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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jun > Jun 28

Re: 'She Blinded Me with Science'

From: Jerome Clark <jkclark@frontiernet.net>
Date: Sun, 28 Jun 98 13:36:18 PDT
Fwd Date: Sun, 28 Jun 1998 21:03:49 -0400
Subject: Re: 'She Blinded Me with Science'

> From: RobIrving@aol.com
> Date: Sun, 28 Jun 1998 00:34:47 EDT
> To: updates@globalserve.net
> Subject: Re: UFO UpDate: Re: 'She Blinded Me with Science'

> > Date: Thu, 25 Jun 1998 20:05:39 +0100
> > To: UFO UpDates - Toronto <updates@globalserve.net>
> > From: Sean Jones <Tedric@tedric.demon.co.uk>
> > Subject: Re: 'She Blinded Me with Science'

> Sean,

> A few comments on your list of 'scientific blunders'...

> As I understood your original request, it was for examples
> whereby conventional science has rejected or ignored novel ideas
> (which were later accepted) because consensus within its 'ranks'
> assumed it knew better at the time.

> >4) Astronomer Percival Lovell draws maps of the canals on Mars.
> >Better resolution of Martian surface reveals that his
> >imagination had "connected the dots" of random Martian features
> >into an elaborate pattern of non-existent canals.

> This could also be seen as a case of science correcting itself
> as more information emerged, leading to better understanding -
> the progression of knowledge. To portray this as a trail of
> ignorance renders the point you wish to make to your scientist
> friend meaningless. You may as well castigate Ptolemy for his
> map, or describe Columbus's mistaken notion that he was sailing
> west to India as a 'blunder', rather than the process of
> discovery.

This is a remarkably charitable reading of the Mars canal
controversy, about which historian of science Michael T.
Crowe had this to say, at the conclusion of one of the most
comprehensive reviews in the current literature: "the price
paid by the astronomical community in loss of credibility,
internal discord, methodological misconceptions, and
substantive errors, as well as the efforts wasted on the
observation of ambiguous detail, was far too high" (The
Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900, Cambridge
University Press, 1986).

> As usual, belief is the problem. It is a major problem as far as
> the ETH is concerned, although perhaps not in the way your are
> thinking.

"Belief" is not the problem with the ETH's more rational
proponents, of course. List readers may be interested to know
how often the epithet "true believer" has been leveled even at
astronomers who have taken seriously the idea of intelligent
life on other worlds. The abuse hurled at SETI advocates, for
example, parallels that at ETH advocates. Sometimes the
parallels are indeed unexpected and peculiar. Carl Sagan,
for example, used to sound like a contactee fellow traveler when
he'd moon about how signals from benign ET civilizations could
save us from blowing ourselves up and bring on a golden New

It's also worth noting that SETI-bashers have on occasion
compared their colleagues unfavorably to ufologists, since unlike
SETI people ufologists at least have something they can point to
as an arguable body of evidence bearing on the question. SETI
astronomers have only inference and faith (and a handful of
highly ambiguous signals which till fairly recently they were too
embarrassed to parade as possible justification for their
activities), and not a few astronomer critics have accused their
ET-believing colleagues of being engaged in a quest that is
fundamentally religious.

> The Lowell story is essentially similar to the recent
> disconfirmation of the Mars Face at Cydonia. Rather than
> avoiding the notion of intelligent goings -on much closer to
> Earth than conventional wisdom tells us, scientists, in the form
> of NASA, met it head on. They were probably quite confident of
> the outcome because as scientists they understand how adept we
> are at imposing speculative order on what we see, as Lowell did.

> The crucial difference being that Lowell accepted the new data,
> unlike those still pushing the 'face' theory, who provide yet
> more weight to Leon Festingers observation that if we are
> committed enough to a particular belief, disconfirmation can
> make it even stronger. Festinger liked nothing better than to
> use 'flying saucer' enthusiasts as an example of this.

