Wilson's primary target is the "Citadel of Science," those members of the scientific community who have "increasing intolerance and inquisitorial attitude toward all old or new paradigms which conflict with its own favorite reality-tunnel." CSICOP is repeatedly attacked. The nature of Wilson's attacks is to criticize various actions and statements of members of the "Citadel" as being dogmatic or repressive. At the same time, he presents reports of many scientific anomalies--rains of unusual objects, spontaneous combustion, sighting of unusual creatures, and so on.
Unfortunately, Wilson's work is marred by incredibly shoddy research. Throughout the book, he refers to a Skeptical Inquirer article by Mario Bunge of McGill University. In every single reference, he calls Bunge "Professor Munge." He also repeatedly refers to Gary Zukav, author of The Dancing Wu-Li Masters as "Gary Zarov." (The book is also riddled with typographical errors.)
Beginning on page 45, Wilson reports the story of Dennis Rawlins. Rawlins was a former member of the CSICOP executive council who published an article in the October 1981 issue of Fate magazine attacking CSICOP for "covering up" findings regarding a test of Michel Gauquelin's "Mars Effect." Wilson's account is apparently based solely on this article, and is full of distortions. Gauquelin's study of European sports champions showed that 22% were born in the two "Mars sectors" rather than the expected 17%. [This would have been better phrased "22% were born with Mars in one of the two 'key sectors' rather than the expected 17%." -jjl] Marvin Zelen suggested a test (the Zelen test) on a subsample of Gauquelin's data to see if perhaps 22% of all individuals were born in the Mars sectors [with Mars in a key sector -jjl] (possibly due to seasonal factors). The Zelen test was conducted by Gauquelin (comparing a subsample of 303 sports champions with 16,756 non-sports champions), who found that only 17% of non-sports champions were born at those times. Rawlins had criticized the Zelen test on the grounds that Gauquelin's European data was no good, and that the Zelen test would therefore seem to support Gauquelin. CSICOP then conducted a test of U.S. sports champions, which did not show a "Mars Effect." This latter test was done primarily by Dennis Rawlins. Rawlins was later ejected from CSICOP for other reasons (see "Statement by CSICOP Executive Council in Response to Rawlins," Skeptical Inquirer, Winter 1981-82 and the introduction to Rawlins' rant "Remus Extremus" in the same issue).
In Wilson's account, he fails to distinguish the Zelen test from the U.S. test, and gives the impression that CSICOP "juggled the figures" on the Zelen test--which was really conducted by Gauquelin (and published in The Humanist). He says (p. 46) that CSICOP "obtained this result by juggling figures--especially by reducing the total number of sports champions from 2088 to 303." In fact, it was Gauquelin who selected 303 sports champions in order to conduct the Zelen test.
On pp. 52-53, Wilson talks about the Columbus, Ohio poltergeist case. His description of James Randi's involvement is to say that "Then Mr. Randi of CSICOP arrived and, without entering the house, announced that it was all a fraud. The Resch family, offended, refused to let Mr. Randi into the house, whereupon he left, presumably still knowing it was all fraud." In fact, the CSICOP team of James Randi and professors Steven Shore and Nicholas Sanduleak of Case Western Reserve University were refused admittance upon identifying themselves as representatives of CSICOP. Parapsychologist William Roll, on the other hand, was admitted. The CSICOP team questioned most of the participants--the parents of Tina Resch (the girl around whom the poltergeist activity occurred), the reporters, photographers, TV cameramen, and others who were at the house. CSICOP also obtained a contact sheet of photographs from Fred Shannon of the Columbus Dispatch which showed evidence of fakery. Wilson fails to note these photographs, a videotape filmed by WTVN-TV of Cincinnati which shows Tina Resch knocking over a lamp, or testimony from several reporters who observed Tina cheating (see "The Columbus Poltergeist Case: Part I" by James Randi in the Spring 1985 Skeptical Inquirer).
