One of the categories on the right of the screen here is forteana.
If you haven’t encountered it elsewhere (indeed, if you have), the adjective ‘fortean’ (from Charles Fort) means, very roughly, relating to evidence that is ‘damned’ - sidelined - by the scientific community. Damned because the data do not fit, either because they do not accord with the prevailing models or because they appear so improbable that no scientist is willing to stake their personal credibility on investigating them. This covers all manner of weirdness from frog falls, ghosts and poltergeists, levitation, UFOs, lost civilisations and displaced animals (like big cats stalking the British countryside).
In the 90s I had a few years of being rather too much exposed to that form of eye-poppingly unhelpful postmodernism that had at that point taken a grip on the lower echelons of academia. At that time I thought it might be amusing to compose a helpful article pointing out that most of the main ideas of postmodernism were reflected in the attitudes of Fort himself (d. 1932). In particular, I was struck by his playfulness, his concern for the dispossessed (the ‘unwritten’, the subjected), and above all, the provisionality of all of his suggestions:
“I can conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is anything more than the proper thing to wear, for a while”
I would have called the article ‘An Introduction to Postmodernist Fort’. It would have been quite fun.
I’ve been a reader of the stalwart Fortean Times for donkey’s, and it got me through those curious years in particular by providing an endless cabinet of curiosities. What is so lovable about the Fortean Times is not what it reports, but its tone. It reaches for - and often achieves - a scholarly apprehension of its various subjects that would put a number of the more excitable academic journals to shame. But this is not because it is in any way authoritative. Rather the opposite: its greatest virtue is the way that it is simultaneously serious, amused and utterly undogmatic in any direction whatever. Fortean topics are resolutely those not accepted by science, but what keeps me interested is that its values, at best, are those shared by science at its best.
That’s why I read with no mean pleasure New Scientist’s lead article this week, titled “13 things that do not make sense“. These things include that hardy perennial of the fortean scence, cold fusion. But most of the scientific anomolies listed (like unexplained radio signals from deep space, cosmic constants that aren’t, and that troublesome missing nine-tenths of the universe) are problems of ‘hard’, high-level science.
The spirit of scepticism runs deep in humans. That’s why the extraordinary technical success story that is modern science leaves so many people cold. Science, they say, can’t explain human nature; it can’t explain the mind; it can’t explain love; it can’t explain why we’re here.
Quite. That is part of its strength. Individual scientists may claim answers to any or all of the above, but they will quickly be knocked down if their evidence and theorising is not up to the mark. Scientific thought, as that New Scientist article reminded me, is constantly surrounded not by certainty, but by the buzz and uproar of the unknown. If we are lucky, it even grazes the outer skin of the unknowable.
The strength of the scientific system is not that it has vastly increased the sphere of human knowledge; it is that has vastly increased around that the sphere of human ignorance.