The Great Silly Season: 1965-1981

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Although most observers of the scientific fringe are wellaware that the public appetite for nonsense comes and goes inwaves, there has been little documentation of the timing,duration, and levels of fringe waves. I did a survey of trends in book publishing between 1945 and 1982, based on counts in the Cumulative Book Index (CBI) and Books In Print(BIP). It was originally published in the Summer 1986 issue of Skeptical Inquirer as Four Decades of Fringe Literature This page is modified from that paper. What I found was a dramatic peak in crank literature between 1965 and 1981, followed by a precipitous drop. Although I haven't done a long-projected follow-up, my impression is that mass crank science cults were not nearly so active throughout the Eighties, but began to increase in the Nineties. One new nineties trend is the surge in "junk science" as applied to legal proceedings and debates on public policy. I refer to the crank boom between 1965 and 1981 as the Great Silly Season.


Both CBI and BIP have advantages and disadvantages. Thedata from CBI is based on counts under subject headings and cantherefore be expected to yield a fairly complete listing.However, it may take a year or two for a rise in interest in sometopic to be noticed and listed under a separate heading. When afringe theory gains wide popularity, its subject heading may besubdivided, so that the apparent publishing level might appearlower than the true level. There is a certain element ofsubjectivity that enters into deciding whether to include a bookunder a given subject. Some fringe topics, such as catastrophetheories, are not listed under separate categories. Finally, theCBI includes only books actually published in a given year, sothere may be year-to-year fluctuations that have little to dowith the public interest level. For example, a large press runmay supply demand for a couple of years, so that even thoughdemand remains high, the next year's count may be lower.

The counts from BIP are based on key title words. Thisapproach means that counts may be incomplete; some of theclassics of the fringe, like Worlds in Collision, Incident atExeter, or Chariots of the Gods? will be missed by a searchof common fringe title words. There will be a scattering of workswith unrelated content, such as a medical treatise on OccultTraumatic Lesions listed under "Occult". There will also bereputable scholarly works and even refutations. The importance ofsuch anomalies is minor. Indeed, it is legitimate to include therefutations because they generally get published only when publicinterest in the subject is high, and anyway they are all too fewin number. A search of title key words does catch the "parasitic"literature that appears after a high level of interest hasdeveloped, and is therefore a useful indicator of public interestin fringe ideas.

BIP includes all works listed as in print by publishers. Agiven work may stay in print for some years after its press run.Therefore, the total number of works in BIP is 2-3 times greaterthan in CBI. Also, trends found from BIP data tend to be moresubdued than those from CBI data, with lower peaks and shallowervalleys, because the listings tend to persist for several yearsand year-to-year fluctuations are smoothed out.

There has been a steep increase in book publication since1945. To determine the actual level of public appetite for thefringe, the title counts were divided by the total number oflistings (determined by the page count and an approximate titlecount per page) and are presented in the figures as titles per100,000 listings. Looking at the numbers, one might get the impression that this is at worst a minor problem. After all, a few dozen titles per 100,000 is no big deal. The problem isn't the number of titles; it's sales. It's also the worthwhile books that are not being read and published because of the junk.

Ghosties and Ghoulies...

By far the largest category of fringe literature might betermed the "classical occult" (see figure on following page).Included in this subject area are the key words or subjectheadings "Astrology", "Atlantis", "Occult", "Psychic", and"Reincarnation". One might object that including "Astrology"skews the results, since it is such a popular subject. However,as the figure shows, the trends for all major themes are quitesimilar and each theme tends to make up a roughly constantproportion of the total. It appears that interest in the occult,in astrology, and in psychic topics rose and fell together, witha major peak from the late 1940's to the mid-1950's and a muchlarger peak in the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's. Theredoes seem to be a tendency for short-term lows in one heading tobe offset by peaks in another, as if reader interest fluctuatedamong the different themes from year to year.

The plunge in publishing after 1981 was so precipitous thatI suspected it was the result of a change in classification, buta check of related subjects indicated that the drop is real. Itseems too good to be true!

The category of "Atlantis" is problematical. In earliertimes Atlantis was part of the occult and was the source ofoccult knowledge for groups like the theosophists. More recently,Atlantis seems to have been more akin to UFO literature andespecially the Bermuda Triangle lore. It forms such a small partof the total occult literature that it has no effect on theoverall picture.

...And Long-Leggedy Beasties...

