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Subject: ::: On the Nature of Debunking :::
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Date: Wed, 07 Jan 1998 03:20:45 GMT
Confessions Of A Fortean Sceptic
1983 by Jerome Clark
"There is something to be said for common sense. Just because
the debunkers are wrong, it doesn't necessarily follow that
therefore the proponents are right."
The nadir of my career as a Fortean was reached in 1973 when I
was researching and writing an article which subsequently
appeared in Fate. The article was later incorporated into the
text of The Unidentified, a book co-authored by Loren Coleman,
who is otherwise blameless in the horror story to follow.
Years before then, back when I was 11 or 12 years old, I was
rummaging through the library of the small Minnesota town where
I grew up. I came upon a book entitled _The Coming of the
Fairies_ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It dealt with a series of
photographs taken by two young English girls who claimed that
they regularly encountered fairies in a wooded area near their
Cottingley, Yorkshire, home. In due course they produced
pictures of these beings. The pictures, which appear in Doyle's
book, struck me as hilariously unconvincing. The fairies
resembled nothing so much as cardboard cutouts.
Many years later I read Jacques Vallee's _Passport to Magonia_
and was taken with his attempt to link traditional fairy lore to
modern flying saucer lore. I began reading in the considerable
scholarly literature on fairy beliefs. In one of these books,
Katharine Briggs's _The Fairies in Tradition and Literature_, I
came upon a brief account of the Cottingley episode, about which
Dr Briggs, one of Britain's leading folklorists, wrote: "As one
looks at these photographs, every feeling revolts against
believing them to be genuine." Yet, noting some of the
unexplained aspects of the affair, she went on guardedly to
suggest that the pictures might be psychic photographs.
She was troubled by a few odd items of evidence, such as the
testimony of three photographic experts who said they didn't
know how the pictures could have been faked.
Intrigued, I reread Doyle's book and two others on the subject.
I was impressed not so much by the testimony of the photographic
experts as by the demonstrated inability of would-be debunkers
to come up with plausible, non-extraordinary explanations.
Typical of the blunders was Houdini's bold assertion that the
models for the fairy figures came from a certain advertising
poster. This allegation was widely published and uncritically
accepted. But eventually, when investigators located copies of
the poster in question they found that the fairies depicted on
it looked not at all like those in the Cottingley pictures.
I was also interested to read that as late as the early 1970s,
over 50 years after the events in question, the two photographers,
both now elderly women, seemed to stand by their earlier testimony.
So, following Briggs's lead, I cast all caution to the wind. I
was at least wise enough to concede that the Cottingley fairies
didn't look real but dismissed that as a subjective consideration.
To me the absence of convincing negative evidence, coupled with
the presence of positive evidence (however thin), added up to the
conclusion that these might be authentic thoughtographs much like
those Ted Serios is said to produce.
To this day I can't believe how stupid and how credulous I was.
As we know now beyond any reasonable doubt, the Cottingley
pictures are clumsy and absurd fakes. In his 1978 book Ghosts
in Photographs Fred Gettings reveals that the models from the
figures came from a popular children's book of the period.
Photo-analysis by William Spaulding's Ground Saucer Watch has
shown that, yes indeed, the figures are of cardboard, just as
my 11-year-old eye had told me many years ago.
Robert Sheaffer, in his effort to debunk the story, contributed
to the grand tradition of misleading nonsense by claiming, on
the basis of the thinnest possible circumstantial evidence, that
Theosophical writer Edward Gardner was the mastermind behind the
hoax -- an assertion that quickly fell victim to Occam's Razor,
but not before proving once again that the Cottingley affair
could as easily make fools of disbelievers as of believers.
In their recent books, non-admirers of mine like Sheaffer and
Martin Gardner have resurrected my foolish remarks on these non-
fairy/non-thoughtograph pictures in an effort to discredit me.
