Charles Berlitz, who just died, was known as one of the world's top linguists and grandson of the founder of the Berlitz language schools. Yet his true claim to fame was as author of "truth is stranger than fiction" books that were actually just plain fiction.
A Time magazine reviewer summarized all of Berlitz's paranormal works in describing one as taking "off from established facts, then proceed[ing] to lace its theses with a hodgepodge of half-truths, unsubstantiated reports and unsubstantial science."
Among his vast repertoire: "The Mystery of Atlantis" (1969), "Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds" (1972), "The Bermuda Triangle (1974), "The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility" (co-authored in1979) which was later made into a feature film, and "The Roswell Incident" (1990).
He also wrote a 1982 book prophesizing the end of the world called "Doomsday 1999." Oops.
Berlitz didn't invent any of these legends he wrote of, he simply embellished and popularized them. Consider two: The Bermuda Triangle and the Philadelphia Experiment.
Berlitz sold over 14 million copies of "The Bermuda Triangle," making it the worldwide best-selling "non-fiction" book at the time. It described seemingly inexplicable disappearances of planes and ships in a part of the Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and the southern tip of Florida and brought into play "time warps," "other worlds," and "the watchers." The book's success led to a 1977 sequel, "Without a Trace," comprising anecdotes of persons supposedly affected by the Triangle and claiming the existence of a giant pyramid on the bottom of the ocean.
Berlitz claimed the pyramid reached 470 feet above the ocean floor. This would make it taller than any in Egypt. He based this on a sonar chart which does show a pyramid shape -- but one only a few feet tall. This may be the closest you'll ever get to a literal representation of "making a mountain out of a mole hill."
As to the Triangle, as a couple of books and a vast numbers of articles have shown, it's far less mysterious than how Anna Nicole Smith got her own TV show. It's a heavily-trafficked area, prone to bad weather (hurricane alley, no less) and like only a few other spots in the world has a tendency to throw off magnetic compasses that until GPS systems were critical to navigation.
Individual incidents also fall apart upon inspection.
Consider the origin of the Bermuda Triangle legend, the mysterious disappearance of five TBM two-man Navy Avenger torpedo bombers and a rescue plane sent after them. Twenty-seven men vanished without a trace for no apparent reason.
All of the Avenger crewmen were inexperienced trainees except for flight leader Lt. Charles Taylor. He was flying by sight (or "dead reckoning) as was JFK Jr. when he dived straight into the ocean while thinking he was flying on a parallel course. Taylor used the Florida Keys as his focal point, which worked until a storm appeared and visibility fell so that Taylor became completely disoriented. The flight leader thought he was sending his planes towards land but instead was tracked sending them further out to sea.
Had the so-called "Lost Patrol" (which actually wasn't even a patrol) crashed near its last-known position, the ocean depth would make finding it almost impossible. Indeed, the deepest part of the Atlantic lies within the Bermuda triangle.
A Martin Mariner rescue seaplane was then dispatched as part of a search party. It also disappeared, in a manner of speaking. Shortly after takeoff it blew up, which sadly was an all-too-common event with this aircraft which had been dubbed "a flying fuel tank." The only mystery is why the Navy kept flying the damned things.
And the Philadelphia Experiment?
It was October 28, 1943. The United States Navy was fighting a desperate two-front war against German U-Boats in the North Atlantic and Japanese ships in the Pacific. It prompted the most daring secret experiment in naval history -- an attempt to cover a warship with a "cloaking device," rendering it invisible to both radar and sonar. The chosen vessel, the U.S.S. Eldridge, was a destroyer escort docked in Philadelphia Harbor, Pennsylvania.
But, as Berlitz and others later wrote, something went wrong with the experiment. Horribly wrong. The ship disappeared entirely, only to re-materialize a day later in Norfolk, Virginia. The sudden appearance was witnessed by crew members of the civilian merchant ship S.S. Andrew Furuseth. The Eldridge then disappeared from Norfolk just as mysteriously as it had arrived, and reappeared back in Philadelphia Harbor. Many of the sailors were violently ill, and about half had vanished forever. Most horrifyingly, five men were fused to the ship itself.
Or so goes the tale. Actually the closest the ship got to Philadelphia in 1943 was when a sailor spread cream cheese on a bagel. Information in the U.S. Navy Archives, which include the Eldridge's deck log and war diary, show that in mid-October it left the Bermuda area for a convoy off New York which it joined on the 18th. It remained in New York harbor until November when it sailed with a convoy for Casablanca, whence it returned to New York in December and only then went on to Norfolk.
As for the Furuseth, one man who claimed (without evidence) to have been on the ship at the time did send a UFO book author a series of letters in which he insisted he saw the Eldridge magically appear. But the Furuseth's movement report cards show it left Norfolk with a convoy three days before the alleged incident.
Naval archives contain a letter from the master of the ship categorically denying that he or his crew observed any unusual event while in Norfolk. The letter-writer turns out to have been a disturbed individual, known for pulling hoaxes.
Just as most myths have a kernel of truth, the kernel here may be that the Navy was experimenting with making its ships less attractive or ideally even invisible to magnetic torpedoes or mines by sending electric waves through the hulls to throw the weapons off. The process is known as degaussing and is now routine.
But what's so bad about all this Berlitz baloney? Isn't it just harmless fun?
Our culture has become far too cavalier about something called "truth." Too many of us embrace any fantastic story that brings excitement into otherwise humdrum lives, be it UFO abductions and impregnations or Gulf War Syndrome with soldiers ejaculating burning semen and vomiting substances that glow in the dark. When authorities dismiss the stories as the nonsense they obviously are, they become all the more exciting because now they're CONSPIRACIES and COVERUPS.
We must draw bright lines between science fiction and science fact, between that which may yet prove to be true and that already proved false. Bad science drives out good. It causes unnecessary deaths from disease, lawsuits that destroy businesses and cost consumers, and needless fear and angst for parents and others.
Whether it's a Brockovich or a Berlitz, we all suffer when a flim-flam artist sells faulty scientific goods.
Michael Fumento is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute (Fumento[at]pobox.com) and author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World.