Don't Believe All You Hear

by BERGEN EVANS

1

THE little fishes that come down in heavy storms are one of the most delightful and persistent of meteorological myths. Generous narrators sometimes throw in a few frogs for good measure, and enthusiasts have added worms, snails, mussels, snakes, turtles, and even “a whole calf.” One at least has claimed that it has rained milk which “the vehement heat of the sun” draws up from the udders of the cattle. Possibly to feed the calf.

Mr. Charles Fort, who collected “authentic” instances of bizarre downpours, was of the opinion that far stranger things than calves and milk have rained down. In addition to a dozen species of fish and reptiles, his records include fungi, stones (with and without inscriptions), formless masses of protoplasm, hatchets, masks, and “the ceremonial regalia” of savages.

But the orthodox confine themselves to fish. The animated shower is usually brief, though there is a claim that “in the Chersonesus it once rained fishes uninterruptedly for three days.” Usually the fish are deposited within a small area — a few square yards, a ditch, or even in a rain barrel. In some narratives, though, they cover acres, thirty-two square miles being the record. Most of them are small, from one to three inches on the average, though a woodcut published in Basle in 1557 shows fish “of quite marketable size” coming down upon the delighted townsfolk. Perch, stickleback, trout, herring, and eels have been identified. Some accounts have the fish dead; others have them leaping merrily in the meadows. In 1931 the New York Times described a rain of perch at Bordeaux so heavy that “motor cars were compelled to halt.” Some witnesses have regarded them as evil portents and refused to touch them; others, more skeptical—or more hungry — have popped them into skillets.

Worthy of special mention are the two living frogs found, on June 16, 1882, inside a hailstone by “the foreman of the Novelty Iron Works,” at Dubuque, and the remarkable eruption — described by Baron von Humboldt — of the volcano Carahuairazo, which in 1698 sprayed boiled catfish over Ecuador.

Several explanations of these rains have been offered. Mr. Fort, whose theories are hardly less amazing than his facts, was of the opinion that there is a “Super-Sargasso Sea” hovering a few miles above the earth, “just beyond the reach of gravity,” in which is collected interstellar flotsam, fragments of which are dislodged, from time to time, by cosmic storms and sprinkled over our planet.

The majority of believers, however, stick to two less imaginative explanations. One is that heavy rains flood frogs out of their hiding places and revive estivating fish. The other is that waterspouts may sweep up shoals of small fish and drop them inland. But the first of these is no more than an embarrassed apology for mendacity, for no one doubts that frogs and even, under certain conditions, small fish have been seen on the ground after a cloudburst. The second is possible though not probable. It has the support of Dr. E. W. Gudger, of the American Museum of Natural History, who has examined the question with great care. But against him and those who share his credulity may be advanced the facts that many of the rains occur far inland, that many of the fish are fresh-water fish, and that the collapse of a waterspout on a luckless town would hardly be mistaken for rain.

Minor dalliers with false surmises have suggested that the fish may have been flying fish that had lost their bearings in a fog. But this hopeful contribution is founded on the assumption that flying fish fly, whereas they merely propel themselves from wave to wave in prolonged glides. And the most unfortunate flying fish could scarcely get himself fifty feet inland, and the most sanguine fabulist could hardly expect the most credulous listener to regard the discovery of a small dead fish on the beach as a supernatural event.

To the skeptic, stories of rains of fishes offer two lines of conjecture: Do they have any basis in fact, however slight, and what makes them flourish so?

As for the first, it would be dogmatic to deny the waterspout theory flatly, but no trained observer has ever been on hand when such an event happened. Some of Dr. Gudger’s more reliable witnesses make the interesting point that the fish which descended on them were headless, rotten, and partly eaten — suggesting birds to the incredulous, and God knows what to the credulous.

Von Humboldt’s story, preposterous as it sounds, has a faint claim to credence. Lakes do form in the craters of dormant volcanoes. Fish do live in such lakes. If the volcano suddenly became active, the lake might be transformed into a geyser and the fish, pressure-cooked, be shot abroad like buckshot. But since this particular free lunch was distributed long before von Humboldt was born, his evidence is only hearsay.

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To THE skeptic’s second question — what is the vital principle that keeps these weird stories alive? — two answers have been proposed. One is that they are a remnant of the old belief in spontaneous generation, and the other is that they are fossilized “evidence” for the waters which the Bible says are “above the firmament.”

