Colin Wilson: A Case Study in Mystery Mongering

December 13, 2013

Sharon Hill at Doubtful News noted that “British writer Colin Wilson passed away on Thursday, December 5. He had suffered a stroke earlier this year and had been in poor health.” I am familiar with Wilson and his body of work, and because he was such a prolific author of mystery-mongering books (Sharon notes that “It’s fair to say that almost everyone who grew up interested in mysteries of the unexplained owns or has read a Colin Wilson book”), a brief look at his work illustrates how misinformation about paranormal topics is perpetuated, and skeptical information is systematically ignored.

Most general books on “the unexplained” are simply rehashes of old material, borrowed, copied, and reprinted from book to book without any attempt to correct information. Take, for example, The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries (1986 and other editions), a best-seller by Colin and Damon Wilson. The Wilsons are very prolific, due in large part to their habit of hashing and rehashing their own work into many books and articles. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writers using their work in various places, but the Wilsons do not bother to correct or update their work. So, for example, if in 1975 they wrote about a baffling UFO case that was revealed five years later to be a hoax, readers who buy a 2000 edition of the book (retitled The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved) won’t know that. The reader will assume that the mystery remains unsolved, whereas it has been solved for 20 years!

I noted in a 2001 review of the book:

As I read through The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved, a quote from L. Sprague de Camp about the works of Erich von Daniken came to mind. De Camp wrote that Von Daniken’s books are “solid masses of misstatements, errors, and wild guesses presented as facts, unsupported by anything remotely resembling scientific data.” Though able and desiring to refute Von Daniken’s arguments, de Camp realized that a thorough analysis would “take years of my time; and, if I were mad enough to write it, who would read it?”

Though the Wilsons’ encyclopedia isn’t quite “solid masses of misstatements,” they do appear with alarming and puzzling regularity. The book is riddled with errors and obfuscating omissions, betraying a bizarre disregard for accuracy. I’m not attacking the book based on philosophy; one may disagree with their approach and conclusions, but the Wilsons simply get basic facts wrong. One wonders how solid the Wilsons’ conclusions can be given such sloppy research.

Though the tome is dubbed an “encyclopedia” it is really nothing of the sort, as encyclopedia implies comprehensiveness, and there are dozens of “unsolved” subjects missing from the book. It is instead a rehash of older material culled from the authors’ previous books of familiar mysteries: UFOs, Bigfoot, curses, etc. Confronted with the wide array of subjects, I began with an entry on a topic I happen to be familiar with: Bigfoot. As I read, I found it hard to go more than about half a page before stumbling over flawed facts. I’ll present only three from the first few pages:

* On page 67, the authors briefly discuss the “Jacko” incident, in which a Bigfoot was allegedly captured in a British Columbia town in 1884. Information on the event came from a newspaper account of the time, and described the man/beast in detail. The Wilsons conclude, “Regrettably, Jacko’s subsequent fate is unknown…” They are apparently unaware of John Green’s archival research clearly demonstrating that the story was a hoax. (The omission is especially puzzling as the Wilsons cite Green just two paragraphs later.)

* On the following page, the story that Albert Ostman told about being kidnapped by a Bigfoot family is related. According to the Wilsons, Ostman “spent six days in their company until, choosing his moment, he fired off his rifle. While his captors dived for cover, Ostman escaped.” Yet a quick check of Ostman’s original account gives a somewhat different version. In it, Ostman tricks his Bigfoot captor into eating a box full of snuff tobacco, which makes the creature very sick: “[The Bigfoot’s eyes began to roll over in his head, he was looking straight up…. He stuck his head between his legs and rolled forwards a few times away from me. Then he began to squeal like a stuck pig” (On the Track of Sasquatch, 1968, p.20). It was only then that Ostman grabbed his rifle, and he makes no mention of his captors “diving for cover.”

* The errors continue on still the following page. Regarding the famous Patterson Bigfoot film and its subject, the authors write, “. . . zoologist Ivan Sanderson quotes three scientists, Dr. Osman Hill, Dr. John Napier and Dr. Joseph Raight, all of whom seem to agree that there is nothing in the film that leads them . . . to suspect a hoax.” This is curious considering that Napier came to exactly the opposite conclusion in his book Bigfoot (1973): “[T]here is little doubt that the scientific evidence taken collectively points to a hoax of some kind.”

In other cases the authors seem blissfully unaware that their “unsolved” mysteries have in fact been solved. Take chapter 14, “The Dogon and the Ancient Astronauts,” for example. This “Sirius mystery” has been explained and debunked not only in several Skeptical Inquirer articles (see, for example, “Dogon and the Dog Star” 4[2]112; “The Dogon People Revisited” 20 [6]39-42} but even in the somewhat less skeptical Fortean Times (140, 30-31).”

Whether or not the Wilsons accept the skeptical explanations, they have an obligation to their readers, if not to the truth, to acknowledge them. Sadly, the low level of scholarship that plagues the Wilsons’ book is fairly typical of books on the unexplained and paranormal.

What explains these omissions? Why are these authors only telling you one side of the story. There may be several reasons. Some writers may not have done their research, and are simply unaware of the scientific and skeptical evidence and arguments. Others are aware that the validity and credibility of what they write has been challenged, but they don’t care; they want to tell their side, not both sides. They are like defense lawyers who only present the evidence that supports their case, and conveniently forget to tell the jury about the evidence that incriminates the defendant. Other writers may just be out to make a buck; their purpose is not to actually inform or educate their readers, but to simply tell stories.

The bias toward mystery-mongering is easy to see; simply pick up any popular book on Bigfoot or lake monsters, and in the index, look for the names of noted cryptozoology skeptics (such as David Daegling, Michael Dennett, Matt Crowley, or myself). A few will have them, but most won’t. Then do the same for skeptical books, and you’ll see that while the skeptics carefully read, analyze, and respond to the proponents (“Bigfoot believers”), the proponents often ignore the skeptical arguments and evidence. This undermines the writer’s credibility, as they are not being honest with their readers. Furthermore, it is a clear sign of faulty scholarship, as it shows that the writer is being selective about scholarship and only using sources that support their theories.

Good science is not about advocacy; while all scientists have their biases and pet theories, their ultimate loyalty should be to the truth. Good scientists acknowledge the limits in their research and conclusions. Skeptical analyses and criticisms presented here and elsewhere are intended to help the search for these creatures. That’s what good science does: it helps separate fact from fiction, truth from error, real evidence from hoaxes. If we can prove that this particular Bigfoot track was a hoax, or that “ghost” sighting was not a ghost, or this argument is faulty, the entire field benefits.
Everyone wins, because we know what evidence and arguments are valid and which aren’t.