Sheaffer even claims that he, as the man who commissioned
Spaulding to analyse the pictures in 1977, forced me to
relinquish my support. He doesn't mention that, on the contrary,
I accepted this first truly solid negative evidence with almost
unseemly haste, in part because I like to think I am
intellectually honest and in part because on some level --
specifically the level of my psyche at which the embers of
common sense still glowed, however faintly -- I had long
suspected that in taking the pictures seriously I was making a
very, very dumb mistake.
Another mistake was in assuming the existence of thoughtographs,
the evidence for which is shaky at best. In other words, I had
attempted to explain a dubious claim with another dubious claim.
Realising belatedly that I was lost deep in a jungle of Fortean
unreality, I decided that it was high time to cut and slash my
way through the undergrowth and return to safety, sanity and
scepticism. At the end of my harrowing adventure my hair was
whiter but my head was clearer.
The moral of the story is this:
(1) There is something to be said for common sense.
(2) Just because the debunkers are wrong, it doesn't necessarily
follow that therefore the proponents are right.
(3) The time had come for this proponent to do some serious
rethinking of his position.
There is a wonderful piece of verse by Spiritualist poet Ella
Wheeler Wilcox. Its title is _Credulity_ and it goes:
If fallacies come knocking at my door
I'd rather feed and shelter full a score
Than hide behind the black portcullis Doubt
And run the risk of barring one Truth out.
And if pretension for a time deceive
And prove me one too ready to believe
Far less my shame, than if by stubborn act
I brand as lie, some great colossal Fact.
That sounds to me like a prescription for the kind of open-
mindedness that permits the brains to fall out of one's head.
But it is an apt description of a mentality we encounter all too
frequently on this side of the paranormal controversy. It's the
Will to Believe coupled with the Refusal to Disbelieve. It is
the mindset that is skeptical only of claims of fraud or error.
To achieve it, one starts with the love of mystery. There's
nothing wrong with that in and of itself. The problem is that
some of us, even after all this time, even after we have no
excuse for not knowing better, seem more interested in pursuing
mysteries than in securing answers. To some, mystification is
the beginning and end of paranormal inquiry. Mysteries are to
be preserved and defended at all costs. And that may be why,
after all this time, all we have to show for our efforts are a
seemingly unending number of unanswered questions and a certain
grotesque satisfaction in declaring, as one of the literature's
enduring cliches goes, that such-and-such a mystery remains
unsolved -- proclaimed, incidentally, as an expression of
triumph, not as an admission of defeat.
I suggest we take a fundamentally different view. If we are to
make any progress in our inquiry, we would be better off
celebrating the solutions of mysteries rather than the
perpetuation of mysteries.
Charles Fort himself was less a lover of mysteries than an
eccentric with a perverse taste for the kind of pompous humbug
associated with authority figures who feel they must account for
unaccountable phenomena about which they not only know little
but apparently prefer to know little. The resulting explanations
are predictably preposterous and it is not hard to conclude that
the explainers suffer from a case of anomaly phobia sufficiently
advanced to severely impair their reasoning faculties.
Anomaly phobia, of course, continues to claim its victims. We
all remember how the Air Force dealt with UFOs -- identifying
them, for example, as astronomical bodies not even visible at
the time of the reported sighting. We have all seen the inept
criticisms of psi, lake-monster reports and other anomalous
claims. We have listened incredulously to self-appointed
protectors of the public welfare who assert, apparently with
straight faces, that acceptance of unexplained phenomena is not
only wrong but dangerous, perhaps even conducive to the collapse
of civilisation. Some of us have exposed the errors and
baseless claims of the debunkers and recently we have seen
scandalous revelations about the way these would-be defenders
of science and reason deal with evidence that runs contrary to
Reading Fort and tracing all that has happened since his time,
a number of paranormal proponents seem to have concluded that
because some mundane explanations are bogus, most or all are
bogus. In ufology, for instance, the standard line has it that
90 to 95 per cent of raw reports are potentially explainable;
still, to some in the field, just about any specific raw report
of an object in the sky is of a UFO. Some enthusiasts still
believe that Jimmy Carter saw a UFO, not the planet Venus, and
that many of our astronauts encountered UFOs in space.