Until less than a hundred years ago it was generally believed that certain forms of life were created by the action of sunlight on mud. “Your serpent of Egypt,” says Lepidus, in Antony and Cleopatra, “is bred now of your mud by the operation of your sun. So is your crocodile.” Even the doubting Sir Thomas Browne granted that the sun was “fruitful in the generation of Frogs, Toads and Serpents” and that grasshoppers “proceeded” from the frothy substance on the stalks of plants that boys call cuckoo spit.

It was not until fairly late in the nineteenth century that this belief was overthrown, and in the battle that then raged over paleontology these rains of fishes were put forward as a non-evolutionary explanation of the presence of marine fossils in mountainous districts. The defenders of special creation had to confess that the fossils did resemble existing marine forms; but that, they insisted, did not prove that the area must have been at one time under water. Rather, they said, “seeds” and small specimens had been carried inland by one of these fabulous showers, and there, out of their true element, they had developed “abortively.” This last was to account for the fact that while the fossils were similar to living species they were not identical with them. And it is interesting that of the forty-four “authentic” narratives that Dr. Gudger was able to find, forty were published during the period of this controversy.

Whether there are or are not waters above the firmament is a question that has long ceased to agitate anyone. But it was once a crucial issue upon which the veracity of Holy Writ was staked and which, therefore, had to be defended at any cost, and among the costs of theological disputes truth has never been spared. A few fish slipping through a celestial crack were as nothing compared to some of the “evidence” presented. Thus Gervase of Tilbury, a thirteenth-century chronicler, tells us of a citizen of Bristol who, “as he sailed on a far-off ocean,” accidentally lost his knife overboard, which very knife “at the same hour fell in through that same citizen’s roof-window, at Bristol, and stuck in the table that was set before his wife.”

Furthermore, coming out of Mass one misty, moisty morning, certain folk, Gervase says, saw an anchor let down from a cloud-ship and grappled to a tomb, and heard cries of mariners in the fog above them. While they gazed, a cloud-sailor came down the rope hand over hand to free it, but “he was caught by those who stood around and gave up the ghost, stifled by the breath of our gross air even as a shipwrecked mariner is stifled in the sea.” And after an hour or so, his fellows above, “judging him to be wrecked, cut the cable, left their anchor, and sailed away.”

Who can doubt, Gervase sternly asks, “after the publication of this testimony, that a sea lieth over this earth of ours?” Plainly there must have been waters above — though not very far above — the firmament to support these aerial voyagers. Unless, of course, one prefers to believe that the ship had been swept inland by a waterspout and was even at that moment precariously balanced on top of it.

Both of these theories will most likely seem as fantastic to the common reader as the yarns whose persistence they seek to explain. But he will hesitate to believe that his daily paper prints myths and that his radio echoes medieval controversies. Yet we are nearer the past than we know, and spooks and demons play leapfrog with dreams of plastics and television in our minds.

The American conviction that progress is to be measured by the increase of material conveniences and creature comforts is an idea that is very important in our national life. An insistent and expensive advertising campaign has connected it with the calendar; the average American is apparently convinced that all mechanical contrivances automatically improve every three hundred and sixtyfive days, and under the spell of this illusion he has bought millions of cars and radios and refrigerators which he did not need, to the profit of those who fostered the illusion.

The idea of progress is one of our great national investments. The amount of money spent in the schools, in the newspapers, and on the radio to protect it exceeds computation. It is part and parcel of “ boosting,” of that mass optimism which has made us, for good and evil, what we are today. Nothing is more treasonable to the basic American spirit than to doubt that we have improved and are improving — every day in every way.

And, for reasons which the social historian can perhaps explain, the bathtub has become an especial symbol not only of our material progress but of our spiritual progress as well. For we set great store by things of the spirit. Nothing is more warmly rejoiced in than our superiority to the grimy Europeans in the matter of bathtubs. Cleanliness is far ahead of godliness.

No argument against public housing has been used more consistently than the assertion that if you give bathtubs to the poor they will only dump coal in them. To point out that most housing projects are centrally heated and supplied with gas and electricity, so that their occupants have no need of coal, is to earn the reproach of being frivolous. It is absolutely “known” that all occupants of housing projects put coal in their bathtubs. And their so doing indicates such depravity that to build houses for them is practically contributing to moral delinquency. The poor have been weighed in the bathtub and found wanting.

