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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Review: The New Inquisition

I recently finished the Hilaritas Press edition of The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science by Robert Anton Wilson -- the first time I had read the book -- and I gave it four stars on Goodreads. (Three and a half stars would be a little closer to my opinion, but Goodreads doesn’t permit that much nuance.)

That’s not quite the five stars I would give to many books by Wilson, but it’s still a pretty good rating.. It’s not a perfect book. I have some criticisms I will get to. But the good portions are very good.

I was worried about reading the book and had actually avoided reading it. I feared I wouldn’t like it at all. Supergee’s comments capture what I was worried about when he writes, “To me this is RAW’s worst book: hectoring, clanking with pig irony, unselective in its examples, giving aid & comfort to those who say that when Dr. Fauci discusses viruses, that’s just his eddication talking.”  (Arthur does conclude, “But it finishes with a marvelous discussion of how we perceive.”) So I figured I may as well wait for the Hilaritas edition.

So I did, and I bought it when it came out, and I enjoyed it. New Inquisition is filled with many insightful comments. As many commenters on this blog have mentioned, the first chapter and last chapter are very good.

The book is full of fine passages such as this one:

If we recognize some validity in these observations and try to “wake” ourselves from the hypnotic trance of modeltheism -- if we try to recall, moment by moment, in an ordinary day that The “Real” Universe is only a model we have created and that existential living cannot be compressed into any model -- we enter a new kind of consciousness. What Blake called “Single Vision” begins to expand into multiple vision -- into conscious bet-making. The person then “sees abysses everywhere,” in Nietzche’s deliberately startling metaphor. (Blake says it more soothingly when he speaks of perceiving “infinity in a grain of sand.”) (From Chapter 8).

Here’s another startling passage, a prescient description of today’s media landscape, written long before it took shape. In a section where Wilson describes how people would rather reinforce their own reality tunnels rather than listen to competing ideas, he writes,

“ … most of us are annoyed frequently by the daily newspaper. ‘News’ or alleged news that we don’t want to read gets printed; heathenish or heretical opinions appear on the letters pace, and sometimes in the columnists; politicians (of the opposite camp, of course) tell the most outrageous lies, which also get printed. With modern computer technology, all of this can soon be avoided. Just fill out a simple questionnaire and mail it in. The computer will print a slightly different version of that day’s paper for each reader, and your Personalized copy will come to you in the morning containing absolutely nothing but what you want to know … “ (From Chapter 7)

This passage, which could have been written no later than 1986, when the book was first published, is a good description of where we live now in 2020. With politics replacing religion as people’s main reality tunnel, the country is largely divided between people who worship what they are told by Fox News and Rush, or people who drink from the fountain of MSNBC and CNN. It’s also easy to use  social networks to reinforce what you already believe. Wilson could not foresee the exact technology, but he knew how most people would react to a plethora of information.

So what’s not to like?

Well, I could have done without the pages and pages of Fortean phenomena, rains of frogs and that sort of thing. Other than the fact that it goes on so long that it feels like padding, I worried about the sourcing. One item quotes, without apparent irony, the Weekly World News.

Another passage highlights an account, allegedly from the Dec. 8, 1931 New York Times, about a deckhand on the steamship Brechsee who suddenly had a four-inch-long bloody gash on his forehead. Wilson brags it came from the “usually scrupulous New York Times,” which seems fair, particularly in comparison to the Weekly World News.

But I happen to have a digital subscription to the Times, which is searchable. And a search for “Brechsee” turns up only one story, dating to 1941, which mentions it being sunk by a mine in World War II. Using the search terms “gash” and “deckhand” for that specific date didn’t work, either.

Maybe the search function at the Times’ website doesn’t always  work well. But I wonder how many of the other citations I could trust.

I also couldn’t get behind attacking the main target of Wilson’s book, CSICOP. I was never convinced that CSICOP or the people associated with it, such as Carl Sagan, were worth all of Wilson’s angst. I remained convinced that your average DEA agent was much worse than any of the people Wilson was picking on. (CSICOP stands for “Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.” The group is now known as “The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.”)

The old Inquisition resulted in very serious consequences, such as executions (including burning at the stake) and confiscations of property. The investigations often included the use of torture.

So, what does the “new” inquisition do? Well, apparently they write mean book reviews and critical articles, and they complain in public about “pseudoscience.” That’s about it. It doesn’t really sound like much in comparison to Twitter mobs, much less the Inquisition of old Europe.

Wilson does give examples in his book of genuine repression. But all of his examples involve government repression.

For example, Wilson discusses the burning of Wilhelm Reich’s books, but admits it was carried out by “the scientists and bureaucrats working for the U.S. government.” He even admits that Martin Gardner “expresses repugnance at the burning of Reich’s works.”

Similarly, Wilson brings up Timothy Leary getting 37  years of imprisonment for one marijuana cigarette. Of course, that’s totally appalling, but Leary wasn’t convicted and imprisoned by Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan. (Sagan, the supposed Grand Inquisitor, was in fact a big marijuana fan and wrote that "The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.")

