Fort’s relationship with the study of anomalous phenomena is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. For over thirty years, Charles Fort sat in the libraries of New York and London, assiduously reading scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines, collecting notes on phenomena that lay outside the accepted theories and beliefs of the time.
Fort took thousands of notes in his lifetime. In his short story “The Giant, the Insect and The Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman,” published many years later for the first time by the International Fortean Organization in issue #70 of the “INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown”, Fort spoke of sitting on a park bench at The Cloisters in New York City and tossing some 60,000 notes, not all of his collection by any means, into the wind. This short story is significant because Fort uses his own data collection technique to solve a mystery. He marveled that seemingly unrelated bits of information were, in fact, related. Fort wryly concludes that he went back to collecting data and taking even more notes. The notes were kept on cards and scraps of paper in shoeboxes, in a cramped shorthand of Fort’s own invention, and some of them survive today in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania. More than once, depressed and discouraged, Fort destroyed his work, but always began anew. Some of the notes were published, little by little, by the Fortean Society magazine “Doubt” and, upon the death of its editor Tiffany Thayer in 1959, most were donated to the New York Public Library where they are still available to researchers of the unknown.
From this research, Fort wrote four books. These are The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932); one book was written between New Lands and Lo! but it was abandoned and absorbed into Lo!.
Fort’s writing style
Understanding Fort’s books takes time and effort: his style is complex, violent and poetic, profound and occasionally puzzling. Ideas are abandoned and then recalled a few pages on; examples and data are offered, compared and contrasted, conclusions made and broken, as Fort holds up the unorthodox to the scrutiny of the orthodoxy that continually fails to account for them. Pressing on his attacks, Fort shows what he sees as the ridiculousness of the conventional explanations and then interjects with his own theories.
Fort suggests that there is, for example, a Super-Sargasso Sea into which all lost things go, and justifies his theories by noting that they fit the data as well as the conventional explanations. As to whether Fort believes this theory, or any of his other proposals, he gives us the answer: “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written.” Writer Colin Wilson suspects that Fort took few if any of his “explanations” seriously, and notes that Fort made “no attempt to present a coherent argument”. (Wilson, 200) Moreover, Wilson opines that Fort’s writing style is “atrocious” (Wilson, 199) and “almost unreadable” (Wilson, 200). Wilson also compares Fort to Robert Ripley, a contemporary writer who found major success hunting oddities, and speculates that Fort’s idiosyncratic prose might have kept him from greater popular success.
Jerome Clark writes that Fort was “essentially a satirist hugely skeptical of human beings’ – especially scientists’ – claims to ultimate knowledge”. Clark describes Fort’s writing style as a “distinctive blend of mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness”.
Wilson describes Fort as “a patron of cranks” and also argues that running through Fort’s work is “the feeling that no matter how honest scientists think they are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity. Expressed in a sentence, Fort’s principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.”
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Despite his objections to Fort’s writing style, Wilson allows that “the facts are certainly astonishing enough” (Wilson, 200). Examples of the odd phenomena in Fort’s books include many of what are variously referred to as occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Reported events include teleportation (a term Fort is generally credited with coining);poltergeist events; falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range; unaccountable noises and explosions; spontaneous fires; levitation; ball lightning (a term explicitly used by Fort); unidentified flying objects; unexplained disappearances; giant wheels of light in the oceans; and animals found outside their normal ranges (see phantom cat). He offered many reports of Out-of-place artifacts (OOPArts), strange items found in unlikely locations. He also is perhaps the first person to explain strange human appearances and disappearances by the hypothesis of alien abduction and was an early proponent of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, specifically suggesting that strange lights or object sighted in the skies might be alien spacecraft. Fort also wrote about the interconnectedness of nature and synchronicity. His books seem to center around the idea that everything is connected and that strange coincidences happen for a reason.
Many of these phenomena are now collectively and conveniently referred to as Fortean phenomena (or Forteana), whilst others have developed into their own schools of thought: for example, reports of UFOs in ufology and unconfirmed animals (cryptids) in cryptozoology. These new disciplines per se are generally not recognized by most scientists or academics however.
Forteana and mainstream science
Frequently in his writing, Fort posits a few basic points that were decades ahead of mainstream scientific acceptance, and that are frequently omitted in discussions of the history and philosophy of science:
- Fort often notes that the boundaries between science and pseudoscience are “fuzzy”: the boundary lines are not very well defined, and they might change over time.