More Forteans than we might care to admit still consider the
Bermuda Triangle a genuine mystery, despite Larry Kusche's
masterful expos‚ in _The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved_.
In fact, the Triangle, along with its similarly fictitious
counterparts, the vile vortices of the world, still occupies a
prominent place in the fertile imaginations of a few theorists.
The alleged powers of Uri Geller and other metal-bending wonder-
workers are blithely assumed to be real and incorporated into
extraordinary explanation schemes, even though the only thing
about metal bending that has ever been established with
undeniable certainty is that fraud figures largely in the
phenomenon. And our ranks are infested with guileless souls who
still look to the novels of Carlos Castaneda as support for
their metaphysical views. All things are possible in a separate
reality, we are told, but we are not warned that all things are
possible as well in Cloud Cuckooland.
Those who wish to return to earth might consider some ways of
getting back. Here are a few:
1) Don't assume that the experts are always fools.
Scientists and other scholars are not infallible, it need hardly
be said. They are human beings and they have human failings,
prejudices and blindnesses. But at the same time we must always
remember that as specialists who have devoted their professional
careers to their special areas of interest they are likely to
know far more than you do about these subjects. If you take
issue with them, chances are they are right and you are wrong.
It is even possible that you are a crank.
On the other hand, if a scientist pronounces on something
outside his area of expertise, then he is an amateur and he has
no greater claim on the truth than any other untrained
commentator. When an eminent astronomer presumes to tell us
what to think about UFOs, it is often immediately apparent to
anyone who knows the literature that the man is talking through
his hat. When, however, that same astronomer talks astronomy,
better listen. And if you don't agree with him, proceed very
2) Don't believe every story you hear.
Some months ago my wife was babysitting for a married couple of
our acquaintance. The man was an officer in the Army reserve,
holding a high security clearance which rendered him privy to
various military and intelligence secrets. He worked as a
research scientist at a major university.
He regularly confided some of these secrets to his wife, who
then confided them to my wife, who then told them to me. Beyond
recalling that all these presumed secrets were sensational in
nature, I have forgotten most of them. Of those I remember, one
-- related in the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis -- was
that our government knew that the Iranian militants had executed
several of their American captives. My informant also said that
on a particular date the United States would invade Iran. You
get the idea.
I never believed any of this, needless to say, but I couldn't
resist the temptation to ask him -- tongue firmly embedded in
cheek -- if, as a man well versed in hidden truths, he knew if
there were any substance to those stories about crashed saucers
and pickled aliens purported to be in the Pentagon's possession.
He immediately assumed a stern, official-looking expression and
declared that that was something he couldn't talk about. Not
long afterwards, however, he added that the truth, if he were to
confide it, would shock me. On two or three subsequent occasions
he brought up the subject and let it be known that if I pressed
him at all, he would tell me the whole story. For obvious reasons
I never bothered.
I mention this as a cautionary tale. Remember, the man has
impeccable credentials. he is a military officer; he does have
a high security clearance; and he is a research scientist at a
major university. And he is also, it is clear, a spinner of
yarns. Next time you read a story about a crashed saucer told
by a man with similarly impressive credentials, remember him.
In fact, there is a whole branch of modern folklore waiting to
be seized upon and catalogued by scholars of popular culture.
These are what I call Soldiers' Tales, or, the Horrendous
Secrets I Learned in the Service. We ufologists hear them all
the time. A few even purport to be firsthand accounts
describing involvement in retrievals of crashed spaceships [like
Wilson's purported "Project Pounce" -B:.B:.], the taking of
spectacular UFO films, the witnessing of a fatal encounter
between an aeroplane and a UFO, and so on. Such stories -- or
at least those with enough specific detail to permit follow-up
investigation -- seldom check out.
I can only speculate on the motives of the yarn-spinners, but
it's not unreasonable to theorise that for many people the most
important period of their lives was the time they spent in the
military, when in fact some may well have been privy to secret
information. All human institutions, including intelligence
agencies, have rumour mills through which stories may circulate.
