Award-winning author and long-time Skeptic Margaret Mahy delivered the after-dinner speech at the 1993 Skeptics Conference. This is an abridged version of her talk.
I was a sceptic with a “c”, before I joined the Skeptics with a capital “S” and “k”. At least, so I have always believed. I have always thought of the sceptic as a person in a state of terminal caution, and that definition seemed to cover my own particular situation pretty well, though the caution came about, not through fear so much as the difficulty of honestly synthesising the contradictory information the world seemed to be offering me so generously. And by the time I came to realise just how varied and odd it was, I had formed a few axioms which amount to faith, if that doesn’t sound too odd in a sceptical life.
My first encounter with astronomy was in the Edwardian edition of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia, and in the first part of the first volume there was a dramatic picture of a red-hot ball looking vaguely molten, and beneath this, or close to it anyway, was the information that the world was formed from a piece that had dropped off the sun. This is hardly what cosmologists suggest today, but I have never found too much trouble in discarding facts or swapping them around. What Arthur Mee’s Encyclopaedia gave me was the feeling of excitement and astonishment about the world around me and the universe beyond, and this has never changed.
The Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (the nearest portable dictionary in my room) defines a sceptic (with a “c”) as one who doubts the possibility of real truth. Personally I don’t doubt the existence of real truth, though I do doubt my ability to know it. I have more faith in a negative Socratic talent, basically to suspect what it is not. What seems to define my own position even more accurately is the dictionary definition of the adjective “sceptical” — inclined to suspension of judgement, given to the questioning the soundness of facts and the soundness of inferences.
I will admit that I question some assertions and inferences more than others, since I do what I think is justifiable, and make an assessment of statistical probability as far as I am able — an assessment based on observable facts and the way in which certain sources are confirmed by the predictions they make and the way these predictions are tested, and on faith, too, though this can be a noble word for established prejudices.
I am resigned to the fact that any political act I might make, including voting, cannot acknowledge the complexity of my real views, but is, at the best, only an approximate indication of partial preferences. And above all, I am sceptical about what seem to me to be unilaterally held explanations of things, entrenched views which are used to reduce and control the whole complexity of the universe.
It is not that I would deny people a place to stand, or the comfort and security of such control. I have a lot of sympathy with Kurt Vonnegut’s imaginary prophet Bokonon, who said, “Live by the harmless lies that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”
Unfortunately, people often find it impossible to do just that. They want their own pleasure in their harmless lies somehow vindicated by making everyone else believe them too, and once assertion and even coercion are used to compel a homogeneous system of belief, the untruths are no longer quite as harmless as they might have seemed in the first place.
Anyhow, I believe I am a sceptic out of a conviction which springs simultaneously from the longing to know what is true, coupled with an uncertainty about my own power to be convinced of truth, reinforced by awareness of a long history of human error in this basic but compulsive endeavour.
I’ve mentioned faith, so perhaps I should say here that an article of my faith is that, as far as human beings are concerned, the universe is infinite in its mysteries. I have never found that any scientific advance…say, the landing on the moon…that has done anything but intensify the mystery.
My own astonishment has done nothing but increase the more I have found out, so I have no sympathy with the view that scientific advances are taking the poetic strangeness out of things. In fact I once read that every successful scientific experiment raised more questions than it answered and found I believed it immediately.
However I don’t want mystery for the sake of mystery. I want it to be true mystery. My objection to much mysticism is that it is just not strange or mystical enough, but feels like the sort of story I might have made up myself. Rightly or wrongly, I expect more of the universe than that. So I also believe, in advance, that any grand unified theory will supply not a final solution, only an increased astonishment and a good place to stand while we confront the universe and contemplate an enigma.
The first anecdotes are concerned with my profession. Perhaps notoriously, I am a writer of children’s stories, and children’s literature has expectations inherent in it from which adult literature is relatively free. Stories for children are not only written by adults, but read and scanned by adults before the children get them, and those adults are anxious, sometimes unconsciously, that children should be socialised along desirable lines, so there is a general expectation that, by the end of the story, the child will be a better child with opinions acceptably shaped.