Another category is the "monster" category (see figure onfollowing page). Entries searched in this area included"Bigfoot", "Loch Ness Monster", and "Sasquatch". The CBI was alsosearched for "Abominable Snowman" before 1970. The publishingrecord before 1970 was so sporadic as to be essentiallynonexistent. During the 1970's, interest in what has been called"cryptozoology" rose to a peak and then showed a definitedecline. This fashion seems to have definitely passed, at leastfor the time being.

Atlantis-Bermuda Triangle literature shows a similar pattern.. These two apparently different themes actually have a good deal in common,specifically the notion that unknown marvels are to be found inthe remote parts of the earth. They might collectively be calledthe "lost world" literature.

...And Things That Go Bump In The Night

The archetypical fringe theory is, of course, UFO's (seefigure on following page). The data used in this categoryincluded the key words Flying Saucer, UFO and Unidentified FlyingObject, as well as all books by Erich von Daniken. The pattern issimilar to the Occult trends. The great flying saucer wave of theearly 50's is unmistakable, and a much greater wave in the late60's and in the 70's. In fact, we can recognize two later waves:one in 1967-69, which produced John Fuller's Incident at Exeterand another in 1971-77. Again, note the plunge in publishingafter 1981.

Pseudoscience on the Far Right

It is interesting to examine a number of fringe notions thathave occupied the far right: fluoridation, laetrile, and extremefundamentalism (see figure on following page). The peak period ofanti-fluoridation literature ran from 1950 to 1968, but the levelof activity came nowhere near equalling the furor over thissubject. Clearly, most of the battle over fluoridation wascarried on via other media. The few late anti-fluoridation worksseem to have had no serious impact.

Laetrile became a cause celebre in the 1970's, when anunlikely coalition from the right and left rallied around it. Thepeak in publishing is apparent, but as in the case offluoridation, it is clear that books were not the primary meansof information flow.

Two themes common to the religious right are also presented:creation/evolution and the devil. In both cases titles werescreened and listed only if the intent of the book were obviousfrom the title or if the book were by an author or publisherknown to be actively interested in the subject. The steady risein creationist literature is obvious and needs little comment.The pattern for works with "Devil" or "Satan" in their titles isinteresting for its two-stage rise. The first abrupt rise, about1968, consists largely of occult literature. The second rise,beginning about 1973, is driven largely by fundamentalist workslike Hal Lindsey's Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. Infact, a good deal of recent fundamentalist literature is areaction to the occult wave of 1967 and later.

Since the original research was done, the creationist movement has remained active, although it has temporarily abandoned most of its attempts to fashion publishable alternative scientific theories. They have tended more to focus on grass-roots activity and the running of "stealth" (not overtly creationist) candidates in local elections.

External Factors

The final figure (following Page 8) is an attempt to portrayfringe literature in historical context. A few salient works areshown (major debunking works are marked with an asterisk)together with economic indicators and some major historicalevents. Data for economic trends are from the StatisticalAbstract of the United States.

It is clear that there is no simple correlation betweeneconomic health and fringe publishing. The period of low activitybetween 1955 and 1967 was marked by stable and generallyfavorable inflation and unemployment levels, but otherwise apattern is hard to find. Hard times seem to have little effect ona fringe boom in full swing (mid 70's) but may be instrumental inending a boom that is weakening (mid-late 50's, early 80's?). Onemight suspect that people would turn to the occult in times ofhardship, but the big occult wave of the 1960's began during aperiod of sustained economic growth and very low unemployment.

The most obvious correlation is that both fringe boomscoincided with a war, but the big flying saucer binge of the late40's began long before the Korean War. A correlation withVietnam, though, seems almost certain; the Vietnam era was a timeof attack on all forms of authority, including scientificauthority.

If there is any pattern at all, it seems to me that fringeliterature burgeons during times of frustration or uncertainprosperity; during times of optimism the real world is excitingenough; during very hard times people are too busy surviving orcoping with concrete threats. During the early 1950's there wasthe frustration of seeing Soviet influence expand and not beingable to counter it. Sputnik, in contrast, was a "threat" thatcould be met in a concrete fashion, and was. During the late 60'sand the 70's there was the frustration of Vietnam (for some, theinability to force a military victory, for others, the inabilityto influence the political system), civil strife at home, andWatergate. Erratic inflation and unemployment cycles added to thetension by making continued personal prosperity moreunpredictable. The resurgence of crank science in the Nineties seems to mirror that pattern. Or is it perhaps that society goes through periods when it can see what to do and does it, alternating with periods of uncertainty, lack of consensus, and restlessness when some people turn to crank theories for diversion?