The environment in which such fantasies are related may give
them a false authority. Those individuals who pass into
civilian life, may repeat the rumours in good faith. Other
persons, not acting in good faith, may simply place themselves
inside the rumours to impress girl friends, wives and
acquaintances [or publishers, as in the case of Phil "Forrest
Gump" Corso -B:.B:.].
3) Don't get emotionally involved.
I have always been amazed at the tenacity with which some people
hold to favourite beliefs and the rationalisations to which they
will resort when these beliefs are threatened.
I remember reading an exchange in a Fortean journal between a
critic of the Bermuda Triangle and a prominent promoter of same.
The critic outlined some quite specific reasons for disbelieving
anything particularly mysterious is going on in that fabled region.
The proponent responded by remarking that the critic didn't know
what he was talking about because once, when the two were on a
television show together, he had asked the proponent if the New
Yorker were a newspaper!
Apparently this argument made sense to the proponent, but I
can't imagine its making sense to anyone else. It is an extreme
example of how emotional commitment to a position or to a
specific claim can close us to rational argument and open us to
irrational defensiveness. It can lead us -- and this, by the
way, is as true of debunkers as of believers -- to feel that the
truth is greater than the sum of its facts.
It is easy to say that facts are all that matter. It is not
always easy, however, to act on that knowledge. This is
especially true at a time when paranormal and other anomalous
claims are under attack by professional debunkers who gleefully
jump on any mistake proponents make (while of course refusing to
acknowledge their own) and do their best to paint these proponents
as fools who can't tell the difference between valid and invalid
data. The effect is to force a proponent, if he isn't sensible
enough to know better, to assume a burden of infallibility.
Not long ago an ongoing controversy was settled when a certain
item of information came to light. This new information proved
that the claim in question was fallacious because it had been
based on erroneous assumptions.
The controversy had gone on for several years, with debunkers on
one side of the issue and a prominent proponent on the other.
The proponent -- let's call him X -- and his allies skillfully
refuted the debunkers' arguments, most of which were demonstrably
false or irrelevant. But finally an independent researcher, Y,
who had no particular stake in the controversy, discovered
disconfirming data which showed that, while the debunkers'
arguments were mistaken, their conclusion -- that the claim was
unfounded -- was correct. The critics, predictably passing over
their own errors, equally predictably chortled about their victory
and had fun at X's expense.
X's response was to cast aspersions on Y's motives and to mount
an emotional defence of the claim using post-hoc
rationalisations and shaky arguments. When I talked with him
about the controversy, X talked less about facts than about face
-- his own in particular and all anomalists' in general -- and
about the use to which the debunkers were going to put Y's
information. He made it appear that the fate of all anomaly
investigation rested on the preservation of the claim. To him
it seemed the finding of facts had become distinctly secondary
to the scoring of points, just as it always had to those
debunking opponents whom he so long had criticised so eloquently.
Let's not be afraid to admit it when we're wrong. And let's not
make the mistake of getting emotionally involved with -- or
staking our professional reputations on -- a particular idea or
a particular case. That doesn't mean that we aren't entitled to
our opinions about the merits of various claims or that we
should refrain from expressing these opinions and citing our
reasons for holding them. It just means that we ought to
understand clearly that what we believe and what is need not
necessarily bear a blood relationship.
4) Don't hesitate to criticise.
Throughout this article I have referred to our critics the
debunkers. They call themselves skeptics, which they aren't,
and I think we ought to stop calling them that, too. Marcello
Truzzi defines the difference between the skeptic and the
debunker as the difference between one who doubts and one who
denies. In the paranormal field there is, Fort knows, plenty
of room to doubt.
Unfortunately we hear too much from the deniers and too little
from the doubters. We are not likely to get rational arguments
from those who choose to define the controversy in apocalyptic
terms. Anyone who believes, as some debunkers say they do, that
civilisation will collapse if too many people believe that
Bigfoot exists is not likely to concern himself with such small
matters as reasonable arguments. That is too bad for the rest
of us because it means we have to look elsewhere for the kind of
good critical review that anomaly studies urgently require.*
The true skeptics, at least those willing to put in the time to
familiarize themselves with the literature, the issues and the
personalities, are all too few in number. Most can be found in
the pages of Truzzi's superb journal _Zetetic Scholar_ which I
recommend to all serious anomalists.
