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Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Paradox of Credibility When Confronting the Incredible

 The tinfoil hat, the country bumpkin, the cork board strewn with a tangled web of string- these are examples of images used in the old stereotyping of UFO enthusiasts. Mass media and pop culture have promoted these tropes for ages, with the cumulative effect of minimizing the subject in the broader public consciousness. Likewise, the existence of ghosts, magic powers, and cryptozoological specimens has traditionally been pushed to the margins which, perhaps, may be the best place for them. For those who have had an experience with any of these mysteries, or those who seek to investigate them, a minefield lays ahead in the no-man's land of alleged expertise on these matters. Traversing the field becomes a perilous journey, full of pitfalls and explosive revelations. Without a guide, a map, or markers to go by, one must trust one's intuition. 

At the time of this writing it seems that public opinion has softened on these once shunned topics, but the old problems still persist. In the field of UFOlogy, for example, this broader acceptance seems to be a result of government hearings and a push toward that ever-elusive, amorphous old chestnut Disclosure. In the minds of many passive observers, "the Government said" that aliens are real. Those who have a vested interest in full Disclosure celebrate these events as minor victories on the road toward revelations of alien bodies and reverse-engineered technology from another world- and among these advocates, nothing short of that will be satisfactory, regardless of the facts. In the never-ending quest toward Disclosure, whatever that might mean to whomever might be interested in such a thing, there is the persistent idea that the subject is made more credible by the involvement of authority figures. Luis Elizondo himself, the de facto figurehead for the current crop of UAPology Disclosurists, said in no uncertain terms that he wished to dismantle the field of UFOlogy. Scorching the earth, relieved of the crackpots and amateurs of old- along with the experiences of everyday people- a new Utopia seemingly awaits in this worldview. Once the Government tells us what it knows, a new day will dawn: A New Age of peace and prosperity, and all we need to do is approve funding for military programs to look into it.

This is, of course, hogwash of the highest order. UFOs are and always will be obscured by the eclipse of their own mythical shadow in the public consciousness. The tinfoil hat of old always cautioned us to question authority figures, but the modern more accepted cranks grasp desperately for authorities to confirm or deny the truth for them. So hungry are they for confirmation, they seek to be legitimized by whatever authority is advantageous at the moment. The trouble is that UFOs answer to no authority. They are tricky things, airborne pookas turning expectations upside-down and inside-out, inspiring even skeptics like Phillip Klass to lay a "curse" on the pursuit of them. We would never know more about them, he said, than we did during his time. This subversion- the arch-debunker and materialist resorting, albeit jokingly, to something as spooky as a curse- is a classic example of the UFO deftly eluding our attempts to rationalize it. By extension, the other aforementioned mysteries of the world are quite adept at remaining mysterious. Perhaps that is their entire function.

When we seek out experts, when we seek to legitimize anomalous phenomena, and when we promote "serious" inquiry into these subjects we are simply flailing around in a minefield hoping someone will show us the way. Many are the traps and dangers associated with the idea of credibility. Investigators have long favored reports that come from "trained observers", ranging from military personnel to law enforcement individuals and those with a background in science. As a corollary to this, cases are often downplayed or discarded when the report comes from an average Joe. The underlying presumption is that military pilots, for instance, are incapable of making mistakes about what they see in the air. Military and law enforcement professionals, we are told, are also more trustworthy by virtue of their career paths and less likely to lie, or suffer mental illness. This of course is entirely bogus. All the same, when in search of that coveted credibility, reports from the military or police tend to be prioritized. It's too risky to rely on reports from everyday people, and why would you? Especially when someone with a PhD or government clearance is available to offer their own unimpeachable truths. The country bumpkin of old is left to wonder at his own experiences, and defer to the "experts". 

