Lloyd Scott walked a marathon in 12 days beneath the waters of Loch Ness, Scotland in 2003. He described it as very cold and very lonely, and he did not see the mythical monster. Photo by stringer/Reuters


Fringe theories stack

Believe in the Loch Ness monster and you’re more likely to believe the Apollo missions were fake. How do weird beliefs work?

by Michael D Gordin + BIO

Lloyd Scott walked a marathon in 12 days beneath the waters of Loch Ness, Scotland in 2003. He described it as very cold and very lonely, and he did not see the mythical monster. Photo by stringer/Reuters

Almost nobody holds to just one strange idea. By ‘strange’ here, I mean unconventional, unorthodox, contrary to conventional wisdom. (To attenuate some of the hostile judgment implied in those descriptions, from now on I will use the term ‘fringe’.) There is a whole gamut of examples to choose from, ranging from the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in the assassination of the US president John F Kennedy in 1963 – if, that is, he was not merely a patsy – to a conviction that extraterrestrials have been in cahoots with world governments and are monitoring dissidents’ thoughts. That’s quite a range, with varying degrees of social respectability attached. You may not believe either of those (perhaps your tastes do not run to the political) but, unless you are so unusual as to have completely middle-of-the-road views on just about everything, you probably subscribe to at least one fringe idea. Likely more than one.

For a good portion of the past 25 years, I have researched the history, philosophy and sociology of one particular type of fringe theory: alternative scientific theories, running from mesmerism and phrenology to ESP research and faster-than-light propulsion. Alternative scientific theories are a revealing subset of fringe ideas. Science is the repository of enormous cultural authority on questions of truth. Nonetheless, nature was unkind enough to withhold the solution key, so scientists disagree, often strongly, about the right answer – or about the right answer for now, given the limits of current understanding and scientific instruments. So science is also a breeding ground for adversarial clashes, with stubborn fringe movements sometimes crystallising around discarded doctrines. The history of astrology is an excellent example.

Scientists and the historians who study them have, mostly, shied away from paying too much attention to the fringes. They find them unsavoury, perhaps embarrassing, and distracting from studying ‘real science’. I disagree. For one, fringe views about nature are part of the scientific milieu we live in, and you cannot claim to understand how science operates without taking a more catholic perspective. In addition, there are some pretty interesting puzzles that emerge the longer you study the fringes. This essay is about two of them.

We started with the first: that most devotees of a fringe theory are usually committed to more than one. They might start with just one, but fringes have a way of agglomerating. The second puzzle emerges when you scrutinise the first. The accumulation of fringe theories is often not random – it has a structure: fringe theories stack.

Stacking is a familiar concept from the history of technology. When speculators laid the first railroad tracks across the United States in the early 19th century, they selected paths based on probable demand, the supply of capital, labour availability, and the contours of the landscape. If you are short on labour but long on land, it is cheaper to go around the mountain than to dig a tunnel through it. When the next set of network builders strung telegraph cables, it made sense to run them along the railroad tracks: the equipment could be easily transported, and railroads were major users of telegraph signals to coordinate traffic. John Gast’s classic painting American Progress (1872), of American appropriation of Native American lands through settlement, shows the connection clearly. Guess what path the major internet cables follow? There are clear reasons for stacking technological systems: shared expertise, economies of scale, distribution of consumers, etc. It is not, however, a widely appreciated phenomenon in intellectual history.

American Progress (1872) by John Gast. Courtesy Wikimedia

Sometimes, the stacking of fringe theories is pretty straightforward. Believing that Earth is flat and that the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969 was faked on a soundstage are conceptually distinct beliefs. Nothing about the latter impels you to believe the former. However, believing that Earth is flat essentially requires that you think that NASA’s achievements are part of an elaborate conspiracy: there is no ability to travel to the Moon, nor are the photographs of a globular Earth from space authentic. These fringe theories stack through logical interconnection. Fringe doctrines can also share a political sensibility. The mid- to late-19th-century enthusiasm for spiritualism – communication with ethereal spirits by groups of individuals seated around a séance table in a dimly lit room – tracked with socialism, women’s suffrage and vegetarianism. All were heterodox theories concerned with liberating the oppressed.