But it appears that the major part of the policing of the field
will have to be done by us. To our credit we have produced a
surprising body of critical studies of various claims. But much,
much more is needed.
The more we learn, the more we see the necessity for great care
in assessing the data. Some stories hold up under the most
searching scrutiny. Others, including some we hadn't expected
(such as the 1897 UFO calfnapping and the Barbados restless
coffins), collapse and blow away. We can be certain that more
of the old favourites will meet a like fate.
I urge each of you to pick a particular case -- one that
everyone knows to be true but that has not been documented in
our time -- and follow it as far as it goes. If you are able to
substantiate it, great; then we have a solid piece of evidence.
If you disprove it, that's great too. Who needs a bogus mystery
when we already have far more real ones than we can possibly
Let's not be afraid to criticise friends and colleagues -- or
even ourselves -- when they or we stray from the paths of common
sense and caution. Along the way some egos will get bruised,
but if those you criticise -- tactfully, I hope -- are as
concerned with fact-finding as you are, they'll get over it. We
all make mistakes. The only unforgivable mistake is the knowing
perpetuation of error.
5) Don't assume that all mysteries, even the genuine ones, have
Once, reflecting on his involvement with the mystery of the Loch
Ness Monster, Roy Mackal remarked to me that he could never
understand the resistance of so many scientists to the idea of
Nessie. After all, he said, Nessie is a ... rather mundane sort
of idea. We already have other larger freshwater animals such
as the sturgeon... Sometimes I think it would be almost worth the
game if the phenomenon at Loch Ness were all that earthshaking.
But it's not. It violates no basic law of zoology to suggest
that there are large animals in the loch.
Many of us have come to assume that we are dealing with
phenomena that border on the miraculous, phenomena that if
understood properly would shake the scientific establishment to
its very foundations. That may be so in a limited number of
cases, but in the great majority of cases I think it's wiser to
conclude that the various mysteries will eventually yield to
solutions that are not only un-extraordinary but also
The late F.W. Holiday once wrote a book in which he contended
that Nessie is a strange phenomenal manifestation from another
realm of being. In reality, as Mackal and other zoologically
trained investigators have shown, Nessie looks and acts
precisely as any large animal would under the circumstances.
We read books that would have us believe fossilised footprints
of Homo sapiens walked the earth millions of years ago. Yet a
recent scientific investigation shows that the prints are
neither of great age nor of human origin. They are almost
certainly camel tracks and they may be only 8,000 years old.
Skyquakes, sometimes attributed to UFOs, are now being studied
by Thomas Gold and Steven Soter of Cornell University. They
have leaned that such phenomena have a geophysical explanation.
The fabled moving rocks of Racetrack Playa, California, are
caused by the interaction of wind and rain.
And so on and on. We would do well to recall that before
meteorites were understood they were considered so bizarre as to
be utterly unbelievable. There was a time not so long ago when
meteorites were Fortean phenomena.
It is high time that we get serious. And if we are going to be
serious, then we are going to have to be cautious and careful.
And if we are cautious and careful, we're going to look a lot
more like skeptics than believers. Which is fine, and in the
true Fortean spirit. Charles Fort was skeptical of establishment
humbuggery and so are those of us who follow in his footsteps.
That hasn't changed and I hope it never will. But now it's time
that we train a skeptical eye on our own humbuggery as well.
* This is not to say, I wish to emphasise, that the debunkers
are always wrong or that they have made no contribution whatever
to serious research. Some of their work does withstand critical
scrutiny. So, however, does some of the work of extreme
believers. My point is that debunkers' and believers' claims
must be approached with caution, with judgement reserved until
all sides have been heard from.
From: Magonia #12, 1983
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