Some years ago people tended to speak of children’s books as if they were now free of the old necessity that they should have a good moral — as if they were free of any imperative beyond the fairly innocent wish to entertain — but believe me this is not so, though nowadays the old-fashioned word “moral” can readily be replaced with the trendy phrase “political correctness.”
Violence, that necessary component of adventure stories, is subject to constant scrutiny. I also have been challenged because children in my stories used words like “fat” or “old”. Editors may scan stories for lapses into racism, sexism, fatism, and to some extent ageism. I have written about Mrs Hatchett and Mrs Gimble, two solitary women, in two separate stories, and have been asked to put in a few lines indicating what had happened to their husbands — in case, I suppose, some child might suspect these women were falsely masquerading as respectable.
There is still the same historical expectation that children should not be told how the world is, but how it could be if only we all behaved a little better.
I’m not opposed to this, because I think part of the function of stories at any level is to make people feel powerful in the cause of good, and to hope they may even achieve a happy ending for themselves and others. Part of the pleasure of a happy ending, for example, is that the reader ends up feeling in charge of life. All the same, there does come a point where the constant reiteration of a particular moral amounts to a deception which is just not honest or interesting to write about.
And there are a lot of subjects which one can’t acknowledge truthfully without arousing indignation — for instance, in the US there are a lot of people who are anxious that children’s books should never suggest that people occasionally drink alcohol.
I once wrote a story called Jam, in which the amiable hero, Mr Castle, greets his working wife when she comes home with a loving kiss and a glass of sherry before he takes the children out to play on the lawn. This seemed to me like ideal behaviour (within my own mind he topped up her glass occasionally), but the American publisher insisted that I strike out the sherry, though the British, a more degenerate crowd, allowed Mrs Castle to have her small alcoholic charge.
In The Horrendous Hullaballoo I was asked to change the pirate’s rum to passionfruit juice, but this seemed to me too dishonest. In the end I was allowed to leave the pirate his rum, though the comment was made that I would sell fewer copies of the book because of the reference to this traditional piratical habit.
Violence, as I have already mentioned, is another anxiety. I once wrote a story about a cat fight. “This is very violent,” said an editor, and wanted me to change the line “The big cat boxed the little cat’s ears” to “The big cat patted the little cat’s ears.” I don’t know about other people’s cats, but around my house cat-fights are very violent affairs, and I abandoned that particular story since I felt that was just too false to alter it.
Obedience to parents used to loom very large in 19th century stories for children, and children who were disobedient were often punished with maiming, dismemberment and death. Nowadays the expectations are different, but the monitoring and anxiety survive.
I can only say that in the beginning I write for a single reader who is another version of myself as reader. At a later stage I do think about what I can remember of what it was like to be a child reader of, say, eight or nine years old. And at a slightly later stage I come to have a general readership in mind as well — a large cloud of potential readers, let’s say, with points of increased probability within it.
Defence of Offence
I cannot say for certain that no person will be corrupted, or alarmed, or hurt in any way by the stories I write, though of course I like to think that no person with any sense will be, but no one can predict the perversity or vulnerability of the individual reader, the receiver who completes the act the writer began.
What I do feel is that a number of unknown children, again approximating to myself in childhood, will be harmed if stories are trimmed, castrated and made entirely inoffensive before they are let loose on the world. Offensive stories may even release a certain creative vitality into the world through the act of offending. At least this possibility is continually acknowledged in adult fiction, for adults are supposed to be more or less in charge of their lives, and to be less innocent, less easily influenced than children.
I must say that I am prepared to consider the possibility that a happy child may be more resilient than many an adult and sometimes less innocent too. Innocent adults are subject to derision and are told to “get real”, so it is not as if we regard innocence as an excellent quality per se.
Towards the end of last year, a friend of mine wrote from Wellington to say that a member of the Skeptics in Wellington had objected to the supernatural elements in my stories on the basis of the possibility that readers might take the supernatural elements as being true rather than metaphoric. I would like to say that this is impossible, but unfortunately I know that there is, indeed, a risk.