Wrong on all counts. Lowell did not accept the new data but went
to his grave in 1916 convinced of the reality of the canals. In
fact, neo-Lowellist views continued in astronomy for several
decades afterwards, and one sees their shadows even in the daffy
ET speculations in which Donald Menzel indulged in his first
UFO-bashing book in 1953. An excellent paper on the curious
ideas of astronomers concerning ET life earlier in this century
can be found in Michael D. Swords' splendid "Astronomers, the
Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, and the United States Air Force at
the Beginning of the Modern UFO Phenomenon" (JUFOS 4 [n.s.,

Festinger's ideas about cognitive dissonance have been
pretty well challenged in the sociology of religion literature.
When Prophecy Fails (1956), which he cowrote, is an interesting
(I reread it only recently) book full, alas, of flaws. unaddressed
ethical questions, and at least one historical error so whopping
as to take the breath away. Unfortunately, one of his principal
arguments hangs on this historical error -- which I'm willing to
wager Rob has missed.

Our friend here is also wrong when he asserts, oddly albeit
self-servingly, that "Festinger liked nothing better than to use
`flying saucer' [why the scare quotes, by the way?] enthusiasts
as an example." To the best of my knowledge, Festinger wrote
about only one flying-saucer group, though he and his associates
took care to note that saucers were only one of many notions
that Dorothy Martin ("Marian Keech") and her followers dropped
into their particular metaphysical stew.  Martin, who lived till 1992
(she died in Sedona, Arizona), was more akin to a spirit
medium/channeler than she was even to other contactees such
as Adamski, Fry, Angelucci, and contemporaries -- much less to
ufologists who rejected the very notion of communication with
benign carnates or discarnates from the cosmos.

> Ufology is littered with self-styled 'truthseekers' who avoid
> withdrawing their claims in the face of overwhelming contrary
> evidence. As I argued with Greg Sandow, it's little wonder why
> people, rightly or wrongly, are so dismissive of the subject as
> a science.

I would love to be around, 25, 50, or 100 years from now, to
witness the cottage industry in history, sociology, and philosophy
of science literature on the subject of how scientists of this
century managed to miss the most important phenomenon of

their time. Sadly for the debunkers, truth always outs. It may take
its time, but it gets there, and the best cases -- which earlier Rob
confessed to knowing nothing or little about -- still await
accounting and attention. At least, that is, if one holds that
scientific controversies are about evidence, not the sorts of ex
cathedra pronouncements Irving traffics in.

> Apart from this being built, layer upon layer, of non sequiters
> - Mark Cashman's comparitive categorizations of events/shapes,
> etc., for example - this 'rationale' relies heavily on the
> veracity of witnesses and the impartiality of investigators,
> something of an unfortunate track record in ufology. Worse, it
> appears that it is left up to the 'debunkers' to continually
> expose the myriad 'exaggerations' made in the name of the
> subject. Its proponents should be policing themselves if they
> want to be taken seriously in a scientific context.
> (Mythologically, it's fine.)

The debunkers sure have done a lousy job, from Grudge onwards,of
explaining the most puzzling cases. Complacently, Irving acts
as if the bashers have proved themselves over and over again,
only to be ignored, when in fact it is the debunkers who have
failed, over and over and over and over again, to present
plausible explanations for the best cases. Is it any wonder that
persons more open-minded about UFO cases and better read in UFO
history than Irving remain intrigued?

I cite numerous examples in my UFO Encyclopedia. There also
Brad Sparks looks in meticulous detail at the debunkers' failure
to come to grips with the RB-47 case. In the end it looks very
much (as Allen Hynek used to say) that the battle is between
pragmatists/realists/investigators and medievalists. Rob thinks
he talks a good game, but all he can do is mutter about all
sorts of forever undetected (or maybe forever undetectable)
negative evidence which will end the issue and whose existence
we "believers" foolishly refuse to take on faith, proving that
we're whatever terrible thing Rob needs to believe we are at the
given rhetorical moment.

