Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Don't Shoot the Messenger
I read the National Post every day, and always look forward to Andrew Coyne's columns. I might not always agree with him, but he always makes one think. His work is well-argued and therefore challenging, and he is influential here in Canada as a result.
So, when I saw that he had addressed the topic of UFOs today, and in particular Paul Hellyer's appearance at this weekend's Toronto conference with Stan Friedman, Richard Dolan, Paola Harris, and Steven Bassett, I was intrigued.
Here is what Coyne wrote:
"The former Liberal cabinet minister Paul Hellyer, after a long career defending Canadian sovereignty from American incursions, has a new reason to mistrust the United States: UFOs. Specifically, the efforts by successive American governments to conceal from public knowledge the 1947 crash of an alien spacecraft in Roswell, New Mexico.
"I believe that UFOs are real," Mr. Hellyer, who who was second to Pierre Trudeau on the first ballot at the 1968 Liberal leadership convention, told the Canadian Press recently. Later this week, he will speak at a convention of UFO enthusiasts in Toronto. "I'll talk about that a little bit and a bit about the fantastic coverup of the United States government and also a little bit of the fallout from the wreckage." By "fallout" he means the adaptation of technologies found in the Roswell craft in subsequent American technical advances. I'd tell you more, but it's just too risky.
I feel a certain unease in writing this: It is possible that Mr. Hellyer has simply lost his mind, and it's not right to poke fun at a lunatic. On the other hand, who knows any more? What once were classed as psychological disorders are today considered perfectly normal, while behaviour for which one might previously have been held responsible is now just another form of mental illness.
More to the point, what is to distinguish Mr. Hellyer's belief in a massive, decades-long conspiracy by the American government to conceal the existence of alien visitors to planet Earth from, say, Paul William Roberts' belief in a massive, decades-long conspiracy by the American government to create the very Islamist terror network it is now fighting -- not as an accidental "blowback," but as a deliberate strategy to justify more military spending? The first makes you the butt of an oddly-enough piece on the CP wire. The second is worth a three-page, 5,000-word essay in The Globe and Mail. Yet the one has precisely as little plausibility or supporting evidence as the other.
Mind you, give it time. Experience teaches that any theory, no matter how crackpot, can gain a respectful hearing in this country, so long as it asks us to believe the worst about the Americans or their government: Anti-Americanism inoculates even the worst cranks from serious scrutiny. Paul Hellyer may not have much of a following now, but depend upon it, he will be packing them in at the universities before long.
My colleague Jonathan Kay has already detailed the many factual howlers in the Roberts piece, which somehow "got by" the Globe's fact-checkers. But I rather think something else is at work. The piece would have been planned long in advance. Having written several previous pieces for the Globe, Mr. Roberts would be well-known to the editors, as would his views. For example, readers of his latest book, A War Against Truth, will learn, inter alia, that Saddam Hussein killed many fewer Iraqis than the United States, and with more justification: After all, the hundreds of thousands of Saddam's victims were people "who opposed him in some way." And they will learn the real reason for the failure of Saddam's vaunted Special Republican Guard to show up for battle: They were all vaporized, 40,000 of them at one go, by "some kind of hi-tech bomb" detonated in the warren of tunnels under Baghdad.
"Fact-checking," in the circumstances, would seem beside the point. It isn't that Mr. Roberts' piece was, in that fine old journalistic phrase, "too good to check," or that the Globe editors think fact-checking is a tool of imperialism. It's more that it would be, well, gauche -- like the fellow who objects to modern art because it isn't realistic. It may not be true, but it's "true enough." Likewise, when Linda McQuaig explains that the Katrina disaster is a consequence of FEMA having been "privatized," or when Jeremy Clarkson writes feelingly in London's Sun of seeing New Orleans looters blown to bits by helicopter gunships, it isn't true in a conventional, real-world sense. It is rather true in a transcendent, ecstatic sense.
We are dealing not so much with a factual matter, in other words, as a psychological one. There is an undeniable pleasure in tweaking the conventional wisdom: I confess to indulging in it at times myself. But what begins as a harmless contrarianism can progress by stages into full-blown conspiracy-theorizing, of which anti-Americanism is a particularly malignant example. The sufferer experiences the thrill of having "pierced the veil." He has seen through the official lies that have everyone else in their thrall, and every piece of evidence to the contrary merely confirms him in his belief. At the furthest extreme, it emerges as Holocaust denial.