Mere mistakes in point of fact do not in themselves make vulgar errors. They are often the starting point, but the fallacy is always the product of certain processes in popular thinking — of arguing from negatives and analogies, of making false generalizations, of worshiping coincidence, of taking rhetoric for fact, of never questioning or even perceiving the underlying conceptions that make for prejudice, and, above all, of a romantic delight in the wonderful for its own sake.

Popular logic is Erewhonian logic. Whereas the trained mind accords belief to plausible evidence only and grants a possibility solely on the basis of a sound inference from established facts, the untrained mind insists that a proposition must be true if it cannot be disproved. “You can’t prove it isn’t so!” is as good as Q.E.D. in folk logic — as though it were necessary to submit a piece of the moon to chemical analysis before you could be sure that it was not made of green cheese.

Analogical argument — the inferring of a further degree of resemblance from an observed degree — is one of the greatest pitfalls of popular thinking. In medicine it formerly led to what was known as the doctrine of signatures, by which walnuts were prescribed for brain troubles because walnut meats look something like miniature brains, foxes’ lungs were prescribed for asthma because foxes were thought to have unusual respiratory powers, and bear grease was rubbed on the head for baldness because bears have hairy coats. Hundreds of futile remedies were based on such false analogies and they have not all been cleared off druggists’ shelves yet, though the survivors are, no doubt, “scientifically” prepared and packaged.

Nor was this form of reasoning confined to medicine. It invaded every department of life. It led our grandfathers to wear red flannel underwear because heat is associated with the color of fire. It endowed various gems with properties suggested by the resemblances of their colors, and it has led modern telepathists to insist that the radio justifies their metaphysical assumptions.

Many popular fallacies are rooted in verbal confusions. Few people who dismiss unwelcome evidence by saying that “the exception proves the rule” have any idea of what the saying actually means. So enmeshed is error in words that a whole new science, semantics, has sprung up which offers, with little danger of being challenged, to produce the millennium as soon as people know for sure what they are talking about. But since much of the vagueness and confusion is in the words themselves, since all words are in a sense abstractions, the semanticists will probably not get anywhere until, as Swift suggested two hundred years ago, they abandon language altogether and carry about with them the objects to which they wish to allude. This solution of the problems of logic, however, raises even greater problems in logistics.

The common mind is intensely literal. The public loves rhetoric and is continually taking rhetoric for fact, often with far-reaching and unpleasant consequences. It would be impossible to estimate, for example, how’ many lives have been blighted and how much human misery has been augmented by the concept of “ blood ” as a transmitter of heredity. Yet the term is merely a trope. It has no reality whatever.

3

THE power of this tendency to create myths has recently been demonstrated in the famous assurance that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” As near as the origin of the formula can be traced, it was first uttered by Lieutenant Colonel Warren J. Clear in a story of Bataan’s final weeks, delivered during the “Army Hour” program over the NBC Red Network in 1942. Colonel Clear attributed the immortal observation to an unnamed sergeant who had shared a foxhole with him during a Japanese bombing raid. No pretense was made that there had been an official catechism of every man or that the sergeant was a trained theologian. It was simply meant to be an emphatic way of saying that all men in the moment of peril seek the support of religion.

Whether they do or do not is as much a question as whether it is creditable to religion to claim that they do, but neither question was widely agitated. For the populace the rhetorical flourish was a military fact, and for the papers it was news, however frequently repeated. At first it was only the foxholes of Bataan that were distinguished for their conversional powers, but as the war spread the mana was found in any sheltering declivity, and the trenches of Port Moresby and Guadalcanal delivered their quotas of converts.

There was no reason why divine favor should be confined to the infantry, and other branches of the services were soon touched with similar grace. By December, 1943, according to an article in the Reader’s Digest, atheists had been pretty well cleaned out of cockpits (where God, it will be remembered, had been retained in the inferior position of co-pilot); and Rickenbacker’s celestial sea gull drove them even from rubber rafts. A few skeptics may have gone on lurking in the glory holes of the merchant marine, but their enlightenment merely waited for the first torpedo.

There were, of course, dissenting voices. Poon Lim, a Chinese steward, who existed for one hundred and thirty-three days alone on a raft in the South Atlantic, stated, on being rescued, that nothing in the experience had led him to believe in a merciful Providence, even though he too had had a sea gull. But then he was a heathen to begin with.

