Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. II, No. 1, Fall/Winter 1977, pp 36-40
Reproduced with permission
In August 1977, the College Entrance Examination Board issued a report concerning the causes of the continuing decline of the skills and capacities of high school students going into college. Although some of the conclusions concerning the effect of television and the breakdown of the family were necessarily subjective because of inconclusive evidence, several firm conclusions were reached. Among them is that the decline is partly because “less thoughtful and critical reading is now being demanded and done, and that careful writing has apparently about gone out of style.”
Although the reference to the lack of careful writing is apparently directed toward the students themselves, it should also be taken to include the writings that the students read, virtually all of which is done by writers a generation or two older, who do not have the same excuse for sloppy research and slovenly logic and writing techniques.
Much of the reading that students now do is called “high interest reading.” It has to be high interest in order to grab their attention, to compete with the likes of the Six Million Dollar Man, Woman, and Dog, the Fonz, and Darth Vader. There does not seem to be much reading being assigned, at least in the field of the “paranormal,” that is highly logical or accurate. It almost seems as if there is a belief among publishers that interest and logic are inversely proportional to each other. They are not, of course, but that seems to be the prevailing belief.
A typical example of high interest reading, taken from one of the subjects of the season, the Bermuda Triangle, follows.
The Sandra was a square-cut tramp steamer, decorated here and there with rust spots along her 350-foot length. Radio-equipped and loaded with 300 tons of insecticide, she leisurely thumped her way south in the heavily traveled coastal shipping lanes of Florida in June 1950.
The crewmen who had finished mess drifted to the aft deck to smoke and to reflect upon the setting sun and what the morrow might bring. Through the tropical dusk that shrouded the peaceful Florida coastline they watched the friendly blinking beacon at St. Augustine. The next morning all were gone. Neither the ship nor the crew were ever seen again. They had silently vanished during the night under the starlit sky. No clue to help solve this baffling mystery has been found to this very day.
Mysterious wasn’t it? A tranquil sea. Quiet circles of smoke slowly drifting from the deck. Twilight. A clear sky. Ah, peace. The fate of the Sandra has been a matter of curiosity for millions of readers in the past few years, but I wonder how many of the readers have thought about it long enough to have noticed the glaring flaws in the story. I wonder how many readers have a high enough CQ (Curiosity Quotient) to take just a few seconds to analyze the case.
Those with a low CQ ask questions like, “What strange force could possibly have caused this inexplicable loss? Why has nothing from the Sandra been found even to this very day? What is wrong with the area out there?” (Note that the low CQ questions are the same as those asked in the currently popular pro-mystery books on the subject.)
The reader with the high CQ would have seen warning flags an over the story of the Sandra. Alarm bells should have rung. Yes, there is something wrong, not so much with the Sandra or “out there,” but with the telling of the story itself.
If the Sandra disappeared that very night, how could anyone have known and reported what the crewmen were doing as the sun set? Did the men saunter over to the rail to smoke and chat about the sunset? How could the writer have known that? Did they really see the lights of St. Augustine? Was the sea really tranquil? All these points are crucial to the loss because they indirectly set the scene-a quiet, peaceful evening. That is, after all, why the loss of the Sandra is considered strange. If conditions had been stormy, the loss would not be considered unusual.
Even before taking the time to check into the weather (why bother doing that – it’s all documented, isn’t it?), the curious, intelligent reader should already be questioning the account of the Sandra. How was the writer able to know what the sailors saw, thought, or said that night? Was the writer perhaps on the ship himself, luckily lifted off by helicopter or a small boat in time to miss the disappearance? Unlikely. If I had been that writer I’d have plainly stated that that was what happened.
Did the radioman send this crucial information about the scene to shore? Again, quite unlikely. One doesn’t usually paint pastel pictures over the radio. How then, could the writer know that much about what happened on the ship? How could he know if the men saw the light of St. Augustine? Did he know where the ship was at all?
The answer to the thinking person with the faintest shred of curiosity and intelligence is that the writer could not have known any of the “facts” he “reported.” He had to have assumed them or have lifted them from someone else.
Is it nit-picking to observe that the “facts” could not logically have been known? Are these “facts” important? Obviously, they are crucially important. The writer was using a common, blatant writing technique that I call “setting the scene.” The writer indirectly informs the reader that all was calm, all was right as the steamer chugged along. The crewmen obviously were not worried about any impending danger. There were no storms. It makes the “disappearance” all the more mysterious. The ship was “known” to have been off St. Augustine, practically pinpointing its area of disappearance, and making the lack of debris even more mysterious.