Sometimes, the connections are not obvious, even counterintuitive. Understanding their stacking demands that we grapple with the first puzzle: why do fringe theories come in multiples?

What makes a theory ‘fringe’? Ideas do not emerge with certificates that indicate their level of validity, so we use proxies. A typical device is observing an idea’s orthodoxy – a term derived from the Greek for ‘right’ – which carries with it the understanding that social consensus is an approximation of correctness. You can easily see why this happens: a lot of people believe item x because x is genuinely persuasive, so that collective agreement would perhaps track epistemologically. It’s not a great proxy: plenty of once orthodox ideas (natural slavery) are shown up to be grossly mistaken and, on occasion, heterodox ideas (germ theory) are accepted, becoming a new orthodoxy in turn. What society accepts as today’s valid consensus has a chaotic and dynamic history.

It is helpful to resort to a simplified spatial model. Imagine a broad plane that comprises the collection of doctrines, ideas and beliefs in a given culture. In the centre, there is a circle with a blurry edge. That circle represents the orthodoxy – the set of beliefs that are taken as authoritative and settled. We aren’t quite sure where this respectability ends, however, because the circumference is fuzzy. As we journey outward from the centre, we approach the fringes. There is great variety in the fringelands. Active scientific debates can reside here, such as the geoscientist Gerta Keller’s contention that a massive, extended outbreak of Deccan volcanism, rather than a single, colossal asteroid strike, was responsible for the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. String theory also used to hang out here, before it was brought closer to the centre. Head a bit farther out, you’ll encounter parapsychology; rather farther still, scientific creationism.

It can be pretty comforting to sit in the centre of the circle. All around you are orthodox beliefs, and espousing them brings affirmation. The fringe, on the other hand, is hazy, and it is hard to see from the vantage point of broad consensus what might separate the near, quasi-respectable edges from some of the more outlandish beliefs. Better to stick with the orthodox.

He gave the evidence for the existence of some kind of large aquatic creature in the waters of this Scottish lake

Nonetheless, one gets curious. The reason you are here at all is that you want to understand the world about you, to develop a worldview that is not only coherent but also accurate. That sometimes means asking awkward questions and getting even more awkward answers. You venture out to the fringes a little, because that is where new ideas necessarily come from. Perhaps a trusted acquaintance has pointed out some inconsistencies in the centre (our consensus is far from perfect) and you find some other points persuasive. Following this one strand out a little more might yield answers… You have made it to the fringe! You brace yourself for what happens next.

Typically, nothing. No thunderbolts, no scandalous outcry. You are still you, but a you who has questioned one aspect of the establishment and found a more satisfying, albeit heterodox, explanation. The absence of catastrophe increases your confidence, and other inconsistencies also nag at you. We can follow Bayesian decision theorists and dub what is happening ‘revising your priors’, or we can think of it as simply an increased tolerance for the side-eye you get when advancing your new views. Either way, your resistance to the fringes is reduced.

Perhaps your path might resemble that of Henry H Bauer, now emeritus professor of chemistry and science studies, and former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, at Virginia Tech. Trained in electrochemistry – which is nothing if not a respectable branch of science – he was also fascinated by a diversity of marginalised topics and what made these notions different from those he deployed in his day job. In 1984, he published a useful, unobjectionable scholarly analysis of the debates over one demonised doctrine, the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky (about whom more in a moment). Then, however, he went beyond voyeuristic curiosity. Two years later, he wrote The Enigma of Loch Ness: Making Sense of a Mystery, containing rational and judicious presentations of the evidence for the existence of some kind of large aquatic creature in the waters of this Scottish lake, and why Bauer personally was convinced that Nessie existed. In 2007, he published a book questioning the link between the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS, a theory roundly excoriated by the public health community, epidemiologists, virologists and many who suffer from the disease. Nothing required the leap from cryptozoology to heterodoxy about causation in a global health crisis. But it does seem that, step by step, one thing led to another.

