Think to New Worlds: The Cultural History of Charles Fort and His Followers Joshua Blu Buhs Univ. Chicago Press (2024)

In March 2024, a mammoth review by the US Department of Defense concluded that there was “no evidence” that the US government had encountered alien life. Yet, that pronouncement is unlikely to have changed many minds. Popular belief in extraterrestrial visitors — fuelled by sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) — is strong. Even the defence department’s report, in a resigned tone, admits that the litany of tele-vision shows, books, films and Internet content on the topic has “reinforced these beliefs”.

UFOs, a cultural phenomenon since the 1940s, have experienced a resurgence in the conspiracy-laced zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century. They were discussed in a series of hearings held in the US Congress last year. Each episode of the television series Ancient Aliens on US-based channel History features alleged anomalies that scientists purportedly cannot explain without invoking extraterrestrials.

These pseudoscientific yet wildly popular ‘explanations’ of mysterious phenomena take inspiration — often unknowingly — from the life and work of a man who achieved notoriety during the early decades of the previous century: Charles Fort (1874–1932). His penchant for compiling earnest reports of bizarre happenings by scanning through newspapers, magazines and scientific journals set off an army of emulators — the Forteans, as cultural historian and author Joshua Blu Buhs skilfully recounts in a compelling narrative about the birth of modern ‘anomaly hunting’.

Fort and his followers thought the future promised by science was too narrow and excluded the sacred. His compilations of anomalies challenged the seemingly all-explanatory power of science. Fort’s expeditions into libraries and archives netted him tales of talking dogs, rain laden with blood and frogs, monsters that arose from watery depths and visions in the sky. He strung these together in books resembling Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not comics, popular around the same time. This response to the birth of modernity, writes Blu Buhs, turned out to be influential and important, because the process of industrialization and secularization seemed to many people to denude the world of spirituality and magic.

Fort was considered an intellectual by some and a crackpot by others. He claimed to “have about seventeen selves”; believed all reality is flux; and thought that each person should be at liberty to devise or embrace whatever theories they preferred. One reviewer of a book penned by Fort wrote: “For every five people who read this book four will go insane”.

The mysticism-infused scepticism towards science that Fort popularized through his books has inspired generations of doubters, many of whom might never have heard his name. “The Fortean community was diverse and dynamic, but there was a common, if not universal underlying pattern: a distrust of science and the pronouncements of officialdom,” notes Blu Buhs. Forteanism is, thus, a subterranean edifice that supports everything from UFOlogy to vaccine hesitancy.

An open door

Yet, conspiratorial thinking was not the only by-product of this early-twentieth-century movement. The ability of Fort and Forteans to effortlessly mingle what was deemed false with what was known to be possible allowed them to create new visions of reality, which in turn shaped science-fiction, avant-garde modernism and surrealist art, observes Blu Buhs.

Fort’s research methodology — further developed and proselytized by the writer and advertising copywriter Tiffany Thayer, who in 1931 co-founded the Fortean Society in New York City — involved gathering accounts of unexplained anomalies that seemed to be beyond the horizon of current science. Scientists know that no theory is all-encompassing. Paradigm shifts happen when enough anomalies build up to justify a new explanatory model. But often, unexplained phenomena open the door for thinkers outside the mainstream to jump in with their alternative theories.

A man in jacket and tie points to a monitor playing a video of an unidentified aerial phenomena.

Scott Bray, US deputy director of naval intelligence, discusses a video of an ‘unexplained aerial phenomenon’ at a congressional hearing in 2022.Credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty

Although Forteanism has enduring appeal in popular culture, many scientists and rationalists have been alert to its threat for decades. In his 1952 book In the Name of Science, science writer Martin Gardner attacked Forteans and their ideological offspring as cultists and cranks. He presciently characterized the pseudo-science advocates thus: “he considers himself a genius” and “he regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads”. Gardner continues: “He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against,” adding “he has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories” and “he often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined”.

This mid-century encounter established a tension between believers (represented by Fort and Forteans of all stripes) and sceptics (represented by Gardner and others worried about not only Fortean claims, but also other paranormal and occult beliefs). “If the present trend continues,” Gardner concluded, “we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. They may achieve a following of one — or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them.”

Trust undermined

Ultimately, the problem with the kind of enchanted thinking popularized by Fort — in which there is no clear boundary between science and pseudoscience or between truth and falsehood — is that it results in a collapse in confidence in our institutions, from science and medicine to politics and the media.

“Fort and Forteans played their part in the creation of this world,” Blu Buhs concludes. “They eroded the distinctions between truth and falsity, undermined the authority of experts and expertise. They launched a thousand conspiracies into the national consciousness.” Fort’s playful anomaly hunting was “replaced by Thayer’s acerbic nihilism, which became omnipresent and decoupled from any need to compile evidence or craft arguments”. As a result, a century after Fort’s swerve away from the scientism of the modern world, Blu Buhs notes, we have grand conspiracy theories that consist of only the two words ‘Fake News!’; one word, ‘Rigged!’; and even the single letter ‘Q’.

In the end, although science does need outsiders and mavericks who poke and prod at accepted theories until they either are proved wrong or become stronger, it also needs standards of evidence and norms of objectivity, truth telling, accountability and professionalism. Unfortunately, outsiders such as Forteans and their modern descendants tend to fall far short of these standards and norms.