The American Association for the Advancement of Atheism felt that the phrase was a reflection on the patriotism of their members and did their best to refute it. They managed to find at least one sturdy doubter in the Army who had had his dog tag stamped “Atheist,” but, unfortunately, though he had once been run over by a tank, he had never been in a foxhole, and hence could not technically qualify. A better candidate, whom the A.A.A.A. overlooked, was E. J. Kahn, Jr., who in one of his articles in the New Yorker confessed that he was not a religious man and in another that he had dived into a latrine trench when Jap planes were overhead. Of course, an unbeliever in a latrine is not exactly an atheist in a foxhole, but the faithful would probably have been willing to accept it as a reasonable facsimile.

Not that it would have done the Association any good to have found a whole regiment of atheists encamped in a thousand foxholes — as they probably could, had they gone to our Russian allies for assistance. The phrase was intended to confirm prejudice, not to describe combat conditions, and prejudice is not open to conviction.

On the other hand, fortunately, it is not very convincing either. Prejudices are never shaken by counter-prejudiges, because we never perceive our prejudices to be such. We take them for reasoned conclusions or revealed truths, and the most serious prejudices of all, those that affect our thinking most, are generally below the level of consciousness. We think within the framework of concepts of which we are often unaware. Our most earnest thoughts are sometimes shaped by our absurdest delusions. We see what we want to see and observation conforms to hypothesis.

The popular mind, irrational and prejudiced, makes some effort to examine evidence, but it has very little knowledge of the true nature of what it is looking for or of the forces at work to frustrate and confuse it in its search. It generalizes from exceptions, and from a mass of experience selects only those elements that confirm its preconceptions — without the faintest awareness of what it is doing. Most of what is called thinking — even up to and including much of what goes on in the brains of college faculties — is actually a seeking for confirmation of previous convictions. The true scientific spirit that leads men to be particularly suspicious of all beliefs they hold dear is utterly incomprehensible to most people. Skepticism to the naïve often seems malicious perversity: only “some secret enemy in the inward degenerate nature of man,” said Topsell, could lead anyone to doubt the existence of the unicorn.

4

IN THE eternal search for verification of the supernaturalism which engrosses so much of popular “philosophy,” nothing passes for more cogent evidence than coincidence. The marveling over unexpected juxtapositions is at once the mark and diversion of banal minds, and most of them do not require very remarkable happenings to constitute a coincidence. Those who for lack of knowledge or imagination expect nothing out of the ordinary are always encountering the unexpected.

One of the commonest of “coincidences,” as Professor Jastrow has pointed out, is the crossing of letters in the mail. It happens a thousand times a day, yet thousands of men and women whip themselves into amazement every time it happens. As far as they are concerned, it is complete and final proof of the supernatural, whether it be telepathy or Divine guidance or merely soul calling to soul. There it is, sealed, stamped, and delivered. Yet of all human happenings, what is more likely than that lovers or relatives should simultaneously decide to write to each other?

The wonder of most coincidence is subjective. As far as sheer unlikelihood goes, an unsolicited advertisement in the mail is a greater marvel than a letter from someone to whom we have just written. But since we have no emotional interest in the advertisement we rarely meditate upon the “miracle” of its arrival; and even where some occurrence is unusual enough to justify comment, a desire to exalt ourselves or a complete preoccupation with our own affairs usually prevents us from evaluating its true nature. That the working of the law of averages has no effect whatever on individual instances is a fact that even trained observers sometimes seem reluctant to face.

It is very easy to see marvels if you are looking for them. It has been estimated, for example, that a bridge hand consisting of all the spades in the pack can be expected, according to the law of averages, only once in approximately eight hundred billion deals. Apprised of this, any man dealt such a hand could easily permit himself to be awe-struck, and it would be impossible to convince him that there was nothing remarkable about the hand except that it happened to be a desirable one. For exactly the same odds prevail for any hand whatever.

Attempts to point this out, however, would probably be met with resentment, since they would detract from the importance of the individual concerned. He would prefer, most likely, to go on believing that the normal order of things had been suspended for his advantage. For the popular love of the marvelous is, at bottom, egotism. That is why it is so easy to encourage it, as the popular press does, inflating every commonplace into a wonder or manufacturing marvels outright.