It's not just CSICOP actions and articles that Wilson misrepresents. On p. 71 he says that "Velikovski predicted in the 1950's that Jupiter would be found to produce radio emissions. Such emissions have recently been found." It is not surprising that Velikovsky made a correct prediction. Wilson makes no mention of the hundreds of incorrect predictions made by Velikovsky (see, for example, Stephen Jay Gould's "Velikovsky in Collision" in his book Ever Since Darwin or the three articles on Velikovsky in the Fall 1980 Skeptical Inquirer).
Wilson cites a wide variety of accounts of fish falls, eel falls, coin falls, unexplained aerial explosions, and so on. I decided to check out some of his references. What I found was quite interesting.
On page 82, Wilson cites the 10 September 1910 Scientific American as saying that "a worked stone fell from the sky into the Yaqui Valley of Mexico. The author, Charles Holder, and a Major Burnham, examined it and agreed it had two concentric circles inscribed on it and some characters that Holder thought were Mayan. The stone was eight feet long."
The article in question is "The Esperanza Stone" on page 196 of that issue. The article begins:
Many years ago a strange stone resembling a meteorite fell into the valley of the Yaqui, Mexico, and the sensational story went from one end to the other of the country that a stone bearing human inscriptions had descended to earth. Hundreds visited the place, natives made a pilgrimage to it from all over Sonora, and the stone, called the Esperanza, became famous in its way, and many of the inhabitants believe that it is a message from heaven, and demand that it be translated.Later in the article, it becomes clear that this first paragraph is an old legend, and that the discovery of the stone by Major Burnham was recent. As holder states, "The stone was found by Major Frederick Burnham, ... and not long after he invited the writer to visit it, and endeavor, if possible, to decipher its story. We left Los Angeles in April ..." Holder makes no further comment about the stone having fallen from the sky, and in fact states that "I assumed the hypothesis that as there had been a high civilization in the Yucatan and Guatemala in the past, shown by the writings and antiquities of the Mayans and later Mexicans, such a people must have been dominated by a spirit of exploration to the north; and as the stone is on a natural line or march from the south to the north, I assume that this is a record or report of some ancient people, probably Mayas, telling to the world and those who might come after, that they had reached the big river which to-day bears a similar name, the Maya and the Yaqui." Holder concludes that "What it actually does mean, remains for the scientific men of the world to decide, but Major Burnham and myself are committed to the romantic hypothesis that this is the message of a forebear of the Mayas, some ancient warrior of long ago, some knight who fought his way to the land of the Yaquis, who brought a great rock down from the mountains and placed upon it the seal of Mayan conquest."
On page 88, Wilson cites the 23 February 1922 Nature in his claim that "another unexplained explosion 'of startling intensity' over London. Again, no conventional explanation in terms of airplanes crashing or exploding." Wilson is correct that no conventional explanation is offered in terms of anything relating to airplanes, but wrong that the explosion is "unexplained." On page 249 of "Our Astronomical Column" in that issue, under the headline "Detonating Fireball in Sunshine," is the following report:
Mr. W.F. Denning writes that this object observed by him on February 7 at 3.55 p.m. appears to have been seen by comparatively few observers, although the loud detonations which followed it were heard by large numbers of people, chiefly in Warwickshire, over which county the fireball passed. It seems to have caused the loudest reports near the middle section of its flight, in the region of Quinton, Feckenham, Mere Hall, and Droitwich. At some places only one sound heard, at others two, but all observers agree that the concussion and vibration were of startling intensity. The detonations were heard along a line directed from S.E. to N.W. The radiant point of the meteor was at 60-11, and the height from 56 to 32 miles; the length of luminous flight was 82 miles, and the velocity about 10 miles per second. The position of the object was from over Oxfordshire to Shropshire.
