Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic

By Grossman, Wendy M and French, Christopher C (eds.)

From the publisher’s website: For the first time, the best articles from "The Skeptic" in one volume. The collected writings from over 20 years of the publication, with articles by eminent academic researchers, and contributions from sceptics including Stephen Fry and Paul Daniels, and a foreword by Guardian political writer, Simon Hoggart. Why do statues weep? Did Nostradamus really predict 9/11? Is it true that we only use 10% of our brain power? Does quantum theory explain the mystery of consciousness? For 21 years, questions like these have been posed, and answered, in the pages of The Skeptic magazine, Britain’s foremost and longest-running skeptical magazine, dedicated to the pursuit of truth through reason and evidence. This collection brings together the best articles from the magazine’s archive in one myth-busting volume. It covers a wide range of topics, including psychic fraudsters and claims of psychic healing and alien abduction; near-death experiences, false memories, and much more.


Why Statues Weep, The Philosophy Press, April 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0953761128

Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles


Why Statues Weep: The best of The Skeptic, ed Wendy M Grossman and Christopher C French, The Philosophy Press, 2010.
 
The Philosophy Press has brought out this anthology, compiled by its founding and current editors, to celebrate twenty-one years of The Skeptic. Or that is what the introduction and back cover imply. As the magazine was first published in 1987, Why Statues Weep has clearly been a while in the making. Leaving aside the reason for bringing us this collection now, if any were needed, it is an entertaining read that showcases a selection of articles typical of the magazine in that they vary in quality but rarely outstay their welcome.
 
After a tub-thumping foreword by Simon Hoggart, in which he employs the tactic of stirring in a load of phenomena, from spoon bending, the Loch Ness Monster, fake mediums, UFOs, crop circles, telepathy, astrology.... and damning everything that might be anomalous by association, there is a gentler introduction by the magazine’s founder Wendy Grossman. One curious omission is that she gives the impression that the magazine was always called The Skeptic, whereas it was The British and Irish Skeptic until issue IV.2 (March/April 1990), to use the magazine’s own rather eccentric early numbering style which is employed throughout the book even though the magazine had dropped the Roman numerals by the end of Volume 4.
 
Articles are divided into nine sections, each with a short introduction by Grossman (Chris French’s duties seem to have been somewhat lighter than his fellow editor’s). As the sub-titles suggest – ‘There must be something in it’, ‘Favourite popular myths’, ‘What ever happened to...?’, ‘Beyond a joke’, ‘Faking it’, ‘Science and antiscience’, ‘Skeptics speak’, ‘State of the art’ and ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ – these are pretty much interchangeable, and more specific headings might have been a better method of guiding the reader. The articles, almost forty in number, range widely as might be expected.   Weeping statues only turn up in the introduction oddly, are mentioned briefly, and it’s more a case of ‘How Statues Weep’.
 
The contributors range from the obscure to the ubiquitous, including (without saying where they fall on that continuum) Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman, Chris French, Kevin McClure, Ray Hyman, Tony Youens, Martin S Kottmeyer, David Langford, David Hambling, Paul Chambers and David Clarke. Some authors seem to have made the single contribution to scepticism before moving on to other things. The topics covered are what might be expected: using phoney psychic abilities to con the gullible and desperate; Nostradamus; Carlos Castaneda; pop science stupidities (such as the “we only use 10% of our brain capacity” myth); UFOs; the idea of secret powers in martial arts, and so on. Underpinning these specific subjects are various discussions of the tools of critical thinking. There are celebrity appearances by Stephen Fry, Paul Daniels (in interviews) and John Diamond.
 
A few particularly interesting articles are worth picking out.  David Berman’s analysis of the 1879 visions at Knock draws on original documents to outline the anti-Protestant context of the events. Lewis Jones profiles that “Scourge of the Godmen” Basava Premanand, interviewing the famed guru buster when he visited London in 1992.   I was amused to see Jones describe him as “a man of modest means” and a couple of lines later say that he had to give away 90 acres of land to raise 2 million rupees in order to get close to Sathya Sai Baba. (After Premanand’s death in 2009 Sai Baba suggested that Premanand’s stance against psychic abilities might not have been quite as firm as he had made out, a sadly common fate for deceased sceptics.) Past Skeptic editor Steve Donnelly interviews the always interesting Joe Nickell on the Shroud of Turin.
 
Turning to medical matters, Peter May scrutinises an alleged miracle cure to show that far more was going on than appeared to be the case judged only on the basis of the pro-healing video that resulted. Richard Wiseman accompanies Psychic News editor Tim Haigh (one of the best that now-defunct newspaper ever had) to see a demonstration of psychic surgery and gives a gruesome account of what he saw, which seemed to involve real incisions. The one amusing thing in the episode was Wiseman pretending to be a Psychic News journalist to get to see the action. I wonder what the response would have been if he had told them he was representing The Skeptic
 
Gerald Woerlee’s examination of the Pam Reynolds case is valuable, though perhaps more for his description of the procedures than the explanation he gives for this much-discussed NDE episode. Also on NDEs, Sue Blackmore, who has three articles in the anthology, recounts her unhappiness with the documentary The Day I died, a programme which has achieved minor cult status despite her profound dislike of it. Seeing her rip into quantum coherence in the microtubules is a joy. Many of the articles in Why Statues Weep would not seem out of place in Fortean Times, and there is a degree of overlap in tone as well as content which suggests that many sceptics and those they see as the opposition are not quite as polarised as some of the more strident on either side would like to think.
 
Criticisms are few. Each article has a brief introduction by Grossman which gives the volume and issue number but not date of publication. It would have been useful to have that information, and easy to provide. A number of the articles had appeared elsewhere before their inclusion in the magazine, and relying on material now published for the third time implies that the choice of decent original work was restricted, which I am sure was not the case. One particularly irritating moment was when Nick Rose discussed research he and Sue Blackmore had done on sleep paralysis funded by the “Perrot-Warwick fellowship”. If you are going to take money left by Frank Perrott and Frederick Warrick the least you can do is spell their names correctly.
 
Something I missed was examples of the annotated period illustrations provided by Hilary Evans for the magazine’s inside cover. Instead we get just a few cartoons, those of Donald Rooum’s entertaining (and I always think very poignant) ‘Sprite’ blurrily reproduced. Additional artwork would have broken up the text and made the book more visually attractive. The magazine’s current incarnation is glossier than it used to be, perhaps not unrelated to the fact that it is published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. But this anthology provides a whiff of nostalgia for the functional ambience of the early issues. Perhaps at some point these could be supplied in full either online or perhaps as a CD, so that newcomers can appreciate the range of material in the back catalogue in broader terms than Why Statues Weep allows. Either way, happy 21st (or 23rd by now), and here’s to the magazine’s silver anniversary – an opportunity for another collection? – and beyond.