Sometimes, the clustering of new fringe theories happens by coincidence. In the early summer of 2021, two heterodox theories hit the mass media at the same time: the ‘lab leak’ theory for the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic; and revelations that many US military pilots had seen unidentified aerial phenomena, given the new moniker UAP to distance them a bit from the unmistakably fringy UFO (unidentified flying object). To be clear: the consensus among virologists is that SARS-CoV-2 is zoonotic, having passed from an animal (probably a bat) to a human, and that UAPs are not alien visitors. But there is reasoned debate here, and many people entertained both ideas at once.

These theories, even when clustered, do not necessarily stack. They share little more than a limited belief in government coverups and mistakes; the communities of adherents do not overlap significantly. Stacking demands something more, as an extended example illustrates.

Immanuel Velikovsky was a Russian-Israeli psychoanalyst then living in New York City when his book Worlds in Collision (1950) was published. The book rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. Velikovsky’s claims were sensational. He argued that if you juxtaposed the myths and lore of ancient civilisations – principally those of the Near East, such as those found in the Hebrew Bible, Egyptian papyri or Babylonian clay tablets, but also from the Indian Vedas or Chinese legends – you would reveal a surprising consonance of phenomena: fire from the heavens, earthquakes and so on.

When Velikovsky adjusted the chronology (in the case of the Egyptians, rather drastically so), he saw these as the same disasters, which demanded a common cause. He claimed that these were natural disasters, caused by a comet that narrowly approached Earth, disrupting the planet and terrifying the human witnesses, and then eventually breaking away to become Venus, our nearest planetary neighbour. (A similar thing happened to Mars a few decades later.) The solar system was rearranged while humanity watched, and the trauma was, he argued, etched into world cultures.

Worlds in Collision was a pretty good read. What it was not, according to contemporary astronomers, was good astronomy (or geology, or ancient history). A few scientists threatened to boycott Velikovsky’s publisher, Macmillan, which made most of its revenue from publishing scientific books, so the company relinquished this hot commodity to their competitor, Doubleday. The scandal served to boost sales, and Velikovsky was the talk of that season. The public sensation surrounding him died down for a decade and a half, but was revived in the mid-1960s when the counterculture appropriated Worlds in Collision and its several companion volumes as a way of combining myth with science. (Carl Sagan led the astronomers in expressing disapproval.) A cadre of adherents to Velikovsky’s version of cosmic catastrophism cropped up, putting out specialised journals exploring aspects of his alternative chronology and orbital mechanics, and visiting the sage himself at his residence in Princeton, New Jersey. When Velikovsky died in 1979, the movement dissipated.

These books argue that an extraterrestrial catastrophe had impacted the globe, which destroyed Atlantis

There’s no doubt that cosmic catastrophism was a fringe theory. It never attained one iota of acceptance from the establishment, despite adherents’ claims that Velikovsky had correctly predicted Space Age discoveries about Venus and Jupiter. And, as we have come to anticipate, they tended to believe at least one other fringe theory besides Worlds in Collision. Velikovsky kept a tight lid on the orthodoxy of his own movement, and he chastised or exiled those who tried to marry cosmic catastrophism to orgone theory (too anti-Freudian for the psychoanalyst) or scientific creationism (too Christian). Yet he mostly allowed some free-thinking among the non-threatening fringes.

Many Velikovskians were interested in other fringe ideas. For example, Albert W Burgstahler, a professor of chemistry at the University of Kansas and an engaged Velikovskian, was a vocal opponent of fluoridating water. Another interest of Burgstahler’s, which began in earnest just a year before his retirement in 1998 and long after the waning of Velikovskianism, was scepticism about the claim that William Shakespeare (1564-1616), of Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote the plays commonly attributed to him. This authorship debate does not seem an obvious fit to cosmic catastrophism. Yet it stacks: repeatedly one finds that Velikovskians (although not Velikovsky himself) subscribed to one or another theory of alternative authorship. Those theories are unquestionably unorthodox, and they are mutually inconsistent. Alternative authors for these plays were first proposed in the 19th century, and today the most frequently invoked are the politician, essayist and philosopher of science Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the blue-blooded Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1561-1642), and Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-93).