- Fort also points out that whereas facts are objective, how facts are interpreted depends on who is doing the interpreting and in what context.
- Fort insisted that there is a strong sociological influence on what is considered “acceptable” or “damned” (see strong program in the sociology of scientific knowledge).
- Though he never used the term “magical thinking”, Fort offered many arguments and observations that are similar to the concept: he argued that most, if not all, people (including scientists) are at least occasionally guilty of irrational and “non scientific” thinking.
- Fort points out the problem of underdetermination: that the same data can sometimes be explained by more than one theory.
- Similarly, writer John Michell notes that “Fort gave several humorous instances of the same experiment yielding two different results, each one gratifying the experimenter.” Fort noted that if controlled experiments – a pillar of the scientific method – could produce such widely varying results depending on who conducted them, then the scientific method itself might be open to doubt, or at least to a degree of scrutiny rarely brought to bear. Since Fort’s death, scientists have recognized the “experimenter effect”, the tendency for experiments to tend to validate given preconceptions. Robert Rosenthal has conducted pioneering research on this and related subjects.
There are many phenomena in Fort’s works which have now been partially or entirely “recuperated” by mainstream science: ball lightning, for example, was largely rejected as impossible by the scientific consensus of Fort’s day, but is now receiving new attention within science. However, many of Fort’s ideas remain on the very borderlines of “mainstream science”, or beyond, in the fields of paranormalism and the bizarre. This is unsurprising, as Fort resolutely refused to abandon the territory beyond “acceptable” science. Nonetheless, later research has demonstrated that Fort’s claims are at least as reliable as his sources. In the 1960s, American writer William R. Corliss began his own documentation of scientific anomalies. Partly inspired by Fort, Corliss checked some of Fort’s sources and concluded that Fort’s research was “accurate, but rather narrow”; there were many anomalies which Fort did not include in his books.
Many consider it odd that Fort, a man so skeptical and so willing to question the pronouncements of the scientific mainstream, would be so eager to take old stories – for example, stories about rains of fish falling from the sky – at face value. It is debatable whether Fort did in fact accept evidence at face value: many instances in his books, Fort notes that he regarded certain data and assertions as unlikely, and he additionally remarked, “I offer the data. Suit yourself.” In Fort’s books, it is often difficult to determine if he took his proposals and “theories” seriously, but he did seem to hold a genuine belief in the presence of extraterrestrial visitations to the Earth.
The theories and conclusions Fort presented often came from what he called “the orthodox conventionality of Science”. On nearly every page, Fort’s works have reports of odd events which were originally printed in respected mainstream newspapers or scientific journals such as Scientific American, The Times, Nature and Science. Time and again, Fort noted, that while some phenomena related in these and other sources were enthusiastically accepted and promoted by scientists, just as often, inexplicable or unusual reports were ignored, or were effectively swept under the rug. And repeatedly, Fort reclaimed such data from under the rug, and brought them out, as he wrote, “for an airing”. So long as any evidence is ignored – however bizarre or unlikely the evidence might seem – Fort insisted that scientists’ claims to thoroughness and objectivity were questionable.
It did not matter to Fort whether his data and theories were accurate: his point was that alternative conclusions and world views can be made from the same data “orthodox” conclusions are made from, and that the conventional explanations of science are only one of a range of explanations, none necessarily more justified than another. In this respect, he was far ahead of his time. In The Book of the Damned he showed the influence of social values and what would now be called a “paradigm" on what scientists consider to be "true". This prefigured work by Thomas Kuhn decades later. The work of Paul Feyerabend could also be likened to Fort’s.
Another of Fort’s great contributions is questioning the often frequent dogmatism of mainstream science. Although many of the phenomena which science rejected in his day have since been proven to be objective phenomena, and although Fort was prescient in his collection and preservation of these data despite the scorn they often received from his contemporaries, Fort was more of a parodist and a philosopher than a scientist. He thought that far too often, scientists took themselves far too seriously, and were prone to arrogance and dogmatism. Fort used humor both for its own sake, and to point out what he regarded as the foibles of science and scientists.
Nonetheless, Fort is considered by many as the father of modern paranormalism, not only because of his interest in strange phenomena, but because of his “modern” attitude towards religion, 19th-century Spiritualism, and scientific dogma.