This mentality naturally results in a discourse beyond parody, as we see in the world of UAPology today. The testimony of David Grusch, which amounts to little more than a litany of very tired UFO myths that have been relentlessly debated or debunked over the course of decades, being considered a form of whistleblowing is simply ludicrous. It amounts to little more than gossip, ultimately, and does nothing to further the truth- quite the opposite, it reinforces poppycock that only muddies the waters. And yet, paradoxically, stunts like that bring a veneer of credibility to the outside observer. Similarly, this appeal to authority in a misguided attempt to locate reliable sources leads folks to books by really problematic old heads who happen to have "Dr" attached to their names. For those who don't know the history, a book by Dr. David Jacobs might sound more credible than one by John Keel simply because one of them has an academic background and the other, none. The trouble of course is that Jacobs has been repeatedly revealed to have been a fraud and a creep, his "research" methods are shown to have been highly flawed, and his ouevre rendered thus virtually worthless. It is human nature, perhaps, to be less critical when an author, investigator, or correspondent has a title such as Doctor, Lt. Commander, or Officer attached to his or her name. It is nevertheless wrong to assume their authority on any given matter is uncontaminated by ulterior motives, craziness, or judgment errors. 

It is difficult to talk about these distinctions in our polarized age. A false dichotomy is prominent in the world of UFOs, which pits believers against debunkers. In truth there is a broad spectrum of belief and opinion, all of which exists within the tiny fraction of the overall population that even cares to discuss the subject. Dismissing this or that piece of evidence, or questioning the stories of alleged authorities promoting UAPs does not necessarily indicate a belief that UFOs are bogus. For the part of this writer, a cursory glance at other posts on this very site will give you all the evidence you need about where I stand. The point is quite moot, though; suffice to say, UFOs are empirically real. What they are- and who is qualified to authoritatively determine that- is indefinitely a matter of speculation. Many are attracted to the so-called field of UFOlogy because it is such a loosely defined area of study. Similarly, the methods of Paranormal Investigators vary wildly, and there as many divergent approaches to cryptozoology as there are methods to develop wild talents of the psychical kind. This is neither a good or bad thing. It is simply a thing to realize, to be wary of, and to figure into one's personal calculus when presented with fantastical tales of the improbable. Astrophysicists may indeed have good insights on the UFO phenomenon, but reliance on their ideas seems to presuppose that UFOs come from outer space. Science has a role to play in unraveling some of these "Woo" mysteries, as they increasingly seem to become less "Woo"- but one should be ever cautious, as science itself is an evolving system of thought and is also a layer of the minefield.   

To illustrate the tricky nature of science, authority, and truth as it pertains to the mysterious, you are invited to consider the tale of Eusapia Palladino, a spirit medium Houdini referred to as the "greatest deceiver of them all." Her recorded feats were many, and were studied by scientists throughout Europe between the late 1800s and the early 20th century. Along with the standard parlor tricks for mediums of her time, such as producing raps and ethereal music, table tipping, and levitation, Palladino was also said to have been able to read through her ear and emit a frigid breeze from a scar on her forehead. In an issue of FATE Magazine from 1961, Cheiro reports having been present for a powerful display of her abilities. He claims that while staying at the Naples property of a wealthy American, one Major Davis in 1904, Palladino was brought in to showcase her abilities as a 'furniture mover'. The Major leaned against an oak chest smoking a cigar, expecting light amusement more than genuine paranormal performance. However, in Cheiro's account, Palladino's head whipped back, her eyes became white, and in a trance her arms projected white, ectoplasmic appendages in the direction of a heavy table with a marble top. The table steadily slid across the floor until it pinned the Major against the chest, and several men pushing against it failed to relieve him. Cheiro finally pulled away the medium herself, which broke the trance and the commotion of the table. Upon touching the marble top, it gently and swiftly returned to its original place in the room. All of this occurred in broad daylight, according to him- and the wealthy American did not wish to see any further demonstrations of her powers.