Shakespeare scepticism stacks with cosmic catastrophism. To see why, we need to join the colourful figure of Ignatius Donnelly in the 19th century. Born in 1831 to Irish Catholic immigrants in Pennsylvania, he entered the legal trade and decamped to the Minnesota Territory in 1856, settling in Dakota County. While there, he co-founded a failed utopian community (Nininger City), served as lieutenant governor of Minnesota (1860-63), was elected as a Republican to Congress (1863-69), subsequently served many terms in the state legislature, and authored a few books. The books are what concern us here. Publication of his Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) was followed a year later by Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel. Together, these books argue that an extraterrestrial catastrophe had impacted the globe (he thought it was a comet collision) which destroyed Atlantis – Donnelly is to be credited with the revival of this trope in modern culture – and left traces in ancient myths.

That should sound familiar. So familiar, in fact, that early commentators suggested that Velikovsky had lifted the general outline from this Minnesotan precursor. For his part, Velikovsky once claimed never to have read Donnelly. He also never mentioned, and was perhaps unaware of, Donnelly’s book The Great Cryptogram (1888), which argued that you could decode the texts of Shakespeare’s plays and uncover their true author: Francis Bacon.

Why does cosmic catastrophism stack with Shakespeare scepticism? One hypothesis is that Velikovsky’s acolytes were aware of the priority charge and read Donnelly, coming to an awareness of the debates surrounding the Stratfordian, which then spread through the existing social network. (Nonetheless, most Velikovskians with views on the matter seemed to prefer de Vere.) There is also perhaps a subtler link. The key method of Velikovskian cosmic catastrophism is reading ancient myths for buried clues to natural-historical events; the key method of debating Shakespeare’s authorship is combing the plays and sonnets for tell-tale traces of the true poet. Both are fringe decoding operations. The contents of the theories differ wildly, but the methods bear an affinity.

The lion’s share of scholarly discussion of fringe theories has addressed the question of ‘demarcation’: can you develop a philosophically robust criterion that enables you to cleanly separate those things that are credible scientific theories from ‘pseudosciences’ that merely look the part? The ‘falsifiability criterion’ of Karl Popper has assumed a prominent role here, and sucked a lot of the oxygen out of the room. When you set aside demarcation and consider fringe theories as entities in the landscape of intellectual history, different phenomena come into view.

Fringe theories aren’t fringe, in the sense of being marginal to their culture, including ours. They are marginal only from the point of view of intellectual (or scientific) orthodoxy. Whether the scepticism is about mandatory vaccinations against COVID-19 (associated with the political Right) or the MMR vaccine’s much-debunked link to autism (associated with the Left), or climate change denialism, or QAnon, or the gonzo futurism of one electric-car entrepreneur, there is an awful lot of ‘fringe’ occupying the centre of our conceptual – and increasingly political – space. For example, given the prevalent tendency for people to get their information from specific, often partisan or at least fellow-travelling social networks, publications, cable television (national or local public access) and radio shows, theories emerge in one of them and can quickly migrate across platforms, stacking fellows on the way. Fringe theories are worth paying attention to and trying to understand. This essay is one attempt to expand that conversation.

Fundamentally, we need to recognise that fringe theories aren’t just theories. Like science, the fringes come with complex, interconnected social substructures. The theories serve as sources of identity and as social magnets. They provide meaning to how adherents think about the world, much as the mainstream scientific consensus does. The people interested in fringe theories may recognise that they are heterodox, but they also think that they are, in an important sense, correct or likely to become so. (You probably think the same about the unconventional ideas you happen to espouse.) These individuals, quite understandably, are interested in discussing their ideas with like-minded folks. The gathering of the like-minded, indeed, is how consensuses are built. That’s how we built ours.