What Does It All Mean?

Discussions of values in America have tended recently tofocus on the traits of decades. The 1950's have beencharacterized as complacent, conformist, conservative, andanti-intellectual. The 60's have been considered activist,liberal, turbulent, socially-concerned, open-minded, andintellectually lively. The 70's have been labelled hedonistic andnarcissistic, while the 80's have been labelled materialistic andindividualistic and generally much like the 1950's.

The trends in crank literature suggest that this picture isseverely in error. Either trends in fringe publishing bear norelation to the attitudes of society, a rather unlikelyassumption, or the simple decade picture is wrong. I think thelatter is the case, and that two major revisions are in order.The first is that the midpoints rather than the beginnings ofdecades are more likely to mark major transitions. The second,which will generate much more controversy, is that there was nomajor values shift between the late 60's and the 70's.

For the 1950's, the picture is pretty non-controversial.World War II perturbed the publishing market in so many ways thatwe can say little about trends in the mid 40's, but in the late40's and early 50's it is clear we had a wave of massirrationalism that included the first flying saucer sightings in1947, the works of Velikovsky in 1950, and the Bridey Murphymania in 1954. Politically, of course, this interval also saw theMcCarthy Era. After about 1955, however, the level of all majorfringe categories declined and stayed at a low level until about1965. Then the level of fringe publishing began to climb, peakingin the early 1970's and slowly declining thereafter.

There are many lines of evidence that place the main valuesshift not in 1960 but about 1965. Most of the positiveaccomplishments of the 60's took place early in the decade andwere the end result of processes that began in the 1950's. Theadministration of John F. Kennedy rested on a political powerbase built in the 1950's. If the rhetoric of the Sputnik era wasat times hysterical, the improvement in public education thatcame as a result of the shock of Sputnik I was not. The passageof civil rights legislation was the result of a campaign thatbegan in 1954 with the outlawing of school segregation by theU.S. Supreme Court. Finally, we should note the reforms thataccompanied the papacy of John XXIII (1958-63). I am not surewhether these leaders helped create a time of rationality orwhether a rational period enabled them to be unusually effective.

On the other hand, most of the traumatic events we associatewith the 1960's, except for the assasination of John F. Kennedyin 1963, were concentrated in the latter half of the decade. TheVietnam War became a serious national issue after 1965, most ofthe campus riots took place in the latter half of the decade aswell, as did most of the race riots. Robert Kennedy and MartinLuther King were killed in 1968.

The apparent exception to this pattern is the ApolloProgram, but even this is not an exception. The space programcame under increasingly heavy attack in the late 1960's and wasprobably sustained only because of the commitments that had beenmade to it early in the decade, and especially the tendency toinvoke John F. Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon before1970. Once the first lunar landings were accomplished, the ApolloProgram was terminated; in fact, the final three missions werecut from the program.

There is, in addition, good reason to believe theunattractive values often associated with the 1970's actuallywere formed in the late 1960's. For example, there is anunmistakable continuity between the political nihilism of thelate 60's ("Down with the system") and the technological nihilismof the early and mid 1970's ("Down with technology - back tonature") as espoused by authors like Jacques Ellul, LewisMumford, Theodore Roszak, and Charles Reich. Indeed, many of thesame people were active in both movements, and many of theleading anti-technologists developed and published their ideasduring the late 1960's.

The egoism that has come to be a symbol of the 1970's canalso be clearly traced into the 1960's, where the notion waswidely espoused that individual conscience took precedence oversocial and legal norms, and where people who thumbed their nosesat the System were often lionized and held up as role models.Few college students escaped reading Thoreau during that epoch!There was no major change in values after 1970; instead thecauses that lent legitimacy to this value system lost theirimmediacy, and the egoism that once seemed a means to legitimateends degenerated into unfocussed narcissism, or if one isespecially pessimistic, became revealed for what it always was.As a final note, the 1970's have also been labelled hedonistic,but it is almost superfluous to note that sexual liberation andthe widespread use of drugs are products not of the 1970's but ofthe late 1960's. Narcissism, I believe, is a fundamental ingredient of pseudoscience, and I believe pseudoscience as we have known it the last half century is essentially a Baby Boom phenomenon, driven by the ego needs of quite possibly the most narcissistic population cohort in history.

