Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Science, the Desire to Debunk, and the Credulous Style

R. Lee recently wrote about "The Desire to Debunk" where she criticizes what she sees as a compulsive need by some to debunk/skeptically inquire (!) accounts of the paranormal, strange animals, etc. She asks why people are compelled to debunk/attack the accounts of others.

I can't entirely agree with that point of view. If you do think that scientific inquiry is an important or the most important way of understanding reality, then these anomalies should be quite interesting. They should be examined, and if necessary, explained in ways different from the explanations offered by those that report the anomalies in the first place.

But where I agree with her is that too often, that isn't what debunkers/skeptics do. In many cases, a minimal amount of time is spent by the would-be debunker to basically say "Well, that's just obviously garbage and nonsense." Or to come up with a daft explanation that is as scientifically supportable as the original paranormal explanation (the Michigan swamp gas UFO explanation by Hynek comes to mind). Typically, such treatments are filled with scorn and hyperbolic "I wish I ran Something Awful" style humor (example: the Iron Skeptic, who is better known for his condescending and juvenile style than his increasingly thorough, though still at times lacking, research).

At that point, which is a common occurrence, I agree with R. Lee that such behavior borders on the pathological. Not all debunking falls into this category. Some is well thought out and takes on tough questions. A skeptical analysis can convincingly get to the core of a particular problem with precision and elegance. But where does the more scornful and less thoughtful approach come from, and why is it quite common?

It's an exercise in making the debunker feel better about themselves, in my humble opinion.

I would link it to what Christopher Hayes calls "The Credulous Style. In his essay "9/11: The Roots of Paranoia," he takes much of the 9/11Truth community to task for a failure found in other parts of the Spooky Paradigm: unfalsifiability. That some claims (in particular some of the engineering claims) about the destruction of the WTC do not hold up to testing, and yet they continue to exist and thrive. He concludes that the claims of that movement, or at least the more visible MIHOP claims, are without merit and wrongheaded.

But Hayes goes on to point out that a substantial amount of the reason for the existence of this movement falls on the authority-friendly attitude towards inquiry. Playing off of Hofstadter's famous "Paranoid Style," Hayes argues that the complete failure of the media and other institutions to question narratives from the government and other authorities has made the paranoid style a rational choice. As he puts it

So it's hard to blame people for thinking we're not getting the whole story. For six years, the government has prevaricated and the press has largely failed to point out this simple truth. Critics like The New Yorker's Nicholas Lemann might lament the resurgence of the "paranoid style," but the seeds of paranoia have taken root partly because of the complete lack of appropriate skepticism by the establishment press, a complementary impulse to the paranoid style that might be called the credulous style. In the credulous style all political actors are acting with good intentions and in good faith. Mistakes are made, but never because of ulterior motives or undue influence from the various locii of corporate power. When people in power advocate strenuously for a position it is because they believe in it. When their advocacy leads to policies that create misery, it is due not to any evil intentions or greed or corruption, but rather simple human error.

Simply put, the mainstream press has acted as the stenographer of the US government, and more specifically of the Cheney clique and their followers, not questioning some of the most ridiculous or sham announcements about "dangerous" enemies. In turn, authorities regularly throw around denigrating or sarcastic use of "conspiracy theorist" to smear anyone who questions even basic aspects of power relations and government actions.

At first glance, one sees the word "credulous" in "Credulous Style" and makes the connection to those who report or study/collect anomalies with a paranomal explanation. But I think the real connection here is between the credulous style and the most vehement and poorly researched debunkings. Just as a total lack of accountability in checking on government pronouncements by the media has made paranoia a rational choice, rank dismissive skepticism defeats itself in the long run. It makes science look less like a reasoned examination of the facts and application of hypothesis and theory, and more like a pissing contest where one's venomous tone is of more value than one's analysis.

So why the self-defeating approach? In some cases, I think there may simply be substantial anger and frustration with what skeptics fear is a grave threat to scientific inquiry. Sagan's Demon-Haunted World. But I think in many cases, what is more important is putting the skeptic's opponent in place, and by a psychosocial Newton's second law, elevating the sarcastic debunker away from Crazy towards being Respectable.

Or as one of the comments for the Iron Skeptic says

"Sometimes we just have to do things because it makes others unhappy"

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

NASA to Investigate Kecksburg Crashed UFO Case

After a District of Columbia judge ordered NASA to produce documents on the 1965 Kecksburg UFO crash investigation, NASA had agreed to comply. While in the Roswell case, the official explanations were generally the same, if more detailed (weather balloon to Mogul spy balloon), the official explanations for Kecksburg are contradictory. The Air Force declared the case a meteor in 1965. NASA said in 2003 it could not have been a Soviet satellite, and then reversed itself in 2005 to declare the object a Soviet satellite, but the paperwork on the case had gone missing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Conference on the Semiotics of Cryptids and the Flatwoods Monster

Loren Coleman recently attended a conference on text, code, cryptids, and the Flatwoods Monster case in ufology.

The cryptozoology papers sound interesting, though primarily of a sort that I'm not a fan of, trend-dipping. In such cases, as academics were doing a bit of in the late 1990s and early 200s, a topic is noticed to be of increasing interest in the pop culture. Semioticians, deconstructionists, and other folks interested in symbolism and meaning, then take the basic face-values of these terms, maybe do a small to moderate amount of research in the general topic, and then use the term to examine some larger societal trends of interest to to the author. This usually results in fair to good scholarship, but misleading as to the topic. For example, Jodi Dean's Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, made several interesting and useful points about the American culture of space and the astronaut and arguing that conspiracism is a rational stance in the face of decentralization and proliferation of information production post-internet. But the author sheds little light on UFO culture, other than abduction to some degree (academics love abduction just as they love contactees). The papers in the SLSA conference sound interesting, so I don't want to judge them simply from Coleman's description.

The Flatwoods papers are primarily about Gray Barker, mythmaker. The paper outlined sounds interesting, though as Coleman points out, there is some sloppy scholarship involved. But while Coleman (and especially his readers, see comments) want to downplay the PoMo nature of the analysis, Gray Barker is an important figure in understanding the history of ufology. He is in many ways highly responsible for the intertangling, particularly through the proxy of John Keel, of high strangeness with what Keyhoe and others had fashioned as a nuts and bolts problem of aliens in metal spaceships. The Mothman would not be the figure it is today without Barker, nor would MiBs.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

World Magnetic Anomaly Map

The first global map of the world's magnetic anomalies has been produced (BBC story, project website). The notion that magnetic energy and anomalies could be responsible for paranormal events and sightings has existed for decades. A major strand of of parapsychology believes that ghostly activity has an electromagnetic component, or is even a "playback" of electromagnetically "recorded" past events stored in stones or bricks. Paul Deveraux and his Dragon Project argue that ancient European megalithics were built to interact with electromagnetic energy or ley lines. One aspect of this includes earthlights, which is similar to Michael Persinger's research into EM stimulation of the brain. Persinger has gotten more attention for his attempts to recreate alien abductions in the laboratory. But his initial work was on electromagnetic anomalies, earthquakes, earth lights, and UFOs.

So I suspect someone down the line in spooky studies will do something with this EM geography research.