Half the “wonders” of modern times are pure journalistic fabrications. The success which they can achieve was shown in November, 1929, when the Boston Globe sent a million and a quarter people stampeding into the cemetery at Alai den, Massachusetts, by playing up sensational “cures” which were said to have taken place there. A hysterical woman who had been unable to walk for a year, although her hospital record showed no organic trouble, leaped with joy under the healing influence of the flash bulbs. A blind boy was said to have regained his sight. His own pathetic insistence that he was no better was suppressed, despite his father’s indignant efforts to get the papers to retract the story of his “cure.” Crippled children were stripped of their braces and photographed quickly before they sprawled, crying, in the mud. Meanwhile extras sold like hot cakes and the mayor knelt in reverence for the rotogravure.

Deliberate misrepresentations and creations of the incidents they “report” are a staple activity of all but half a dozen papers and news magazines in the country. Consider the unwearied zeal with which they have labored to sustain “the curse of Tutankhamen.” No one in any remote way connected with the discovery or opening of the tomb can die, at any age whatever, but his death is seen as the working of the “curse.” Edgar Wallace, writing in McCall’s Magazine, said that the very day the tomb was opened a cobra ate the chief explorer’s canary, and from that day to this, Egyptian vengeance has stalked the entire party. In the papers, that is. As a matter of prosaic record, the members of the expedition seem to have enjoyed remarkable health and have been blessed with longevity far beyond actuarial expectancy.

The retelling of the myth, of course, has earned many a penny and added to the success of many a raconteur. People dearly love the old lies, while truth, as Milton said, “never comes into the world but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him that brought her birth.”

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IRRATIONALITY must come close to being the largest single vested interest in the world. It has a dozen service stations in every town. There are twentyfive thousand practicing astrologers in America who disseminate their lore through a hundred daily columns, fifteen monthly and two annual publications. (This does not include the half-dozen “confidential” news letters that keep business executives consistently misinformed about the future.) It is even said that there is a movement on foot to have a Federal astrologer appointed as an officer of the government, and considering the official recognition given to other forms of clairvoyance, the movement may succeed.

A great deal of this exploitation is open and shameless. The supply house, for example, that sold nearly half a million steel-jacketed Testaments and Prayer Books, at exorbitant prices, to the pathetic and gullible relatives of servicemen, under the vague assurance that they were “capable of deflecting bullets,” was, as the Federal Trade Commission implied, obtaining money under false pretenses. The metal shields, for all the “God Bless You” stamped on them and the sacred literature under them, might, if struck by a bullet, turn into shrapnel and produce fatal wounds.

There is a lot of this sort of thing going on, and those who practice it in a small way frequently end up in jail. But those who practice it in a big way frequently end up in Who’s Who and The Social Register. They are our prophets and publicists. They do not actually do the stealing; they supply the sanctions for those who do, and they function chiefly by sonorously repeating clichés. They do not have to prove that the proposed reform is wrong. All they have to do is to say that “soft living weakens a nation.” They do not labor to defend racial discrimination; they support “innate differences.”

One of their most effective catchwords of late has been “science.” “Scientists say,” or “Scientists agree,” or “Science has proved” is a formula of incantation which is thought to place any statement that follows it above critical examination. They love to recall the doubt and scorn that were heaped on scientists in an earlier day, not as a rebuke to those particular doubters, — they are still doing a brisk business at the old stands, — but as a rebuke to doubt itself. For the thing they must defend is not this or that belief, but the spirit of credulity.

No error is harmless. “Men rest not in false apprehensions without absurd and inconsequent deductions.” Some of the deductions seem inconsequential as well, but in their larger aspects they are not. It cannot do much harm to believe that hair turns white overnight, or that birds live a happy family life, or that Orientals have slanting eyes; but it can do a great deal of harm to be ignorant of physiology or zoology or anthropology, and the harm that may result from forming an opinion without evidence, or from distorting evidence to support an opinion, is incalculable.

Obscurantism and tyranny go together as naturally as skepticism and democracy. It is very convenient for those who profit by the docility of the masses to have the masses believe that they are not the masters of their fate and that the evils they must endure are beyond human control. It was not surprising to find the author of Man the Unknown collaborating with the Nazis. The mist of mysticism has always provided good cover for those who do not want their actions too closely looked into.