I am always amused at those who, like Rob, would have us believe
UFOs are a question for the social sciences, even as they rattle
on and on about the utter worthlessness, under all circumstances
and at all times, of what they call "anecdotal evidence." In a
forthcoming paper, "On Some Unfair Practices Towards Claims of
the Paranormal," sociologist of science Marcello Truzzi -- a
skeptic, incidentally -- observes the following:

"Scoffers use a ... foreshortening towards issues of evidence.
It is common to hear statements to the effect that there is no
evidence supporting a claim when in fact it is merely INADEQUATE
evidence that has been presented. Evidence is always a matter
of degree, some being extremely weak, but even weak evidence can
mount up (as shown by meta analysis) to produce a stronger case.
Weak evidence is often discounted, however, by assertions that
it (most commonly anecdotal rather than systematic and
experimental evidence) falls below some threshold of what
science should consider evidence at all. This, of course,
eliminates the evidential basis for most of clinical medicine
and the social sciences, but that seems to hold no terror for
the scoffer who invokes such criteria."

Perhaps nobody has written better on the role on anecdotal
testimony in science than David J. Hufford, whose 1982 book The
Terror That Comes in the Night (University of Pennsylvania
Press) should be read by all who are interested in controversies
at the edges of science. (So should Hufford's various papers in
folklore and medical journals as well, where he pursues
arguments and evidence further.) Hufford shows, devastatingly,
what has happened in a number of areas in science and medicine
when so-called anecdotal testimony (i.e., the actual experience
of the person telling the story) was summarily ignored and the
experience reinvented so that the explainer could explain it.
In the end, of course, the explainer explained only what he'd
made up. As Hufford writes:

"It was just such a rejection of untutored observation that
delayed for so long the `scientific' discovery of the giant
squid, gorillas, meteors and any number of other wild and
wonderful (but apparently unlikely) facts of this world. In
those cases, post hoc scientific rationalization was used to
explain how people came to believe in such things. Seasoned
fishermen were said to mistake floating trees with large root
systems for huge animals attacking their boats; farmers were
said to have overlooked iron-bearing rocks in the midst of their
fields until they were pointed out by lightning; and in this
case [the Old Hag experience] `children and savages' were said
to have difficulty knowing when they were awake and when they
were asleep" -- even though the victims, people of all ages,
cultures, and educational levels, insist they were not
"dreaming," that they were fully conscious when they heard and
saw weird things.

It is not as if, as Rob childishly argued Mark Cashman had said
(Mark had said no such thing), all eyewitness testimony is 100%
accurate. Mark was showing how it can be useful, and under what
circumstances, and how we can measure such things, even if only
generally. In a real world things are not black and white, and
Mark was arguing that we do not live in a cartoon universe.
Hufford shows how no attempt to explain an anomalous claim can
safely discard what those who have experienced it say about it.

Reading arguments like Irving's, coming from somebody who knows
little about our subject yet who is quick to tell us what we
think and how dumb or blind or gullible we are, I sometimes
think I've entered that cartoon universe. Why are we dealing
with this guy at all? Is there any other subject than ufology
about which you need to know practically nothing to act as if
you are expert enough to tell the real experts they
know nothing at all?

> As David Deutsch writes: 'Shoddy explanations that yield correct
> predictions are two a penny, as UFO enthusiasts,
> conspiracy-theorists and pseudoscientists of every variety
> should (but never do) bear in mind.'

Notice the usual debunking sleight of rhetoric: UFO "enthusiasts,"
conspiracy theorists, and pseudoscientists are crammed together in
one bombastic outburst, as if the three were indistinguishable, or even
as if one UFO "enthusiast" were the same as another (George Adamski
and Peter Sturrock indistinguishable? Wendelle Stevens and Mark
Cashman? Frank Scully and Stuart Appelle? Billy Meier and Michael
Swords? Ray Palmer and Isabel Davis? Frank Edwards and Allan
Hendry? Ed Komarek and Walter Webb?), and the "shoddy explanations"
are hurled at us out of nowhere, so that it is impossible to defend
oneself, much less know what Deutsch is talking about in specific; or
maybe (as seems more likely) he is talking about nothing at all. One
is reminded of Orwell, who said of sentences and sentiments like
Deutsch's, they give "an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Whenever this sort of debunkerspeak comes to eye or ear, I get
the gloomy impression that I have learned more about the debunker
(about whom I had no curiosity in the first place) than about whatever
it is he's trying to debunk. All I learn from the quote is that David
Deutsch is phobic about UFOs, and not especially rational on the
subject. Pardon me while I yawn.

Jerry Clark

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