Skepticism: I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Kyle Hill   

Has the Internet age created a bunch of cynics, or are there other reasons that UFOs and ghost are vanishing from pop culture?

In a lengthy article entitled “Seeing and Believing,” UK author Stuart Walton muses on why UFO sightings have been on the decline (along with psychics and other paranormal phenomena). He begins the essay with a recounting of his own UFO sighting many years earlier, and goes on to describe his reassurance that Britain’s Ministry of Defense took these early reports seriously enough to at least investigate. Walton also notes his slight disappointment that the “official story” had explained nearly all of these sightings as weather balloons or drunken anecdotes by the time the desk closed in 2009.  

Walton continues on to explore why sightings of UFOs have declined, citing the pop-culture phenomena Close Encounters of the Third Kind that most likely lead to the increase in reports. Not only have UFOs sightings shrunk, but reports of poltergeists, ghosts, and goblins are also on the wane, Walton notes. Maybe this is because of growing skepticism in popular culture, Walton speculates, but maybe it is something else.  

Wheeling through social theory and the evolution of mass media, Walton makes the case that the “spectacularisation” of pop-culture has diminished our ability to recognize true paranormal or extraterrestrial events (if any do exist). He claims, not that better technology should be able to sort out these questions, but that technology (especially video recording technology) has “hastened the decline” in the belief in the supernatural simply because we are too skeptical. The implication is that our bar is too high: we cannot expect video evidence of a ghost that is of Transformers quality.  

In a world where nearly everyone can be fooled by a YouTube hoax, Walton may have a point, but he goes too far.  

Walton finally chalks up the decline in weirdness too “the wrong kind of skepticism.” Yes, science and technology have undermined these beliefs, Walton admits, but the “growing incredulity with which people evaluate anything” is more to blame. Because everything from dishwasher liquid to toothpaste has a PR department, we as a society have extended an “incurious skepticism” to everything. This kind of skepticism blankets all, and so events that are “hard to credit” but “deserve to be heeded” (i.e., the paranormal and the supernatural) are glossed over without much thought.  

Walton, a sentence after describing events that are hard to prove but deserve attention, lumps climate change in with UFO sightings.  

Walton credits the classic skeptics like doubting Thomas and Descartes, but again claims that the “incurious skepticism” of today is only followed because “there is no alternative,” even though we apparently know that “it can’t deliver what it promises.” In Walton’s view, because we can’t disprove anything “the laws of physics have no greater claim to finality than do poorly produced video-hoaxes on YouTube.” He ends the essay by recounting a documentary he had seen on dwindling UFO sightings in the UK. Walton was happy to learn that one man in the documentary had drawn a sketch of what he had seen, a sketch that resembled what Walton saw decades earlier.  

The YouTube Standard  

Though beautifully written, I’m afraid we have to channel Inigo Montoya here: Walton keeps using the word “skepticism,” but not in the way many contemporary scientists and rationalists use itInigo Montoya meme.

The much better term for Walton’s “incurious skepticism” is cynicism, a general distrust of other’s motivations, a jaded worldview. (You can watch Bill Nye makes this distinction here.) And Walton surely has a point (somewhere in the essay). When everything is vying for attention and shot at virality, media consumers have to be rather incredulous. That could be causing a decline in UFO sightings, but because we know that very recent polls put belief in crashed UFOs and alien visitors at 21 and 29 percent of the US population respectively, this is a pretty weak claim.

Cynicism works for describing media and social engagement, but not for why scientists and skeptics tend to dismiss UFO sightings. Walton conflates a refusal to believe anything with a refusal to believe without sufficient evidence. That distinction is about as clear as any between cynicism and skepticism.

You can almost hear the disdain for the scientific evidence undermining UFO sightings and paranormal events throughout Walton’s essay. For example, he mentions that when the Roswell alien autopsy video came out “educated people reassured each other” that it was a fake, seemingly because of a refusal to believe rather than a look at the evidence.

For Walton, evidential support hardly matters. He acknowledges that today we should have absolutely no trouble getting a ghost on film, considering how many people claim to see ghosts and how many of those same people have a smart phone. But this is merely Walton’s jumping-off point to discuss the “racket” skepticism of the Enlightenment, and “its current crop of science apostles.”

Walton, you keep using that word…I don’t think it means what you think it means.

It’s just too easy to resurrect the tired “kids these days” argument when it comes to belief. When radio was new and panic ensued after the famous War of the Worlds broadcast, was this a hallmark of “incurious skepticism?” Was a generation who had read the original novel too jaded to react to new media they considered very real at the time?

Of course not. By definition, a belief is an idea that you consider to be true. You cannot believe in alien visitors if you do not have some basis for that belief (faith or abduction, whatever that may be). UFO sightings are not declining because my generation is a bunch of dumbed-down-by-the-web cynics, aliens are vanishing from our skies because we have better and better ways of detecting such events, and we aren’t finding any.

Consider the Russian meteor strike earlier this year. It was, by all accounts, a one-in-a-century event. Probably thousands of people saw it, hundreds of people recorded it, and dozens of full compilations of these sightings were on YouTube within a day for everyone to see. Today, when “the laws of physics have no greater claim to finality than do poorly produced video-hoaxes on YouTube,” physicists and astronomers were able to take those videos and determine an accurate speed, weight, and direction of the meteor with finality.

Why didn’t today’s “wrong kind of skepticism” brand the Russian meteor strike (at least for a while) a hoax, something akin to a UFO sighting? Because we had evidence. We had real, physical evidence, and scientifically valid reasons to trust that evidence. We have never had such clarity for ghosts or UFOs. If Walton is claiming that this bar is too high, so be it.

And what about those YouTube hoaxes? Remember that ridiculously viral eagle-grabbing-a-baby YouTube hoax? Sure, it spread around the world like wildfire, but how long before our higher standards extinguished it? Four hours? Five? The rush to go viral is balanced by the rush to be the one who settles the matter.

It may be the case that we are all more skeptical because of how easily both truths and falsehoods are transmitted. Skepticism without reason is cynicism. But UFO sightings have declined and poltergeists have evaporated because we do have reasons to doubt them. They can’t hide behind Walton’s imagined blasé, untrusting attitude.

No matter how many viral videos or doctored photos or rambling op-eds claim to see them, UFO sightings will continue to decline because there is not one shred of credible evidence for them, not because we simply don’t trust anything anymore. Walton waxes poetic about a time when seeing-was-believing. I do not.

 

Kyle Hill is a JREF research fellow and popular science writer who contributes to Scientific American, Wired, io9, and Popular Science. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.