Indeed I am less disconcerted by the people who accuse me of being a satanist, glamourising and even recommending witchcraft, than I am by those who write and praise me for the good image I have apparently given witches in a book like The Changeover, or by reporters who turn up for interviews in the expectation that I am an enthusiast for New Age spirituality. It was because of one such encounter that I became a financial member of the skeptics with a “k” in the first place.
Science in Stories
One of the things no one has ever challenged in any of my books is a sort of scientific subtext. It varies from book to book. In a book called The Strange Case of the Quantum, I came upon two phrases, “ultraviolet catastrophe” and “Schwartzchild singularity”, which I enjoyed for their sound as much as their sense. I used them in a story entitled Ultraviolet Catastrophe as simple sound mechanisms, though I must add that in the end I was not allowed to use “Schwartzchild singularity” on the grounds that it suggested black children were singular.
In another book of mine, Catalogue of the Universe, ideas of symmetry are part of the underlying metaphor of the plot. I must explain that I am not in any way a scientist (I did very badly in science as a subject at school and in my last mathematics exam I got ten marks out of a hundred — ten out of ten for knowing a theorem by heart, and nothing for the rest of the paper). I respect what I understand of scientific thought, not only because of a general interest in scientific descriptions of the world which are much more astonishing than anything anyone can invent, but because of something more fundamental which I shall mention in due course.
Not only that, I find a lot of the language both fascinating and funny. I am entertained by the fact that an account of the lurid sex life of the black-tipped hanging fly, with all its criminal elements, was written by a man called Randy Thornhill. “Exploring the Mandelbrot Set”, an enticing heading on the cover of a Scientific American sounds to me like something a tabloid newspaper might produce, exposing all sorts of deviation in a degenerate and wealthy New York circle, accompanied by sensational pictures.
But along with all sorts of games of this sort, I am disposed to respect scientific description and theory, though certainly not because I think scientists are inevitably immaculate thinkers. They are human beings before they are scientists, and worked on by all sorts of human weakness including academic ambition and the longing to be rich, along with the conviction that ideas that work in their favour must be true, and there is no harm in giving them a bit of a nudge.
I subscribed to Scientific American for a number of years, although its articles were really too hard for me. Still, I remember many pieces I read there, and in May 1980 I read an article called “The N-Ray Affair”. Early this century, says the preamble to the article, an eminent French scientist discovered a new type of radiation, and others confirmed his work.
The radiation turned out to be totally imaginary, proving that believing can be seeing, surely something that sceptics are constantly pointing out. The scientist was Rene Blondlot, a respectable and well qualified man, and in 1903 he announced that he had discovered a new kind of radiation called the N-ray. At that time, historically, scientists were imaginatively prepared to accept the existence of new radiation, and the claim was not checked with appropriate rigour.
I won’t go into details about the experimental apparatus or anything of that sort, but will simply explain that N-rays were detected, by French scientists other than Blondlot, as coming from the sun, from the human body, and even from enzymes isolated from body tissues. Other scientists hastened to point out that they had already detected N rays, and that the honour of being proclaimed as the discoverer should be shared. Blondlot received the Prix Leconte and 50,000 francs, and his discovery of N-rays was obliquely mentioned along with other achievements.
In the first half of 1904 there were 54 articles published on N-rays in Comptes Rendus, which I take to be a scientific journal, whereas there were only 3 articles on X-rays over the same period.
Nowadays no one believes that N-rays ever existed. An American scientist, R.W. Wood, found he was quite unable to reproduce the results Blondlot had reported, and support for N-rays was finished outside France. To cut a long, though fascinating, story short, Blondlot and his supporters responded by suggesting that the effect was only observable by certain sensitive and totally passive observers.
One had to see the effect, so to speak, without quite looking at it — might even have to glance in a slightly different direction. To gain the ability would require practice. It was even maintained that only the Latin races had the sensitivity to see the effect — that Anglo-Saxon powers were dulled by continuous exposure to fog and Teutonic ones by the constant ingestion of beer.