The late 1960's were unquestionably a time of intellectualvitality. Unfortunately, it appears that the freedom to challengebasic assumptions often was dissipated in anti-intellectualism;an uncritical rejection of assumptions is just as destructive asuncritical acceptance. It is intriguing to note that the longdownward slide of SAT scores coincided with the great boom infringe literature. Apparently intellectual freedom meant, formany people, the freedom not to be intellectual.

The use of terms such as "the 60's" has the advantage ofproviding convenient labels. It also serves certain ideologicalends, particularly for those nostalgic for "the 60's" who feelthreatened by the current questioning of the values of thatperiod. The term "the 60's" allows the user to bask in the glowof John F. Kennedy's Camelot and the struggles of Martin LutherKing, imbue the radicalism of the late 1960's with the same aura,and simultaneously disavow the narcissism of the 1970's.Similarly, using the label "the 50's" allows the user to tar theentire decade with the brush of McCarthyism.

The data, I argue, present a radically different picture.There was a definite wave of popular hysteria about 1947-1955 asAmericans learned to adjust to Cold War tensions, but theinterval 1955-1966 was apparently quite rationalistic (or atleast not overtly irrational); perhaps more so than any period inrecent American history. It was not all pure reason (thisinterval saw the anti-fluoridation panic, and the response toSputnik was well out of proportion to the real threat) but theoutput of crank literature was the lowest of any period studied.After 1965, political unrest was paralleled by a boom in crankliterature that lasted into the Eighties. It's interesting that both the Fifties and the Eighties, disdained by intellectuals for their conservatism, actually seem to have been pretty rational periods of history. The most recent quiet interval of crank publishing included the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the Skeptical Inquirer article I concluded:

For the present, the data suggest cause for cautiousoptimism. Most of the indicators of fringe science have fallenoff considerably from their 1970's peak. The Creationist Movementhas lost its key court cases and has apparently retreated to itsclassical role of agitation within ultra-orthodox religiousgroups rather than trying to win open equality with science (thisdoes not mean it has ceased to be a threat!). Indeed, a keyreason for the failure of creationism has been the reluctance ofmajor evangelists and denominations to risk tying their owncredibility to creationism lest the bubble burst. Finally, recentwritings of major evangelists abound in warnings about"backsliding", "worldliness", or "becoming lukewarm", a deadgiveaway that their pitch has lost some of its appeal.

On the negative side, we have lost much. All that was gainedin the interval 1965-1980 could have been gained more easily andrationally. The Grand Tour of the Solar System, proposed in thelate 1960's, never took place. There was no U.S. mission toHalley's Comet. The state of science education is a shambles.Although no major educators have said so openly, many of theeducational reforms that have been proposed in recent yearsamount to a return to pre-1965 methods and curricula. Funding forscience has been cut and cut again; both by conservatives whooppose such spending on principle and by liberals who see it asdiverting funds from social expenditures. The level of crankpublishing has fallen sharply but the backlog of crank literaturein print is still high, and there is plenty of fringe literatureoutside the book market. We should also bear in mind that absenceof fringe literature does not necessarily mean an intellectualpublic. Recall that the early 1960's, a time of low fringeoutput, was also the time that television was called "The VastWasteland". Certainly it appears that many of the people who readChariots of the Gods a few years ago are watching Dynastyrather than PBS; that is, fringe literature has given way not tointellectualism but to non-intellectual escapism.

On a positive note, I suspect the rise of micro-computersmay also have played a role in diverting attention from fringeworks, first of all by providing an intellectually stimulatingalternative activity and second, by enabling millions of peopleto develop a feeling of technological competence and a sense ofparticipation in science and technology.

It appears we are in a time of transition. I suspect fringepublishing will be relatively dormant for a while, then revive asa new generation of consumers arises. The task confronting us isto make the best possible use of this interval and to be preparedwhen (not if) the next fringe wave arrives.

From the perspective of 1998, most of this has been borne out. In addition to computers, I would now also add cable TV and its educational channels as an additional attractor for diverting people into real intellectual activities. Computers, on the other hand, have mostly converted users into passive consumers rather than active creators. The Eighties saw a steady but nevertheless low level of crank activity, but there has been a noticeable upsurge since the mid-Nineties.

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Created 3 February 1998, Last Update 8 July 1998

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