Monday, August 14, 2006

Noci-Notes – ‘Skeptics and True Believers’ - #7

` At last! I’ve finally spent long enough sitting here to finish this installment of Noci Notes (after a mountain-top camping trip during which I saw a mysterious blue flash in the sky), plus I have completed a tasty bonus post.
` (And, if you have not been following along, feel free to start from the beginning.)

` This is a good one: Chapter Six – Close Encounters of the Improbable Kind. I have kind of an intimate familiarity with abduction experiences – I’ve had two myself (one went further along than the other). However, I don’t think they were caused by extraterrestrials:
` It’s not that I think that aliens can’t exist – I would genuinely be surprised if they did not! – it is just that, when taken into context, alien encounters can be better explained by various things other than actual aliens. ‘Alien abduction experiences’ in particular, as you will see, have almost everything in common with ‘witch abduction’ experiences of the Middle Ages, and would appear to be the same phenomenon.

` I used to be so into the idea that UFOs were alien-driven vehicles and that people sometimes had encounters with the occupants – generally unpleasant ones. Over time, as I began to take a closer look at the people who reported having such encounters, I realized that they had a lot in common, and apparently, their experiences could be best explained by things that are known to happen in people’s minds along with certain coincidences.
` The author himself has a similar story:
I was once a UFO buff myself. As a teenager in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I read everything written on UFOs. That was the golden age of UFOlogy, and I was convinced that the breathless reports of flying saucers were onto something. The evidence, although anecdotal, seemed terribly impressive. The fact that UFOs weren’t acknowledged by science could be put down to a government cover-up. ... It was only a matter of time, I thought, until close-minded scientists recognized the phenomenon for what it was.
` Then I went off to college, studied science, and developed some skills of critical thinking. ... I found nothing [about flying saucers] that could stand up to scrutiny. What I found instead were delightful stories, spiced with a delicious dollop of fear, of superior beings somewhere in the heavens who took a special interest in humans. What I found, in other words, was wishful thinking – angels in a new guise.
` According to a 1991 Roper survey of six thousand Americans, one in fifty of them experiences four out of five of typical alien abduction characteristics. I come pretty close:
` The first one is waking up paralyzed with a sense of a strange presence in the room. I have experienced several of these things in my life, though only one involved a strange presence. (Oddly, one involved a confusing presence – I had thought my roommate was in my room for some reason, reprimanding our bipolar cat.)
` Experiencing an hour or more of ‘missing time’. Indeed, I have merely experienced 45 minutes of ‘missing time’ as far as I am aware, and I am only sure of this because I had been staring at a clock during this occurence: I was quite surprised to see the time suddenly change!
` Seeing unusual balls of light in a room without understanding what has caused them. Yes, indeed, I have had this while at the same time being paralyzed!
` Discovering puzzling scars on one’s body with no idea how they could have gotten there. I’m not sure about scars, but I’ve had plenty of odd abrasions and cuts that I never did figure out where they had come from. Also, I seem to have been stabbed with a pencil at some point, because there is a graphite-colored mark in my thumb joint.
` As a consequence of these statistics, the Fund for UFO Research concludes that over 3.7 million Americans may have been abducted by extraterrestrials!

` Harvard psychiatry professor, John Mack, is unusual in his field because he believes – based on interviews of over a hundred people, often under hypnosis – that millions of people are being abducted by extraterrestrials and experimented on sexually and/or genetically. (It is interesting to note, however, that all thirteen of the subjects documented in Mack’s book ‘exhibit widely recognized characteristics of fantasy-prone personalities, based on internal evidence of the book’ i.e. vivid, waking dreams, a susceptibility for hypnosis, having psychic experiences, hallucinations, etc. ...Kinda like Sylvia Browne.)

` Though there are certain types of consistency found through alien abduction experiences, most of it can also be found in typical Medieval witchcraft hysteria encounters, down to the fact that the investigators are mostly male and the victims are typically young women.
` According to medieval documentation, witch abductions involved the victim waking up from sleep with the sense of strange presences in the room. Somehow, they float out of bed and through the ceiling to participate in sexually-oriented experiments.
` Each witch and alien experience is so consistent with one another that handbooks are written with the description of a typical experience. The consistency of this testimony is taken as objective evidence.
` Victims sometimes have lasting pain, scars, or injuries.
` The appearance of the abductors and their presumed place of origin and mode of transport are consistent with what was popular in the culture.
` Whereas investigators use hypnosis to force testimony from victims today, they used torture back in the old days.... Both are very unreliable methods if you’re looking for the truth!

