly contemporary. That’s what I would say.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Speaking of contemporary, the strange thing about Gardner’s book is that some of those so-called fads and fallacies were predictive of the future. They sound pretty familiar today. I’m going to point out a few, vegetarianism, organic farming.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Right. And what’s interesting is those phenomena are quite old. But I think the justification is quite different. So for instance, nowadays if we’re interested in organic farming, it’s because we sort of know that chemical pesticides like remain in the soil there. Prolonged exposure is actually bad for workers.

In those days, at the dawn of organic farming, as Gardner tells it, I think it was much more of a sort of mystical enterprise, where there was a belief that the Earth was kind of a living being with its own rhythms that for sort of karmic reasons we had better not disturb, that soil kind of lost its vitality in some scientifically unspecified way when fertilizers were used.

IRA FLATOW: As a fellow mathematician– Gardner was a mathematician– what makes this so attractive to talk about these things to you?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: I mean, I think– I’m going to come back to Charles Fort for a minute, because he’s such an interesting figure, partly because no one really knows whether Fort believed in his own theories. There are sort of two competing accounts of Charles Fort, one that he sort of truly believed in his arcane cosmology. But the other theory is that he was kind of like an Andy-Kaufman-like performance artist whose whole goal was just to sort of create an atmosphere of skepticism, doubt, and confusion, because he thought that science was too sure of itself.

And I think that sense of there is a pleasure in feeling you have access to arcane secrets, to mystic things that somebody doesn’t want you to know, that’s very appealing. And I think people play on that, sometimes intentionally, sometimes in order to sell you something that they want to sell you, and sometimes just because they’ve told themselves that story and it’s so appealing to them that they want to share it with the world.

IRA FLATOW: So do you think that this book, Fads and Fallacies, could get a new audience today?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Yeah. I think you can pick this off the shelf right now and read it. And although the things being referred to are different and many of them have been forgotten, you’ll feel like it’s very relevant to the present day. And of course, Gardner is such a spirited writer that certainly his style has not aged a bit in the, gosh, now 60 years or more since this was written.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Jordan Ellenburg, who is a MacArthur Professor of Math at University of Wisconsin in Madison. And this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International.

And let me ask, since you’re a mathematician, should we ask is there such a thing as pseudomath?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Oh, sure. I get e-mails every day from people invested in pseudomath.

IRA FLATOW: And how do you answer them?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Usually I don’t. I’ve learned from hard experience that it seldom ends well. I do look at them, though. And I do sometimes answer them if I feel that they’re truly in good faith, which sometimes they are. And sometimes I get good results that way.

But yeah, I think the nature of pseudomath has a lot in common with the nature of pseudoscience and that people are really attracted to the idea that they’re going to knock off like the sacred cow, the big actors. I think that’s why sort of exotic cosmology is so popular, because people– nobody wants to sort of falsify some not very well known scientific theory, right?

They want to be like, I knocked off Galileo. I knocked off Einstein. Boy were those guys wrong. They thought they were such big deals. But let me explain how it really is.

And so I think in math, it’s the same thing. People like to do things that are known to be impossible, like trisecting the angle or squaring the circle. Even though these were proved to be impossible hundreds of years ago, people still do them.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think there’s anything we can learn from Martin Gardner’s approach to pseudoscience, that might do us well in this age of so-called alternative facts?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: I think it would be– it would be great for there to be a new Martin Gardner. It would be great for there to be a dozen Martin Gardners, I think partly because, in my view, he doesn’t really try to shut things down, right? He’s sort of a very understanding person, a sort of very plainspoken person.

You don’t get the sense that he is kind of putting himself above people who sort of have fallen prey to some exotic theory. I think it depends. I think if they’re a scam artist, then yes, he’s rather acid towards them. But I think in general he sees them in some ways as temperamentally similar to scientists, people whose sort of inner fire is to understand, but somehow they’ve gone tragically off track somewhere along the way.

IRA FLATOW: And I saw from your reaction before when I asked how do you react to pseudomath that you have realized, I think like a lot of us have realized, that sometimes you cannot change people’s minds by presenting them with evidence.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Yes. I mean, that’s definitely true. I will say in the cases where I’ve had productive interactions with– it has happened and it is like really very satisfying. And I think– over time, I think I’ve learned to tell who truly wants to know versus who just has a chip on their shoulder and they want to show the establishment who’s boss. I think the people who are just in it to show the establishment who’s boss, it’s very hard to change their mind, because if you don’t swallow what they say, then you’re part of the establishment.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think it’s time for you to write a book like Martin Gardiner’s book?

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Let me put it this way. I think in order to write about what Martin Gardner writes about, you do have to have a thick skin. I mean, you do have to be willing– you know, Martin Gardner, he writes about– well, now it’s called Scientology. Then it was called Dianetics. He was officially declared a suppressive person by the Church of Scientology back in the day.

I mean, certainly by what he did he ruffled lots of feathers. And he made lots of enemies. I mean, I say he was somehow a very humane and nice guy, and I think he was. But nonetheless, people don’t like it when you call them a fraud in hard copy, right?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You do have to be ready to suffer those slings and arrows.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: And he was certainly– he was a lifelong– he was one of the founders of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal, so he was certainly sort of a scourge of people who made extravagant claims for telepathy and pre-cognition and the psychic powers that they claimed to have. So he certainly threw a hard shoulder when he wanted to.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you, Jordan, for taking time to be with us today. Fascinating.

JORDAN ELLENBURG: Thanks so much for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Jordan Ellenburg is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Math at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and author of How Not to Be Wrong. Thanks for joining us today.

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