But, was the ship really near St. Augustine? Based on the writer’s information, we cannot really know that. He says that the crewmen saw the light, not that anyone ever saw the ship. But he can’t know what the crewmen saw. Did the ship “silently vanish”? If no one knows what happened, if no reporter was nearby taking notes, how do we know it was nice and quiet? Maybe they were fighting for their lives, but the “silent vanishment” treatment is far more mysterious. It certainly has a higher interest, as compared to just an ordinary old sinking.
All this the intelligent reader might have deduced for himself, without doing any outside research. There is not much that the writer gave us that appears to be solid. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps not. Give an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of typewriters. . . .
The writer has used another technique which I call “undue familiarity.” He mentions the “rust spots along her 350-foot length,” implying that he, personally, knows about the old Sandra. After all, if he can describe it in that precise detail, he must have some firsthand knowledge. Perhaps he was the one who spotted it off St. Augustine. He really does his research, doesn’t he?
There is just one problem here. Upon checking with Lloyd’s of London I learned that the Sandra was only 185 feet long, just about half what the writer said it was. Now about those rust spots and the writer’s apparent familiarity with the ship. . . .
Neither the length of the ship nor the spots are crucially important, of course; but they do point out, once again, that the writer’s credibility is very low. Almost everything he has said is blatantly in error, or is speculation. The true length of the ship is of some importance, however, since we can probably assume that a 350-foot ship would handle weather, if it were bad, better than a 185-footer.
But the incident is still unexplained despite all the obvious erroneous assumptions and errors. The (rare) diligent reader who is interested in following up on the case might contact the weather bureau’s record center in Asheville, North Carolina, and ask for the records for June. The result is that he would find that the weather was excellent, just like the mystery purveyors said. Now we’re really stumped. Perhaps there is something “out there” after all. A ship simply cannot disappear without a trace in perfect weather.
So our diligent researcher keeps trying. Any research on a missing ship would be incomplete without contacting Lloyd’s of London. Lo! What do we find there? The mystery monger made another error! The Sandra did not sail in June, it sailed on April 5. The weather records are now checked for the proper month, and this time we find that beginning the day the Sandra sailed from Savannah, and for the next few days, the Atlantic shipping lanes off the southeast United States were buffeted by winds up to seventy-three miles an hour, only two miles an hour under hurricane strength.
All the basic “facts” as presented in the mystery of the Sandra are now shown to be wrong. Read again the “mystery” and compare what the writer said to what really occurred. Crewmen drifting to the deck to smoke? Watching the peaceful Florida coastline? Seeing the friendly little old beacon at St. Augustine? Silently vanishing? The near hurricane does change the situation just a bit.
Yet, a number of writers have used the Sandra as further “proof” that something strange is going on “out there.” They failed to prove their theory, but they have helped confirm one of mine, that the less a writer knows about his subject, the better equipped he is to write a mystery about it. Ignorance of the subject is, in fact, a major technique in writing about the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle and other subjects in the so-called paranormal as well. Some critics of the Bermuda Triangle refer to it as science fiction, but that is an unfair description. Unfair, that is, to science fiction. The Bermuda Triangle, as well as many other “paranormal” topics, might more properly be called “fictional science.”
Many people find the “mystery,” full of illogic and errors that they are unaware of, to be of a higher interest than the correct answer, of the detective work necessary to track it down. Those people who revel in the uncritical claims of pseudoscience, of the “paranormal,” might properly be called the “pseudocurious” or the “paracurious.” They claim to want the truth, but they really don’t want it. They watch Alan Landsburg’s “In Search Of” television program and believe that, because TV Guide and Leonard Nimoy say so, that it is a documentary. They read the tomes of Berlitz, Winer, Spencer, Jeffrey, Godwin, and Sanderson and boggle their minds, as they say. Yet all these books are chock full of examples such as the Sandra, confirming the complaints of the College Entrance Examination Board. Careful writing, at least in the area of the pro-paranormal, has gone out of style, and the readers are less critical. The readers claim to be seeking illumination but are, in fact, only seeking light entertainment. There will always be plenty of Barnum, Bailey, and Berlitz writers and publishers around to satiate their hunger and further erode their logic.
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