These kinds of demonstrations began in her youth, and soon the illiterate, unassuming peasant girl mystified the greatest scientific minds in Europe. Pierre and Marie Curie, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Charles Richet were among the befuddled scientists who recorded supernatural events in laboratory sittings. In her home country of Italy, however, it was Cesare Lombroso who first analyzed her abilities and found her to be genuine. Lombroso was internationally renowned for his work in the study of criminals. He is called by some "the Father of Criminology" for his ground-breaking studies into understanding the societal and cultural conditions that produce lawlessness. He was held in high esteem at the time of his sitting and examination of Palladino, and when he publicly declared her to be genuine his colleagues and the public turned on him. How could someone so shrewd be taken in by common parlor tricks and hocus pocus? The more generous among them excused his conclusions by declaring that his mental faculties had diminished with age. Still, by Lombroso's account, he encountered the ghost of his mother during a sitting with Eusapia. The medium sat in full view at one end of the table when Lombroso recognized the warm embrace of his own mother, in spirit form. 

Lombroso's rise to prominence began with an epiphany during the autopsy of a convicted criminal, combined with his interest in the brand new theory of evolution. He noticed an anomaly in the skull of his subject, of a type he would later call a stigmata, which suggested to him biological markers found in lemurs and rodents. In his words, "like a large plane beneath an infinite horizon, the problem of the nature of the delinquent was illuminated which reproduced in our time the characteristics of primitive man right down to the carnivores." In short, he believed that some percentage of criminals were evolutionary throwbacks. The work that gained him international renown was largely predicated on the idea that biological markers could identify subjects as "born delinquents", and that such "criminaloids" were beyond rehabilitation. Crime, to Lombroso, could be understood in physiologic and genetic terms, and all of this naturally ties into problematic ideas on race and also eugenics. His archive of criminal studies is now a museum in Turin, and includes his own head which was preserved for study.

Lombroso's theories on the atavistic nature of the criminal mind were borne of a misunderstanding of, and misapplication of, the Theory of Evolution. On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin's initial book on the subject, was careful not to approach the idea of human evolution too directly for fear of controversy. It is interesting to consider the more spooky and spiritual elements of evolution as an idea. Darwin was a cautious and thoughtful scientific mind, cataloguing examples of what he saw as evidence for natural selection and adaptation within species. While at work on the book, in another part of the world, Alfred Russel Wallace was busy identifying new species of birds. Of all known bird species, Wallace was responsible for identifying 2% of them. He contracted malaria during his expedition, and in a fever dream conceived of the very same ideas Darwin had been working to elucidate. It was fate that brought him to Moluccan Islands where this occurred- his prior expedition had met with disaster when his ship full of specimens sunk on its way back to England, forcing him to start over in Indonesia. Fate again played a hand by bringing him his fever dream of survival of the fittest- and by choosing to write to Darwin, rather than a journal, he forced Darwin's hand in releasing the work to the scientific community. Wallace and Darwin both presented their ideas together, bringing the former a new dimension of celebrity and renown.

Darwin continued to refine his ideas about evolution, and while he was cautious about the origin of humans Wallace was not. Wallace came to believe that a spiritual evolution of sorts was responsible for the dominance of humanity on earth, and further that the world of science itself would never be complete until the spirit world was better understood. His interest in spiritualism, and also hypnosis / mesmerism, caused consternation among his peers. He was notoriously bad with money, and wasted a good deal of it on an insane wager with a Flat Earther. Darwin had to arrange for his friend Wallace to receive a pension to help keep him afloat. 

Wallace in a spirit photograph with his deceased mom.

All the while, Wallace insisted his colleagues in the scientific community include spiritualism in with the other natural sciences. He of course got nowhere with them; the established authority of the time had decided it was all bunk. T. H. Huxley responded by saying "I never cared for gossip in my life, and disembodied gossip, such as those worthy ghosts supply their friends with, is not more interesting to me than any other. As for investigating the matter, I have half-a-dozen investigations of infinitely greater interest to me which any spare time I may have will be devoted. I give it up for the same reason I abstain from chess- It's too amusing to be fair work, and too hard work to be amusing."

