Monday, June 16, 2008

Who Is Charles Fort?

As I mentioned last time, "Forteana" (a catch-all word for weird stuff) gets its name from Charles Fort, an early 20th Century American author and thinker. Fort spent his time compiling and commenting on anomalies. His books (Lo!, Wild Talents, The Book of the Damned, and New Lands, now also available as The Complete Books of Charles Fort) collect stories of teleportation (according to most sources, Fort coined the term), strange lights in the sky, rains of frogs, and other strange occurrences. In addition to cataloging strange phenomena, Fort commented on them with keen wit and often very subtle humor.

At the heart of Fort’s philosophy is the idea that too much faith in anything, even established science, is ultimately counterproductive. All things should be evaluated according to the rules of evidence and the scientific method, even when they contradict what is generally accepted to be “truth.” In a way, the Fortean worldview is a form of agnosticism that doesn’t limit itself to questions of faith. Absolute proof or disproof can never truly be found, because we can never know anything with 100% certainty. There is always room for new discoveries that will alter what we perceive as reality. This way of thinking is very similar to the "Maybe Logic" of Robert Anton Wilson, who Fort certainly influenced. Fort summed up this way of looking at the world when he said “I conceive of nothing, in religion, science, or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.”

Though Fort did comment on traditional religion, he reserved his most pointed criticisms for the “religion” of established science. Fort believed that scientists are tainted by their own brand of faith and tend to ignore, discredit, or explain away data that does not fit the accepted “dogma” of science. He called these inconvenient pieces of information “the damned,” and his books are filled with "damned" information. Fort sometimes attempted to offer explanations for these anomalies—for example, he was likely the first person to suggest that strange lights in the sky might be alien spacecraft. More often, however, he crafted wild, tongue-in-cheek explanations designed to highlight the pomposity and overconfidence of the scientific establishment.

Fort was interested in all sorts of anomalies, but tended to focus on a few specific types of phenomena, especially strange things seen in or falling from the sky. Today, the term "Forteana" refers to a wide range of anomalies, unusual events, and fringe topics, from cryptozoology (the study of unverified, often quasi-mythical animals) to the study of unusual powers like remote viewing and telepathy. The word "Fortean" can be used as an adjective to describe Forteana (for example, "Fortean phenomena") but is more often used as a noun to mean "people who think Charles Fort had some good ideas."

Though Forteans tend to gravitate toward fringe topics, they should not be confused with “true believers” who accept such things at face value. At the same time, they should not be lumped in with skeptics like The Amazing Randi and Penn Gillette who deny the existence of weirdness with an almost religious fervor. Forteans walk the fine line between these two groups, tempering with the open-mindedness of the believer with the skeptic’s highly valued (but often less than admirably practiced) objectivity. In addition to Fort's books, anyone interested in learning more about Charles Fort, Forteana, and the Fortean philosophy should take a look at Britain's Fortean Times magazine, or at least their web site.

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