The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


A Rope of Sand

Sep. 08, 2015 by | Comments Off on A Rope of Sand

If my explorations of skeptical history have revealed an overall theme, it is that things don’t change that much. Always there are scoundrels, scams, and misapprehensions; always there are those who probe mysteries and push back against paranormal fraud. Throughout history, those skeptics have repeatedly reached for the same tactics, claimed the same (scant few) rewards, and faced the same challenges of burnout and cynicism.

Astronomer Richard Anthony Proctor

Astronomer Richard Anthony Proctor. For general details about Proctor’s life and career, read this brief biographical sketch published in 1874.

English astronomer and science popularizer Richard Anthony Proctor (1837–1888) makes an interesting case study. He weighed in as a skeptic against (surprisingly popular) Flat Earth advocates (see Junior Skeptic 53), quackery, and a range of pseudoscientific ideas connected to astronomy. His debunking book Myths and Marvels of Astronomy was a 19th century version of Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy. Originally published in 1877 (my copy dates to 1880), Myths and Marvels of Astronomy is available to read for free in several editions online.

Like some other skeptics, Proctor seems to have been both fascinated and repelled by the arguments of “paradoxists” (or “paradoxers”) as pseudoscience proponents were then called. He spent considerable effort on critiques of Flat Earth advocacy—”Zetetic Astronomy,” as that religiously-motivated 19th century pseudoscience movement dubbed itself—yet advised other skeptics not to follow his example, for Flat Earth proponents were “merely types of a class which will always exist.” So what if pseudoscientific baloney confuses ignorant laypeople, he grumbled: “It serves them right for leaving the subject unstudied.”1 His commentary sounds uncomfortably pulled in opposing directions. “As to the Flat-Earth nonsense, that is not and never has been worth the trouble of crushing,” he declared 14 years later—while attempting yet again to combat the chief proponent of that nonsense.2

myths-and-marvels-spine-300pxHis distaste for such debates was not unfounded. One problem, as familiar then as it is today, was that skepticism invited a “shower of abuse.”3 Flaming was inevitable even when critiques were mild, for paradoxists are “well practised in abuse, and have long learned to call mathematicians and astronomers cheats and charlatans.”4 And criticism rarely seemed to work, anyway. “Reasoning has been tried in vain…ridicule is ineffective, and a bad example; denunciation is idle,” he sighed.5

But despite his cynicism, Proctor couldn’t quite leave nonsense alone. For one thing, it was interesting. And infuriating. And sad. “There is something melancholy even in what is most ridiculous in cases of this sort,” he reflected.6 Sure, it’s comical when someone who clearly knows nothing about physics or astronomy fiercely declares his intuitions to be superior to the expert work “not of Newton only, but of all who have followed in the same track during two centuries”—but those forlorn paradoxists were also people. They’re annoying, yes, and full of themselves. “Yet, when one considers the probable consequences of the blunder to the unhappy enthusiast, and perchance to his family, it is difficult not to feel a sense of pity,” Proctor admitted.7

For science popularizers, he knew, “scientific hoaxes have their uses, just as paradoxical works have.”8 Pseudoscience “is worth examining,” for it “shows what absurdity men can believe,” Proctor felt (citing sentiments expressed by another skeptic, Augustus De Morgan).9 Such preposterous beliefs served as “gauges of general knowledge”10—and revealed that general scientific knowledge was shockingly bad, even among educated professionals.


Cover of Junior Skeptic 56—the story of the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

An example he had in mind was the “so-called ‘lunar hoax'” of 1835, which is the topic of my brand new story for Junior Skeptic 56 (inside Skeptic Vol. 20 No. 3). In this astonishing media hoax case, the popular New York Sun newspaper announced the discovery of life on the Moon—and not just any life, either. The Moon was described as a lush Edenic paradise, home to unicorns, sentient bipedal beavers, and winged bat-people! Over several days, the multi-part Sun article was a widely believed (and wildly profitable) sensation—giving it a place in skeptical history as unquestionably one of the most successful media hoaxes of all time. For the full story, see Junior Skeptic, but for now I will leave you with Proctor’s thoughts. Writing decades later, he used the case to illustrate the public’s acute vulnerability to intentional pseudoscientific deceptions, and to emphasize the awkward truth that scientists are ill-equipped to confront such nonsense. And, he raised a concern that skeptics uneasily ask even today: to what extent is it even possible to change entrenched beliefs? Proctor wrote,

No one, certainly no student of science, can thoroughly understand how little some persons know about science, until he has observed how much will be believed, if only published with the apparent authority of a few known names, and announced with a sufficient parade of technical verbiage; nor is it so easy as might be thought, even for those who are acquainted with the facts, to disprove either a hoax or a paradox. Nothing, indeed, can much more thoroughly perplex and confound a student of science than to be asked to prove, for example, that the earth is not flat, or the moon not inhabited by creatures like ourselves; for the circumstance that such a question is asked implies ignorance so thorough of the very facts on which the proof must be based, as to render argument all but hopeless from the outset. I have had a somewhat wide experience of paradoxists, and have noted the experience of De Morgan and others who, like him, have tried to convince them of their folly. The conclusion at which I have arrived is, that to make a rope of sand were an easy task compared with the attempt to instil the simpler facts of science into paradoxical heads.11

  1. Richard Anthony Proctor. Letter to the Editor. The English Mechanic and Mirror of Science. May 6, 1870. p. 159
  2. Richard Anthony Proctor. Knowledge, May 2, 1884. p. 313
  3. Richard Anthony Proctor. Myths and Marvels of Astronomy. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880.) p. 268
  4. Ibid.
  5. Richard Anthony Proctor. Knowledge. March 30, 1883. p. 198
  6. Proctor. (1880.) p. 272
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. p. 263
  9. Proctor. (1883)
  10. Proctor. (1880.) p. 263
  11. Ibid. [Emphasis added.]
Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

Comments are closed.


Get eSkeptic

Be in the know!

Subscribe to eSkeptic: our free email newsletter and get great podcasts, videos, reviews and articles from Skeptic magazine, announcements, and more in your inbox twice a week. It’s free. We never share your address. Unsubscribe any time.

Sign me up!


Skeptic cover art by Pat Linse

Art of the Skeptic

In celebration of Skeptic magazine’s 100th issue, we present sage graphic art advice for skeptical groups and a gallery of art reflecting more than 47 years of skeptical activism from Skeptic’s long time Art Director, Pat Linse

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

FREE PDF Download

Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

FREE PDF Download

The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

FREE PDF Download

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

FREE PDF Download

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

FREE PDF Download

Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

FREE PDF Download

Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

FREE PDF Download

The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

Copyright © 1992–2021. All rights reserved. | P.O. Box 338 | Altadena, CA, 91001 | 1-626-794-3119. The Skeptics Society is a non-profit, member-supported 501(c)(3) organization (ID # 95-4550781) whose mission is to promote science & reason. As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. Privacy Policy.