This puts the student of argument in an uncomfortable position. Convention dictates that every opponent should be treated with courtesy, every argument with respect. But what do we do with arguments that are plainly, well, crazy? Reasonable people can differ, of course, but so can unreasonable people, and we do our worthy opponents no honour by lumping them in with our unworthy opponents.
Civilized discussion depends not only on an open-minded readiness to consider other legitimate points of view, but on an equal readiness to exclude the obviously marginal. There is a time and a place to debate whether the Earth goes around the sun or the contrary, but we should have little time to address other matters if we were perpetually revisiting old controversies, or disproving every fantasy. For everyday purposes, we are obliged to exercise some basic judgment: I cannot prove beyond dispute that there are no UFOs, but I am justified by all experience in drawing the inference that there are not.
And, when it comes to the public square, we depend on the gatekeepers -- the editors of our newspapers, the publishers of our books, to exercise that judgment on our behalf. If they fail in that duty, the result is intellectual anarchy, where every opinion, no matter how nonsensical, is of equal validity and every source, no matter how dubious, is of equal authority. Or, if you prefer, contemporary Canada."
The article can be found at: www.canada.com/national/nationalpost/news/issuesideas/story.html?id=1d63364e-5640-44e0-92fa-e5d7ac2d9152
Ufologists, I have no doubt, will be up in arms at this. "Another example of the biased manistream media," they will cry.
But what else do they expect?
Frankly, Coyne is absolutely right.
In an ongoing discussion with Don Ledger at UFO Updates about the media and UFOs, I wrote today that:
"It's easy to blame the wet behind the ears reporters, as you call them, for all of ufology's ills, but look at it from their perspective. Let's suppose they tune into UFO Updates for a few weeks, and follow the discussions. Yes, they'll see the serious researchers, but they'll also see the likes of Michael Salla, and Adamski defenders (does nothing in ufology ever die??), conspiracy theorists, and attack dogs like Alfred Lehmberg (he also qualifies under the "conspiracy theorist" category). All of whom are placed on an equal footing with the serious researchers, like you."
As I told Don, and anyone else reading, there is such a thing as "nuts by association."
Real science - that which ufology longs to be considered as - doesn't do this. The aforementioned fringers have no place in the serious study of the UFO phenomenon. It's one of the reasons SETI seems respectable when compared to ufology, even though ufology can mount just as much evidence - or more - than SETI does to support its claims to be taken seriously.
"So," I said to Don, "when journalists take the 'hey, it's all a bit nutty approach,' ufology needs to ask itself who is really to blame. The aforementioned people are free to create their own forums, and scream to the wind if they want. But when serious researchers allow them equal billing on their forums - well, you reap what you sow."
Enter Andrew Coyne.
He isn't dismissing the serious study of the UFO phenomenon. He isn't even talking about it.
He's dismissing the wackos. The conspiracy theorists. The kooks and the cranks.
And, by association, ufology in general.
But there's a way to fix this - show some discipline, make the hard choices, and cast the nuts out.
After all, if you had cancer, would you just let it sit, in the hopes that it would go away on its own, or that it was best to just ignore it?
Not unless you were an idiot.
The people that Coyne is talking about (as have I over the past several months) are ufology's cancer. The time has come to let them rant on their own time, and their own dime. Freedom of speech requires you to defend what a person says, no matter how wacked out it is. It doesn't require that you actually provide that person with a forum to say it in.
Besides, they'll always have Jeff Rense's show and website, where they can share equal billing with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers until the cows come home.
After all, Coyne is really just agreeing with Jerry Clark, who once wrote that if you scratch a conspiracy theorist, you'll find a bigot.
Now, I understand that this isn't a terribly popular point of view within ufology (and I suspect Coyne is about to discover just how vocal the wackos in ufology can be).
But ask yourself this question - if you were a reporter, or a columnist, or a film & television producer or director, looking in on ufology today, would you be inclined to take it seriously?
The fact that any of us do is a testament to the strength of the evidence.
The fact that more of my contemporaries do not is as much ufology's problem as it is theirs.
Let me be clear - Andrew Coyne is not to blame.
He doesn't completely dismiss UFOs (he doesn't believe that they're real, but he also writes, "I cannot prove beyond dispute that there are no UFOs," which indicates that he would be open to evidence that would show that they are real).
Without knowing it, he is instead dismissing modern ufology.
But so long as ufology continues to tolerate the likes of Salla, Bassett, Harris, and Lehmberg within its midst, and provides them an equal footing with the likes of Sturrock, Vallee, Hall, Clark and Sparks, can you blame him?