This week I bought a copy of Fortean Times, after Infinitarian drew attention to it in a discussion about something else. I didn’t have very high expectations of the quality of reportage in it, to be honest: the pseudonymous television series presented by Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe belongs to that prole-prodding class of programmes like The Bill or 999. With that in mind I expected the paper counterpart to be, by analogy, something like Derek Acorah editing Take a Break.
In the end I was very pleasantly surprised. The magazine is glossy and apparently perfect-bound, and has an atmosphere redolent of several SF magazines, with some whiffs of the design used in the late 1990s Big Issue. The adverts towards the back reveal the intended audience: bongs, mushroom seeds, historical replica weapons, and scale models of science-fiction creatures.
The content is surprisingly skeptical where evidence exists, while maintaining an open-mindedness in its speculative articles. There’s a scathing exposÃ© of the wacky origins of the new-age Findhorn retreat, and a debunking of UFO encounters that may have instead been much more prosaic close shaves with lightning strikes. At the same time, though, the interest and, from the point of view of individual experience, mystery of events is still respected and often enhanced by the manner of explaining. In the example given above, while the theory of lightning strikes debunks UFO sightings, they at the same time preserve the unique and extraordinary nature of what the individuals went through. This, in other words, is scientific research.
The only real disappointment was the editorial at the front. Rupert Sheldrake, everyone’s favourite progenitor of cracked pots, has been denounced by leading scientists. The main bum note in the editorial’s discussion of this was that they felt that scientists from other fields—chemists, anthropologists, that sort of thing—ought not to voice such strong opinions on Sheldrake’s work, because that was in an entirely different field.
I don’t know where to start with such wrongheadedness. The first objection that springs to mind is that if scientists can’t condemn each others’ research across genre divides, then that means that any scientist’s lauding of another’s must also necessarily be discarded (and, in fact, gently chided as presumptuous): can we be certain that the editors of FT would have done the same if Sheldrake had been praised to the heavens? My second objection is that the whole point of the scientific method is that it isn’t field-specific: scientists in one field must be able to criticize the methodology of scientists in another, or the whole premise of science breaks down and there’s no point in any empirical studies.
This leads onto my final objection, which is that: any person should be able to criticise Sheldrake’s methodology, not just any putative “scientist”. When newspapers say “scientist” they really mean “researcher”: we can all be scientists by observing empirical events and patterns with the methodology of scientific study in mind. When you work out which of your housemates drank the last of the milk, then depending on how you go about it you can (in a limited and temporary sense) be a scientist; if you look at Sheldrake’s work with the same eye (and the same understanding of how the scientific method dictates you have to do larger-scale experiments than auditing the communal fridge) then you have as much right to criticise him as any other scientist. That’s the even greater point: if Sheldrake is doing science, every other person on earth can criticise him; if he isn’t, then only Sheldrake himself can judge, but he can’t then claim it to be empirical study.
It’s a shame that the magazine as a whole starts with this guff, but at least it’s bookended at the other extreme by an explanation of what FT is all about. It explains the ideas of Charles Fort and how they apply to its reporting. This little piece finishes by stating categorically that FT “does not have an editorial policy.” Judging by the quality of thinking displayed in its editorial frontispiece, that can only improve the quality of FT.