On page 156, Wilson cites the 21 December 1923 Science in support of a "fish fall in Siberia; natives claim it happens regularly." On page 516 of that issue is a letter from Waldemar Jochelson under the heading "Fishes Fallen from the Sky," in response to (an excellent) article "Rains of Fishes" by E.W. Gudger, an Associate in Icthyology at the American Museum, in the November-December 1921 issue of Natural History. Jochelson's letter is not a report of a fish fall at all. Instead, he states that "The Yukaghir, living on the Siberian tundra between the Kolyma and Alaseya rivers, told me that the sky, regarded by them as a beneficent deity, to supply men with food flings fishes to the earth." He goes on to describe that "While spending the winter of 1909-1910 on Umnak Island of the Aleutian Chain I epxerienced volcanic shocks several times. ... In the morning the shore was covered with a layer of stunned fish, sea-urchins and shell-fish about two feet high and two feet wide, but in neighboring days these were carried to the neighboring hills and eaten by gulls and ravens. The presence of shells of echini and mollusca on the hills may lead some traveler to the deceptive idea that the hills were formerly the sea bottom."
On page 195, Wilson cites the December 1932 Popular Science Monthly as describing "a shower of eels on 4 August that year in Hendon, Sunderland, England." I was unable to find any such article in that issue.
On page 209, Wilson cites the 22 April 1949 Science regarding "a fall of fish in Biloxi, Miss. ... Dr. A.D. Bajkov, a well-known ichthyologist, was in Biloxi that day and was personally bombarded." On page 402 of that issue, under the heading "Do Fish Fall from the Sky?" is a letter from A.D. Bajkov of the Oyster Laboratory, Biloxi, Mississippi. He does not describe a fish fall in Biloxi, but rather reports that
a rainfall of fish occurred on October 23, 1947 in Marksville, Louisiana, while I was conducting biological investigations for the Department of Wild Life and Fisheries. They were freshwater fish native to local waters... The area in which they fell was approximately 1,000 feet long and about 75 or 80 feet wide, extending in a north-southerly direction, and was covered unevenly by fish. The actual falling of the fish occurred in somewhat short intervals, during foggy and comparatively calm weather. The velocity of the wind on the ground did not exceed eight miles per hour. The New Orleans weather bureau had no report of any large tornado, or updrift, in the vicinity of Marksville at that time. However, James Nelson Gowanlach, chief biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wild Life and Fisheries, and I had noted the presence of numerous small tornadoes, or 'devil dusters' the day before the 'rain of fish' in Marksville. Fish rains have nearly always been described as being accompanied by violent thunderstorms and heavy rains. This, however, was not the case in Marksville.Bajkov goes on to say that
Certainly occurrences of this nature are rare, and are not always reported, but nevertheless they are well known. The first mention of the phenomenon was made by Athanaseus in his De pluvia piscium nearly two thousand years ago, and E.W. Gudger, in his four collective articles, reports 78 cases of falling fish from the sky. There is no reason for anyone to devaluate the scientific evidence. Many people have never seen tornadoes, but they do not doubt them, and they accept the fact that the wind can lift and carry heavy objects. Why can't fish be lifted with water and carried by the whirlwind?
Not all of Wilson's references are so badly misrepresented. I did find one source which supported the case he made: The 6 January 1881 issue of Nature, page 233, quotes a letter from Colonel Foster Ward in the October 1880 Symon's Monthly Meteorological Magazine about "remarkable hailstones that fell during a slight thunderstorm at Partenkirchen, Bavaria, at 6 p.m. on August 21." Most of the hailstones were described as being "of 'tadpole' shape" and "clear as glass, perfectly round" with "five knobs...at equal distance from one another." Wilson's description of this article, on page 156, is accurate.
Despite Wilson's abysmal scholarship, I think the book's message about avoiding dogmatism is worthwhile. It is also fairly entertaining reading. One should be wary, however, of taking seriously any of Wilson's explanations for the phenomena he describes--and this is quite consistent with the "principle of agnosticism" Wilson puts forth.