Monthly Archives: September 2012

Skewed perceptions of intent and responsibility

I’ve always been somewhat intersted in the areas of human experience that are a little bit more “out there” and intriguing. Subjects like the supernatural, UFOs and cryptozoology were things that I really enjoyed absorbing information on when I was a kid and as I got older my approach to them was altered as things always are by the experience of becoming hopefully more worldly and less credulous in general. This often meant that when I came back to a subject, I was reading it with a far more critical opinion of the claims people were making and the evidence they presented to back up their findings.

I suppose this process for me was almost begun by the popularity of TV programmes that had the peak of their fame almost a decade ago now. I had never been the kind of person to catagorise myself as a skeptic before, but it was not long into the time I spent watching a particular programme (which will remain nameless) that I was forced to admit that it was tantamount to open bilking of the audience. The presenters would mince around a supposedly haunted location in the middle of the night with their pet medium (i.e. fraud in this and most other cases) and ascribe any random noise or mote of dust that floated in front of the camera to the supernatural while making no effort to introduce a scrap of scientific rigour to what they were doing.

The most thankless job went to a professor who was asked to watch the episode back and comment from the perspective of a scientist on the so-called findings. Inevitably his conclusions were the same: that there was no way to prove or disprove that what they had experienced was mundane or otherwise due to the amatuerish and unprofessional approach the programme took. But of course in the mind of some, this oddly served to add weight to the idea that something beyond the ken of science was going on, rather than that everyone involved was wasting their time unless they had no interest in what was going on save for making a TV program that was eagerly lapped up by the audience.

My choking point came when the same expert was asked onto one of the live marathon shows they had begun to produce on events such as Halloween. On this occasion he was asked by one of the presenters (and interstingly based on the exchange that followed also an owner of the production company responsible for the program) what his opinion was of a random sound they had heard and recorded. He did the usual thing of speaking as though he wondered why he bothered, listing the logical things that could have made the noise that were not the spirits of the departed. But then he voiced the obvious fact that it could have been faked to generate interst in the show. At this the presenter seemed to lose his mind, almost threatening the skeptic and demanding to know what possible motivation he could have to fake the evidence.

Of course it does not take a genius to speculate as to the motivation of man who owns the company making the show and why he would want to see impressive “evidence” of the paranormal onscreen, whether it be real or not.

From there the original skeptic was replaced with a slew of ever more pathetic and bored-looking skeptics who mumbled about rational explanations, while the over-eager presenters came out with priceless lines such as: “By the end of the night, we will make you believe!” But the most amusing was when they paired the skeptic with a credulous individual who was sold on matters of the supernatural and described the latter as the one who had “an open mind”.

Is it possible to have a more blantant failure to understand the meaning of words in the English language?

The skeptic is asking for proof of these extraordinary claims, willing to subject them to the same scrutiny as every scientific theory is made to endure and only then decide if the phenomenon is credible. The believer on the other hand has already made up their mind based on either the word of another or something they have seen and under their own auspices decided stands as proof of the supernatural.

The more I read around there subjects, the more I see this bizarre and frankly worrying juxtaposition of roles being imposed on the viewpoint of the skeptic and the believer. Almost without exception, when an individual makes an outrageous claim of one kind or another in these areas, the rational mind that seeks to respond and ask for proof is characterised as at the best an arrogant and uncaring cynic and at the worst a vindictive monster.

This is all the more disturbing when one considers the realms of public life in which we demand such scrutiny without question and would think that its absence made the process highly questionable. In a court there would be nothing to be gained by calling the prosecution all the things that a skeptic is accused of being simply because he points out the evidence does not favour the accused. And yet this happens in almost all cases where a skeptic takes the time to study and comment upon the claims of those who tell the public at large that they can commune with the dead, have been abducted by aliens or know the location of Bigfoot.

I can only think that there exists a level of dislocation from or experience of the real world in the minds of many who are either claming to be witnesses to this kind of phenomena or seeking to make a career out of bringing them to the attention of the public at large. Anyone who has been party to way that all too harsh real world works will attest to the fact that there is little room for fudging the facts and asking that what you are claiming to be the truth should be accepted on your word alone. If something does not stand up to fairly harsh scrutiny, it is likely to be derided and tossed out as bullshit in very short order with little or no thought for the feelings of the person making groundless claims.

Perhaps the most outlandish of these sentiments was encapsulated in the UFO researcher who was sold on the idea of abductees who claimed to have been repeatedly taken by aliens, when he compared the nature of skeptics who took the opposing point of view to those who would accuse a rape victim of making fake claims or having brought it on themselves. I mean really, could there be a more distasteful and in the end revealing statement of the skewed view that such individuals are capable of adopting to protect their own precarious take on such a matter? This person would characterise the act of merely approaching an issue with an unwavering commitment to dealing with the hard facts rather than indulging in potentially damaging and patently untrue claims as being tantamount to condemning a victim of a violent crime?

