Psychoceramics09 Mar 1998 13:45
After all, to any rational mind, the greater part of the history of ideas is a history of freaks.That is, the study of crack-pots, a.k.a. kooks, cranks, flakes, "authors of particularly unsolicited manuscripts", and the like. For obvious reasons, this is the golden age of psychoceramics, when a million mutant flowers bloom, and a thousand sherds of thought contend.
---E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, p. 3
Currently psychoceramics is little more than recreational kook-fancying, by people like me. Some of us do it because kooks amuse us, some as a means of marking themselves as Not Normal (But Not as Strange as Those Kooks), some because they take a sympathetic interest in the fringes of human belief, and some because they take a hostile interest. I'm mostly in it for laughing at silly people and rationalist jeremiads: not very noble motives, perhaps, but there they are. Others among us are much more charitable, perhaps to excess...
This is not to say that psychoceramics couldn't play a more serious role, however. As an organized field of study, it would have a place in the sociology of science analogous to that of lesion studies in neuropsychology. A working intellectual discipline, like probability theory or Sanskrit philology, has mechanisms which keep it from going off the rails, and keep cranks from taking over; most of the time and on balance, they produce reliable knowledge. This is manifestly not the case outside the bounds of such discplines, as those of us of a positivist or rationalist temperament are all too aware. But kooks represent not merely your average, garden-variety human irrationality and creduilty; your kook is a person who has worked at his crackpot thinking, at least as much as a probabilist or Sanskrit scholar has specialized in their discipline. It would be fascinating and useful to know what the institutions and mechanisms are which lead some to the production of reliable knowledge, and others to the production of eccentric crap, and what the intermediate stages are (IQ-mongering, some sorts of literary criticism, UFOlogy and systematic theology all spring to mind). In fact the intermediate forms, the cults and sects and organized pseudo-sciences, which inhabit, in Medawar's great phrase, Pluto's Republic, might be more informative, though less entertaining, than the ravings of individual loons, since there one can look at the effects of lesioning different institutions possessed by real science and scholarship.
One thing to investigate is where all the details come from --- psychoceramic outpourings typically have lots and lots of details, and not all of them are lifted from prior sources, but seem rather to have been spun out of whole cloth. The cognitive processes involved --- what Russell once, dispargingly, called "mere thinking" in his fellow philosophers --- would be fascinating to understand, and compare with what goes in the minds of, say, novelists, or people inventing worlds for role-playing games. Another point to look at is how crank theories are propagated from person to person, and which are susceptible to institutionalization. (This could connect to studying communities assembled around various sorts of narratives.) What are the general social conditions which promote kooks? What are the conditions which let kooks find audiences? Do e.g. bohemias act as reservoirs of kookiness, and if so why?
(Another reason to make an honest discipline of psychoceramics is that we could call it "Kook, Eccentric and Urban Legend Studies," pronounced "kewl.")
See also: Alchemy; Joseph Campbell; Imagination; "Intellectual Immune Systems" or "Intellectual Self-Defense"; Intellectual Standards and Competence; Intellectuals; Julian Jaynes; Myths; Narratives; Slag of the Melting Pot; Sociology of Science; Superstition; the Witch-Craze
- Vaughan Bell, C. Maiden, A. Munoz-Solomando and V. Reddy, "'Mind control experiences' on the internet: Implications for the psychiatric diagnosis of delusions", Psychopathology 39 (2006): 87--91 [pdf]
- Norman Cohn's various works on the less savory sides of crankdom
- Barbara Ehrenreich, Kipper's Game [The "urban anthropology" bits]
- Martin Gardner
- Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science [Classic]
- Science: Good, Bad and Bogus [Best read in small doses; fortunately it's written in small doses]
- The Urantia Cult [Case study in just how much effort can go into elaborating a totally whacked and ridiculous intellectual system]
- Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller [About a miller in a particularly benighted bit of northern Italy who elaborated a very strange, explicitly materialist cosmology out of the handful of books he ran across, and, apparently, pure imagination. (Ginzburg, being a historian and therefore conditioned to assume that everything has a source, assumes that the man couldn't possibly have just made things up, but must have drawn on an immemorial tradition of "peasant materialism", which has left no other trace.) He ran into the Inquisition, twice, and was given over to the secular arm the second time. We order things better today: he'd probably just read popular science books and quote Dawkins at the village priest, but if he was a crank he'd just have a Web page on AOL, and be a harmless old coot.]
- Donna Kossy
- Psychoceramics mailing-list and archive
- Tara C. Smith and Steven P. Novella, "HIV Denial in the Internet Era", PLoS Medicine 4:8 (2007): e256
- "Apparently Irrational Beliefs" in On Anthropological Knowledge
- Explaining Culture [Review: How to Catch Insanity from Your Kids (Among Others); or, Histoire naturelle de l'infame]
- The Rev. Mr. Ivan Stang, High Weirdness by Mail
- Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding, vol. 1, The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts [The mechanisms which keep proper intellectual disciplines from going off the rails]
- Rolling log gathers no dross dep't: My friend Bill Tozier has a very impressive collection of psychoceramica, including some scanned in pages of Rod of Iron
- Peter Washington, Madame Blatavsky's Baboon
- To read:
- Joshua Blu Buhs, Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend [blurb]
- Mark Dery, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink
- G. William Domhoff, The Mystique of Dreams: A Search for Utopia Through Senoi Dream Theory [blurb]
- Michael W. Friedlander, At the Fringes of Science
- Ronald H. Fritze, Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-Religions [blurb]
- Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe [ blurb]
- Michael McLeod, Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot [blurb]
- Sumathi Ramaswamy, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories [blurb]
- David Standish, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastical Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth's Surface
- About several hundred misc. web-sites and books and magazines scattered through my real notes...