Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bad press

Today's Independent has an article with the following headline: "UFO sightings should be taken more seriously."

Intrigued by this promising piece of tabloidy trash, you read on and learn that David Clarke, lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, "believes that UFOs are a worthy subject for academic study."

So you continue further, mildly aghast at the fact that The Independent - which you naively thought to be one of the last few halfway serious papers around in the UK - would pay and publish such ... stuff (and completely muddled ... stuff at that).

Mr Clarke complains that he has so far failed to obtain funding for his UFO research:

Nobody's interested in it because it's got this image. It's a real shame, because there's massive amounts of interesting material, but we're too close to the material in time. It's perfectly acceptable for historians to study witchcraft mania in the Middle Ages, but because this is happening here and now, and these are people we can go and speak to, it's a little too close.

The "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio/Than are dream't of in our Philosophy" argument is of course a long-standing strategy amongst sectarian maniacs who wish to construe scientifically-minded rationalists as dangerously blinkered positivists and a serious threat to the progress of science.

The aim of such arguments, however, is exactly the opposite of the alleged salvation of scientific knowledge. "There are always mysteries in life," Van Helsing tells Dr Seward in Stoker's Dracula, brandishing his host and rosary and positively salivating at the opportunity to drive a stake through the hearts of the undead. The Professor's credo functions as a powerful peer group adhesive for his annoying posse of Aryan Vampire hunters, who thereby seek to assert their superiority over all others - be they vampires, rural Romanians or women.

One general point needs to be made here, though: to study the medieval witchcraft mania does not mean that you also believe in witchcraft per se. Methinks Mr Clarke is confusing things a little.

In a similarly confusing twist, he then aligns the belief in UFOs with other types of religious belief:

People used to come up to the astronomer Carl Sagan after lectures and ask: "Do you believe?" He was struck by the question. Not, is there evidence? But, do you believe? It's a matter of faith to a lot of people and UFOs can become a substitute for religion. What they like is the mystery, they don't want a solution. In 1956, an American sociologist joined a flying saucer cult, predicting the end of the world. Obviously this didn't come to pass, but rather than the people who followed this cult saying what a load of rubbish, they went on to strengthen their belief.

Fair enough, Mr Clarke seems to have a point there. But he is clearly jumping to all sorts of conclusions when he interprets the pyschological phenomenon of heightened stubbornness in the face of critical resistance as a proof of the existance of UFOs. Some people - among them sociologists, apparently - may be manic enought to believe in flying saucers. This does not mean that flying saucers really did hover over Shropshire last week. And so all scholars can do (if they absolutely must) is research the apparently widespread belief in UFOs as an expression of an individual and/or collective mania that bears structural similarities to religious belief.

Mr Clarke however, doesn't quite seem to be able to make the distinction between fact and fiction, which kind of also shows in the style of his concluding passage:

So there is a massive amount of material for sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists to study. And the Ministry of Defence itself has come to the conclusion that UFOs do exist, but are not spaceships. So these are reports of some kind of natural phenomenon we do not understand, which could be studied by atmospheric physicists. It's a pity no one takes it seriously.

Can someone tell me what this man is saying? Material to study what? Real existing maniacs or real existing alien spacecraft?

Is that the style of journalism taught at Sheffield Hallam?

And what the hell drove the editors of a serious paper to print this ... stuff?

[UPDATE: After this brief encounter with the "Flying Saucers are for Real" set, today's Independent appears to assert the paper's rational credentials with an article by David Randall which puts the alleged recent spate of UK UFO sightings in perspective. So what now? I really think the editors at the Independent have to make up their mind whether they are on the side of the sane or the silly.]

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