Irrationality, CSICOP, And UFOs

by Jean van Gemert

Trying to understand just why the thought of UFOs as extraterrestrial, intelligently-controlled spacecraft provokes violent emotional and illogical reactions is not an easy task. Largely, the issue appears to depend on value-constructs that people believe and which drive the evaluation of evidence.

Still, harmless convictions or not, one can only be baffled by statements that even the consideration of giving UFOs a fair scientific hearing is, by their definition, "irrational," supposedly going against all that science stands for [Sheaffer, 1981]. This antagonism, shared by various people belonging to contemporary skeptical societies such as CSICOP, and echoed by authors like Robert Sheaffer, does not appear to make much sense upon examining the few reasons behind it -- reasons which, in the end, have very little to do with a scientific approach.

To understand their conclusions, one must first comprehend the ideology of those who maintain such concepts. The only way to do so is to look at CSICOP's origin and the belief systems of its members. As it turns out, a large number of its most vocal supporters are secular humanists. Which is not really a surprise, after all, the American Humanist Foundation founded CSICOP under their sponsorship. But, it is just this belief system which is the result of CSICOP's decaying credibility and rationality.

Although there are different forms of humanism, in general, it indicates belief in a philosphy based on interpreting the world in terms of known human values and experience, while emphasizing the intrinsic worth of mankind. As it appears, various skeptics, such as Robert Sheaffer, identify themselves with this patriarchal, anthropocentric worldview, evident from their other interests and published ideas. The fundamental problem with this approach becomes clear when CSICOP tries to "explain" phenomena, such as UFOs, resulting in treading dangerously close to the fallacy of reductionism -- the belief that all knowledge and experience must ultimately reduce to common principles. This approach is typified by much of the skeptical literature, in which explanations for UFO incidents frequently omit part of the problem domain -- "prosaic" explanations accounting for only part of the evidence, while simply ignoring or dismissing the rest.

One other aspect, vital to a society governed by patriarchal humanistic principles, is freedom from control. Fearing the possibility of losing control of one's own actions by other humans, one can only imagine the psychological resistance to a superior extraterrestrial intelligence, which would have total control over our actions at any time. So, instead of trying to come to grips with the actual UFO problem, they deny the possibility that UFO experiences are due to the actual presence of extraterrestrial objects intruding our airspace, forcing them to dismiss the phenomenon altogether. Thus, UFO accounts are not debunked because there's nothing to them but misidentifications and hoaxes, but because such reports disturb the anthropocentric humanist's view of the universe, leading them to believe that people who discuss and report such phenomena must be "irrational." In essence, the validity of the ETH as a working hypothesis is denied simply because is helps to prevent psychological deterioration. This aspect of religious skepticism, denying the validity of individual experience if it violates certain dogma, illustrates how much of real skepticism has become like establishment religion. Both insist that only they know what is true. This is the most destructive of religion's many deliberate falsehoods, because it revokes the individual's power to judge for herself or himself what is or is not real.

More disturbing, however, is that such ideas and beliefs can and do result in crusades to restore "order, reason, and critical thinking." Although this might seem a worthy goal, skeptical societies such as CSICOP do not have the objectivity to accomplish such a task because of their own humanistic ideas and beliefs. It is a specific brand of skepticism, which they fallaciously define as what they perceive to be a rational scientific approach. One finds that they are not so interested in investigating or getting to the truth of controversial issues. Instead, they "debunk," employing tactics similar to that of a prosecution attorney whose job is to prove to a jury that the individual on trial is guilty. Tactics such as these tend to perpetuate personally invested belief systems which tend to motivate one to focus solely on specific final conclusions - an absolutely disastrous approach to follow when attemping to perform an accurate and unbiased scientific investigation of a controversial subject.

In fact, their published ideas sound more like a hope that non-conformists can be brainwashed into Right Thinking. That is, reintroduced to "reality" ... as they evaluate reality. This belief, like all beliefs, begins with the assumption that it is correct and complete; thus, any phenomena which cannot be pigeonholed into its tenets are, by definition, incorrect and in need of "cure." The most significant difference between science and skepticism of this sort is that the former theoretically admits that all of its knowledge is tentative, while the latter declares that its knowledge is conclusive. And this constitutes one the most serious problems of contemporary skepticism: the denial of the possibility that one's beliefs are in error, unless of course that possibility is brought forward by one of their own, because to do so would undermine their dominance in defining "reality."

Barry Karr calls it "nonsense" and "irrationalism"... and James Randi just calls it "flim-flam." The problem is the extremism of the statement and the fundamentalism from which they come. When one has too much invested in this belief to tolerate a challenge to its scope or authority, it ceases to be "skepticism," and becomes a belief structure. And unless one recognizes this dogma at the heart of "skeptical" societies like CSICOP, one will only keep redescribing the universe in terms of our own ignorance rather than discover anything of merit. Science and skepticism shouldn't be about recapitulation of biases - it should be about finding out what really is going on.

In the end, one should realize that anthropocentric humanists' qualitative standards for assessing evidence derive from, and are colored by, their self-interest and world view which most certainly includes defense against threats to one's carefully constructed, apparently consistent intellectual framework. Thus, the stridency of a given skeptic's demand for extraordinary evidence is predicated not on an objective standard but on the degree to which the phenomenon in question threatens one's world view and self-interest. In short, what makes the extraterrestrial hypothesis extraordinary to some is not that it is undemonstrated but that it is unacceptable.

And we all know it's not easy to show something exists when the person to whom this must be shown is wearing blinders, and refuses to take them off until you prove the existence of that which lies outside his narrow field of view.


Science, Logic and the UFO Debate

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