Blondlot and his supporters never admitted they were wrong. The article ends by quoting James Clerk Maxwell. “There are two theories of the nature of light, the corpuscle theory and the wave theory. We used to believe in the corpuscle theory; now we believe in the wave theory because all those who believe in the corpuscle theory are dead.” The last person to believe in N-rays probably disappeared when Blondlot died in 1930.
In this case a so-called scientific discovery has had many of the same characteristics as claims for the existence of paranormal phenomena, so it is not as if one can afford to be anything but a skeptic where scientific assertions are concerned. The history of science is filled with oddities, prejudices, mistakes, misunderstandings, rejections and suppressions of truth.
I sometimes find myself guilty of making blanket judgements of a sort — for instance if I read anything about telepathy in Womansscript, a rather new-agey feminist magazine that made a brief appearance a while ago, I would suspect it before I read it, but even before reading John McCrone’s article “Roll Up for the Telepathy Test” in a New Scientist last May, I assumed that its account of parapsychology would be on a reasonably respectable scientific footing, and would therefore deserve a respectful reading. I could feel my stance adjusting as I approached the article.
I don’t know any way out of making these blanket judgements, based on my established prejudices. Of course scientific declarations deserve to be greeted with scepticism too, regardless of the theoretical care built into definitions of scientific thought. One would have been right to be cautious about the recent claims on behalf of cold fusion, and many people were. Competitiveness alone meant that the claims were promptly subjected to tests that seem to have demolished the claims.
But I do have reasons other than prejudice for respecting scientific thought. It seem to incorporate, as a basic premise, what I see as a sort of creative scepticism. I understand from attending a few lectures in the philosophy of science and from reading A Brief History of Time that no theory can ever be held to be totally established, even though we can act as if it was with increasing confidence as time goes by and predictions are fulfilled.
At some level, any theory is always a hypothesis and one must always bear in mind the possibility that it may turn out to be inadequate and need modification, or that it might even be wrong. In day to day life we can safely assume that certain familiar laws will hold true, and we can act with confidence, but the truths that underlie them are subject to a continual scrutiny, and possibly to adjustment, alteration and restatement.
This seems to me to be honest, though very tiring. In the stories I write, I do make a variety of ethical assertions, but my main hope is that joking and a degree of eccentricity will leave children with the possibility of living with an open system of thought, and of using jokes and humour and even self-derision, as a means of approaching the contradiction implicit in our understanding of the world, if we want to be honest about it.
I suppose it is true that the skeptic is often seen as being destructive, spoiling the simple pleasure that people take in wonders, and destroying the wonders themselves in favour of a colourless rationalism. But my favourite disciple is Thomas, and though his doubt is often quoted with disapproval, the result of his doubt is invoked as a clinching argument for the resurrection. I am happy for people who find faith in a simple unity underlying the intricate confusion, provided they do not not need my collusion in their faith, and provided they do not try to impose their views as fact.
I do not think rationality is infinite in its power to describe the universe, but I think it is noble, and not the chilly spoiler of poetry and intuition it is often represented as being. Indeed I have an image in my mind of intuition, imagination, response to things like beauty and mystery existing along with rationality in a spectrum imaginatively analogous to the spectrum of radiation which we perceive differently at different points. Some radiation we experience as sight, some as sound and so on. This is a personal analogy, and like all analogies is faulty in some ways. It is an approximate metaphor for my own use.
Above all else, I reiterate, I think we lead an intensely mysterious existence in a deeply mysterious universe, and that acknowledgement of this mystery deserves the best I can give it. I am perfectly prepared to entertain the possibility of telepathy, of magic of all sorts, but I don’t wish to sell out to cheap and facile marvels, inadequately proved, to scientific discoveries falsely researched, to political slogans, that are invented, partly unconsciously, to herd power into certain defined areas and to keep it there, or of course at the outer edge, to lies, chicanery and exploitation, or even to innocent, though passionately defended mistakes.
I may do that from time to time, but I try hard not to, because I want to do the best I can, within my limitations, and within my limitations to lead an exciting, funny and truthful life.