Even when the same demands are made in a court of law to prove crimes every day around the world?

In the end it becomes ever more disturbing to realise that we live in a world where some people would see the credulous believer as the champion of what is right and deride the skeptic who merely asks for proof before he believes as the villain. Like the crowd who were whipped up into buying the magical cure-all tonic by the travelling salesman, they may find later that they have swallowed something quite unpleasant.

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An Open Mind as opposed to an Open Mouth…

Why do people ever think that an answer exists to the most fundamental of question as regards the very things that make us human beings rather than just another variety of primate? There are many examples of this kind of thing, but the one that keeps returning to me at the moment is the way in which the study of history and archeology can suffer from this very thing when presented in a medium which is seen by the masses. I’m making my way through an interesting book about the historicity of the Trojan War as described by Homer at the moment, in which the discoveries made by archeologists in Greece and Turkey are examined to compare them to the world that is described in the Iliad and Odyssey.

More often than not it seems that there was a world which would have looked something like the one that Homer creates, but the major surprise for most experts was that when they finally managed to translate all of the clay tablets in the ancient written language of Linear B, they were given an insight into a bureaucratic, rather than heroic world. It appears that as well as spawning great warriors and tales that would be handed down the ages, the ancient Greeks were just as concerned with keeping tabs on the accounts and making sure that everything tallied at the end of the financial year as we are today.

But then why should it surprise anyone to discover that people in that age were as complicated and possessed of different aspects to their cultures as we pride ourselves on being today? I think that all too often we fall into a trap of defining others according to the features of their historical legacy that we find romantic or most flattering to ourselves. A case in point was the first episode of the new documentary entitled “The British” (I can already hear the rumblings in the hills of Wales and Scotland over that choice of title) on SKY that could best be described as “history lite”. Here we had the ancient Britons pitted against the Romans and a basic treatment of the way in which the largest part of the islands became Romanised, gaining a taste for amongst other things gladiatorial combat.

Helen Mirren then popped up as one of the many talking heads (chosen more for their celebrity value in most cases than ability to make a relevant comment) and opined on the way in which the Romans understood that such things were needed to keep the masses in line and not questioning the way things worked. But how common is this attitude towards the subject? The assumption that such things were primarily intended as a means of control and a sedative for the common man? Of course a Roman pleb would have lapped it up without a moment of thought, but when we sprawl in front of the X-Factor and forget the problems of our day, we’re just relaxing and never a hint of being kept in line by the powers that be is mentioned.

The comment reminded me of the time I was standing in the middle of the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, being told what can be said about those awesome standing stones and the culture that raised them. The guide explained that while we can be sure there are reasons that the alignment is dictated by the motions of the sun, moon and stars, we cannot really be sure just what the entire purpose of the place was. In this he compared the ring quite obviously with Stonehenge, world-reknowned and yet still an enduring mystery.

But at that moment, a woman piped up towards the front of the crowd: “That’s not right, they know what Stonehenge was now. It was a graveyard…I saw a programme about it the other week.”

Well, that was the end of the debate, case solved.

Was it bollocks.

The guide was polite, nodding and making those sounds that say at once: “Really, how interesting…now please be quiet while I finish my bloody talk, for which I am not paid enough to debate these matters with the likes of you.”

What struck me about the woman’s statement was the way in which she sounded so sure the matter was closed. She had seen a TV program and so that was that in her own mind. I’ve seen more than a few documentaries on Stonehenge and the one thing that each one has left me thinking is that we really have no bloody clue as to what the point of the place was overall and we may never have a hope of finding one. To me it always seems that as soon as you find one use for the place another pops up and most likely this is because it did not serve one specific purpose at all, but rather had a myriad of roles to play in the lives of the people who built it and the generations afterwards who then used it.

Take a Christian cathedral for example, say you happened upon it in the far future and all that remained was the shell of the building and perhaps a small portion of the statuary. If you had no notion of what the religion that had been behind its construction was, what then would you think the purpose of the place was? Remember there are no books, paintings, stained-glass windows or associated knowledge with which to make your assumptions, just a massive and obviously labour-intensive building that must have been an achievement for the people who built it. Do you see it as a tomb, because there are people buried beneath the floor? Is it a venue for a musical or theatrical performance on account of the wondrous accoustics and the remains of the seats? Or could it be place of civic administration because of the similarities with the layout of a Roman Bascilica?

My point is in the end, that when we explain our own time and the things that we create, we like to allow them so many levels of meaning and different and yet complimentary functions that we would be offended if someone failed to appreciate these when they looked in from the outside. So why then are we so quick to do the opposite when we try to appreciate the things that were created by those who came before us? Why does there have to be one defining label attached to Stonehenge? Only an idiot thinks that Hadrian’s Wall existed only to keep the northernmost tribes of these isles on the other side of it. And why can’t Homer’s ancient heroes have come back from the sack of Ilium to debate with their scribes whether or not the Trojan maidens they had carried off were a tax write-off?

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