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Gonzo SciencePoint here for more book info
Anomalies, Heresies, and Conspiracies
By Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson

Paraview Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-931044-63-5
Science, 320 pages
Trade paperback, $16.95

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Excerpt
 

Chapter 1: The Gonzo Manifesto

 

We use the term “gonzo” in the sense that outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson used it. It connotes weirdness, excitement, and danger. Gonzo also refers to Thompson’s guerrilla style as he conducted raids on objectivity. Thompson was trying to say: “Enough of this B.S., I’m tired of journalism pretending to be objective. The story is actually about the reporter.” It is our observation that science is prone to the same argument. So-called scientific facts amount to the current beliefs of scientists.

Dominant paradigms collapse; that is what they do. The trick is to use the holes in the current theory to see what you might expect from the up-and-coming theory.

Thompson may be a stylistic influence, but T.S. Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions figures strongly here, of course, as does Schick and Vaughn’s critical-thinking classic, How To Think About Weird Things, and the exhaustive scientific anomaly catalogs of William R. Corliss, which can be found at Sciencefrontiers.com.

What Is a Gonzo Scientist?
A gonzo scientist is under no obligation to be a trained scientist. As free agents gonzo scientists can avoid the pitfalls and influences of the culture of science. These include having to play ball with the academy, begging for funding from military-industrial sources, and submitting to the vice-like grip of peer-reviewed journals, which rigidly enforce the status quo. The gonzo scientist is a science writer, thinker, commentator, and/or critic. He or she studies and comments on the system, but is not of it. This follows “the world’s greatest paleontologist” David Raup’s observation that people outside of a discipline may have fresher perspectives than those stuck inside of it.

A gonzo scientist is a generalist. It is much lamented that science today is in a rut of specializations. Scientific disciplines have sprouted a thousand narrow sub-disciplines, each with its own jargon, culture, inherent biases, and blind spots. Scientists are by and large schooled up to the hilt in one of these particular specialties, knowing everything there is to know about a very narrow topic. The generalist, on the other hand, draws from wide experience in many different fields, and is in a better position to see where they overlap, interconnect, and inform each other.

A gonzo scientist is an anomalist. Whether there is an actual science of “anomalistics” is an open question. What we do know is that more often than not, instead of being brought to light, many scientific anomalies are either blatantly ignored or unceremoniously shunted off stage with an ad hoc explanation, an explanation whose reason for being is to make an anomaly go away, saving the dominant theory from the embarrassment of being unable to explain something. What seems clear to us is that if you collect the anomalies in any field, you are in effect assembling a negative image of the counter-theory to the dominant one.

A gonzo scientist is a critical thinker. We have no patience for those who engage in fuzzy thinking or anything but the most rigorous consideration of ideas. By critical thinking we refer to the collection of cognitive skills necessary to avoid logical pitfalls and to identify good ideas amid the bad ones. It is useful, therefore, to pay attention to the community of professional scientific skeptics, because they have knowledge of and promote the use of these skills. Whether they always apply them appropriately is another matter.

We are basically disaffected scientific skeptics. We grew tired of the way our fellow skeptics wrapped themselves in the language of critical thinking whilst ascribing logical fallacies to everyone else. In this sense we are “zetetic” skeptics: we doubt all claims -- even those of the professional skeptics -- and everything gets a fair hearing.

Who Are the Professional Skeptics?
The keepers of the scientific faith are the professional skeptics, represented by the unfortunately named organization CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal) and other groups. They fancy themselves the most rational rationalists, the most mechanical mechanists, and the most reductive reductionists. Their mission is to save us from the kook, the crank, the crackpot, and the pseudoscientist. But in their zeal to defend the mundane, they’ve developed a pathological aversion to the anomalous.

Armed with a cognitive toolbox containing strict criteria of adequacy, and on the lookout for logical pitfalls, these grumpy skeptics go around tilting at any old windmill.

What Are the “Criteria of Adequacy”?
The criteria of adequacy are used to distinguish good ideas from bad. These criteria are testability, fruitfulness, scope, simplicity, and conservatism. This gets tricky right around the conservatism part.

The criterion of conservatism states that the best theory is the one that is most in agreement with well-established beliefs. So let’s say you’re looking for a theory that explains how the universe came to be and the principles that determine its organization. To apply conservatism, you ask a cosmologist or an astronomer about the most established beliefs of their profession. They will tell you that the universe began in a Big Bang and then organized itself through gravity.

But long-standing ideas in the field of plasma physics undermine this notion because plasma physicists do not believe in the Big Bang. The most conservative view within this community is that the universe is organized around electromagnetic principles, and that a Big Bang origin is an unnecessary hypothesis. The plasma physicists have conservatively applied their science and arrived at completely different conclusions from other scientific conservatives.

Conservatism is not only unreliable in this way, but also bears a close resemblance to the notorious logical fallacy known as the “appeal to tradition.” You are guilty of committing the appeal to tradition when you argue that something must be the case because that is the way it has always been. This common pitfall is illogical. Notice that conservatism and the appeal to tradition are virtually indistinguishable. This amounts to nothing less than a fault line running through the scientific method.

The way to inoculate science against the appeal to tradition is to jettison conservatism from the criteria of adequacy. This would leave the other criteria -- testability, fruitfulness, scope, and simplicity -- intact.

A conservative science is blind to its own appeals to tradition, and dismissive of anomalies. But it is the anomalies in a theory which point the way to newer, better theories.

The skeptics guard our rear flank, intercepting the Bible-thumpers and neutralizing other nuisances like the holocaust deniers and the New Age UFO religions. But the criterion of conservatism, although useful, can hold people back from discovering new and exciting facts and connections. Conservatism -- almost by definition -- will never lead science forward. Eject it from the criteria of adequacy, and get someone down here who can explain all these anomalies!

Halfway between the hardest science and the most far-out speculation, we will take the best of both. Gonzo science combines the critical thinking of the skeptics with the fearlessness and progressive thinking of the iconoclast. It’s time to get gonzo.

© 2004 Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson

 

 

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