We may put this in contrast with a well-known quote from the very same Huxley: "The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in each generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and to the solidity of our possessions." The references here to land, and to solidity, exemplify well the materialist mindset of hard data that still dominates today. It stands to reason that when there's infinitely more mystery than there is certainty in our world, the priority should be on the most immediately verifiable; but to Wallace, if the ethereal realm were understood, it would fill in all of the gaps. Perhaps a Lombroson illuminating horizontal plane would rise up and displace water from Huxley's illimitable sea of inexplicability, causing the imponderables to become quite matter of fact. And perhaps its all a daydream, or a fever dream brought on by the malaria of cognitive biases. 

Lombroso's work included the idea that other regressed, atavistic types included the insane and the geniuses. Evolutionary deviants, if not of the criminaloid type, may present staggering intellects but would pay for the benefits in the form of degraded organs and possibly madness. Similarly, there is a fine line between brilliance and crazy talk. It's difficult, as we get away from Huxley's illimitable ocean and back to the minefield, to conclude definitive answers on any of these mysteries and further, to discard or idolize any of the players and theories completely. It is a complicated and tangled mess. Lombroso's phylogenetic ideas have mostly, and rightly, been relegated to the garbage bins of quack science but the underlying idea that criminalism has underlying causes has evolved to include the social sciences of today. His reasoning as to what those causes were is wrong, but he paved the way for systematic and holistic ways of looking at society, which has led to beneficial reforms. The irony is that during his time his terribly problematic ideas were celebrated, and he was panned for allowing for the reality of ghosts. While we may have reclaimed more ground in the past century plus, it should be kept in mind that we are still very much surrounded by the inexplicable- and that the authority of today stands a good chance of looking foolish in the future.

Palladino herself has gone down in history as a fraud. By Houdini's account, the unassuming Italian ghost conjuror who fooled the greatest scientists in Europe was revealed as a mountebank by the magicians in America. Houdini, the great debunker of mediums, declared that all the laboratory investigations of her powers were worthless, as she was allowed to dictate the settings. He could explain the parlor tricks, and he did give her credit as the greatest deceiver of them all for her inventiveness. He noted that Hereward Carrington, the man who brought Eusapia to New York, even admitted that she would invariably resort to magic tricks if not watched carefully. He claimed she did this as a way of avoiding the strain of the "real" phenomena. Houdini had his own biases; he was on a crusade of sorts to discredit fraudulent spirit mediums. Carrington was actively profiting off of Palladino's American tour. As for Eusapia herself, who can say what her motivations were or what, if any, of her powers were genuine? Assuming Cheiro's account was true, how would Houdini explain that? The skills attributed to her range from pedestrian prestidigitation to the startlingly impressive, and occasionally downright bizarre as in the chilly forehead breeze. They culminate in a portrait of a woman, reflecting the contradictions within the cultural and scientific milieu of the era. In many ways, things haven't changed.

The error of hubris is all-pervasive in any era. Instead of thinking in terms of being surrounded by the inexplicable, as Huxley did, we often proceed as though we know most things and that there's only a handful of mysteries out there to solve. We really don't have authorities to whom we can appeal on the subject of life after death- it's more a matter of faith. Likewise, UFOs represent a challenge to preconceived notions about how the rest of reality, which we tend to take for granted, works. Opening ones' self to the myriad possibilities, and the weirdest possible scenarios- and hell, even the impossible ones- may not get us more ground, but on the other hand, it just might. We must realize our institutions, and models for the nature of reality, are imperfect and incomplete. There are other dimensions, other ways of contextualizing the anomalous and bizarre. Any sleight-of-hand trickster can tell you that point of view is crucial to pulling off a trick- and as you navigate the minefield, you must always be aware of the illusions around you. Step softly, ask questions, and above all stay curious. Certainty often leads to trouble.    


  1. There is no substitute for multi-sensor, triangulated scientific data.

  2. Excellent thoughts and article. I agree with you about this new UAPlogy that seeks to dismantle the past and reimage UFOlogy to something more respectable. Neither of which represents some of the bumpkins like myself who have interacted with and experienced these things. Nor am I American so maybe less inclined to believe the USA government has huge UFO tea to spill.