Sagan’s reply to The New Inquisition (quoted on Wikipedia) is worth reprinting: “"Wilson... describes skeptics as a 'new inquisition.' But to my knowledge no skeptic compels belief. Indeed, on most TV documentaries and talk shows, skeptics get short shrift and almost no air time. All that's happening is that some doctrines and methods are being criticized-at the worst, ridiculed-in magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer with circulations of a few tens of thousands. New Agers are not much, as in earlier times, being called up before criminal tribunals, nor whipped for having visions, and they are certainly not being burned at the stake. Why fear a little criticism? Aren't they interested to see how their beliefs hold up against the best counterarguments skeptics can muster?"

See also this review, which spotted numerous mistakes, such as misspellings of names quietly corrected in the Hilaritas Press edition. It is written by Jim Lippard, who actually is interested in Discordianism and also is a RAW fan. (He wrote once he  “greatly enjoyed” Robert Anton Wilson’s work and owns most of it.)  But criticized Wilson’s scholarship in The New Inquisition and found plenty of problems when he checked out the sources for some of the Fortean incidents Wilson cites.

So, three and a half stars. But the good parts of the book are really good and it’s a book I can recommend every Wilson fan should purchase and read.


Rarebit Fiend said...

Great review Tom! Your look at the sourcing was pretty eye-opening.

I actually slightly annoyed Mr Lippard under another guise. And I'll vaguely allude to that situation to explain the indignation. (I do not, of course know what RAW was thinking or feeling, but in another time and place I was pretty incensed and was picking up what he was putting down.)

There are few things I hate more than hypocrisy and evangelism. I did a bitchy tango with another writer who was very much a capital-S Skeptic. Which was funny, and stupid thing to call themselves, because this person wasn't a skeptic: they were an evangelical atheist/materialist. While evangelism offends me in almost any form, I find it especially repugnant coming from atheists who claim to be better than religious people.

The problem was never science or science advocacy, look at how Wilson paints his version of an anti-science Unistat in "Schrodinger's Cat," but rather loud mouthed intruders into the realm of the numinous that no one remembers inviting to the party. The point that I have made, Wilson made, and many other people have made is that there are more important things for science advocates to be doing (considering the current state of the nation, perhaps focus mostly on health education) than pissing on UFO sightings.

It was admirable when Randi took down hucksters, it's a great thing for people to know that Gwyneth Paltrow's crystal egg could cause toxic shock, homeopaths can be a public danger- these are all things I feel any sane person can get behind.

But, and I think this is where Wilson was coming from because of his use of the term "fundamentalist materialist," these admirable actions look less impressive when coupled with an ideological crusade to prove that modern science has apprehended most of the mysteries in life. This is offensive and irritating when you're someone who does have a pretty good grasp of basic science and a sense of credulity but perhaps believe that there are more things in heaven and earth...yadayadayada.

Anyways, Carthage must be destroyed.

supergee said...

Having reread the book since the discussion started here, I would say that we have reached similar conclusions.

Eric Wagner said...

Well, you make me want to reread the book. I would give it five stars. I would not call Bob's response to CSICOP angst. When Bob wrote the book, some people complained he should write about religious fundamentalism instead. He replied something like, "Everyone knows what I think about religious fundamentalism, so I wrote about fundamentalist materialism instead." In the chapter six exercises in Prometheus Rising, Bob says, "If you are an occultist, join the Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal and read their journal, The Skeptical Inquirer, for a year." I did that round 1989, and I found it interesting. Allegedly the only piece of "Scientific Investigation" CSICOP ever did came back with data they didn't like and they suppressed the date. I find that disturbing. I find Sagan's unctuous criticism of Bob's book very disturbing. People like Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson get tons of airtime on major media outlets, whereas people with a more nuanced approach like Wilson do not appear much on national TV outlets.

It disturbs me that people I admire like Isaac Asimov supported CSICOP. Allegedly Martin Gardner spearheaded a campaign to get Velikovsky's publisher to stop publishing Velikovsky as well as spearheading the campaign again Wilhelm Reich. The book "Carl Sagan & Immanuel Velikovksy" outlines the unscientific means used to attack Velikovsky. I do not agree with Velikovsky, but the unscientific means used to supress his work by alleged skeptics alarm me. Wilhelm Reich died in prison in large part for his scientific research. (Gardner spent years attacking Reich even if Gardner did express mild regret over the burning of Reich's books.) Leary spent years in prison due in part to his work as a scientist. The sentencing judge held up one of his books and said, "You have dangerous ideas."

I think Bob nailed a lot of the rhetorical means of CSICOP in The Widow's Son. People like Sagan and Gardner discourage looking at the evidence of what they label "pseudo-science" and their rhetoric empower the censors and the police to act against rogue scientists like Reich and Leary.

Jesse said...

Lippard once told me that after he wrote that review, he learned that most of the bad info in the book had been recycled from Charles Fort. I guess Fort got a lot of citations wrong and RAW copied them without checking.

Inigo Montoya said...

I think this review is fair and I agree with everything.