` In fact, it is true that you can find many people who have had experiences that are somewhat similar. For example, when I posted my ‘Abduction Experience’ in the Skeptic Forum, other people came forward with somewhat similar stories.
` Sleep paralysis in itself can be traumatic because you can't move, and it would seem, you can't breathe, either! Hallucinations during sleep paralysis are common, and it isn't unusual when they amplify the feelings of being helpless – quite often, the experiences have something like an ‘Old Hag’ or ‘Gray Ghost’ type of theme rather than an alien theme.
` In fact, there are ancient myths of demons (like a Succubus or an Incubus) that paralyze their victims and have sex with them – these seem to have come from sleep paralysis with a ‘demon theme’. Others include supernatural vampires that feed off the mind or other types of paranormal attacks.
` These various themes are actually so common that there are support groups to help people through them! (And you can probably find a bunch via internet search engines.) And, after all these years, there is still no evidence that alien abductions are anything other than either an alien-themed sleep paralysis or a hypnosis-induced memory that was instilled only after a suspected abduction had occurred. (Hypnosis is surprisingly powerful in the area of altering existing and creating new memories, and is well known for creating abduction experiences. For more information, you might want to check out this humorous post!)
` First of all, I happen to know that the first recorded abduction occurred only after aliens and flying saucers had become part of popular culture, thanks to science fiction-type entertainment such as Buck Rogers in the 1930s. ‘Alien abduction’ experiences didn’t even start to become very common until after the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released!
` It is well-known that people have sleep paralysis and that certain themes are common. Abduction experiences fit the criteria as well as any other. There has never been any reliably documented evidence that there are any extraterrestrials involved. Therefore, it would seem sensible to conclude that mental phenomena such as hallucinations of partially-sleep people during sleep paralysis episodes is still the best explanation for what causes ‘alien abductions’.
` Saying that aliens are the best explanation means that you have to go out and dig up evidence for their existence. But no one has ever been successful. So far, staying with the simplest explanation here has not failed to make sense – and in other cases, the same is generally true. This goes for anything in everyday life, as Raymond knows:
For example, I’ve been missing a grass scythe from the toolshed of my house in Ireland for ten years, and you will recall from an earlier chapter that I live on “The Fairies’ Road.” Shall I assume the fairies took it? Only if a simpler, less tenuous explanation will not suffice. I’ve been known to be absentminded. Someday I will probably find the tool in the tall grass where I absentmindedly left it. But if I believed in fairies to start with, then no doubt I’d take the missing tool to be confirming evidence for my belief. Coincidence is the evidence of the True Believer.
` As for me, I used to believe that the gray aliens did visit earth and do horrible things to us, though especially after my ‘abduction experience’, I seriously doubted that they had been. Until then, however I figured that the fact that grays were described as humanoid bothered me, because most animals on earth are not humanoid, much less do they have two arms and two legs and a head with eyes, nose and mouth arranged in the same order.
` On top of this, another planet – whether or not it had a somewhat different atmosphere and somewhat different gravity, etc. – would most likely yield an intelligent species that does not even resemble humans in the slightest. In order to solve that problem, I deduced that grays must be our descendents as they must appear a million years from now who have come back in time to study us.
` Eventually, I concluded that this was really too complicated to explain the whole thing because the actual evidence supporting the existence of gray aliens can be explained without their actual existence.

` Still, it was a while before I had relinquished my belief in various pseudosciences because I didn’t realize that they were created any differently than actual science. During those years, I had read (and believed!) a book called The Omega Point by Frank Tipler. It’s pretty crazy. If you’ve never heard of it, Raymo has done a pretty good job of describing it:
Tipler is a professor of mathematical physics at Tulane University, erudite, broadly knowledgeable, and highly intelligent. His book is replete with references to writers as various as Heidegger, Aquinas, and St. Paul. The long scientific appendix is chockablock with complex mathematical equations. Tipler clearly takes what he’s doing seriously. He assumes (as do most scientists) that the universe began with a Big Bang from a mathematical singularity that contained all that exists today in a state of pure energy at infinitely high temperature. The universe is presently expanding from the primeval impetus. Tipler then assumes that the mass density of the universe is such that the expansion will slow down and give way to contraction. (There is no convincing observational evidence that this is the case.) If so, then hundreds of billions of years from now the universe will end in another singularity, sometimes called the Big Crunch, but called the Omega Point by Tipler, in language reminiscent of the Jesuit philosopher-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
` Tipler defines life as information processing. The “self,” he says, is an enormously complex computer program running on a biological computer. In the final collapse of the universe to the Omega Point, all of the programs of every person who ever existed (and who ever could have existed) will be mathematically re-created in the mind of an all-seeing, all-loving God that Tipler identifies with the universe itself. All of this is ostensibly derived by Tipler from the laws of quantum physics. That’s the gist of his ideas, although my brief description hardly does justice to the mathematical subtleties. If you can find in such a theory the consolations of religion, then you are welcome to them.
` The Omega Point Theory is “science,” Tipler claims, arrived at in exactly the same way as physicists calculate the properties of the electron. Indeed, with the Omega Point, he says, religion becomes a part of physics: an experimentally viable – or falsifiable – proof of a personal, omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful God, and of the ressurection of every human to live again in bliss.... and you can take the body with you.
` Sure, people want to hear that, and yes, the way it is explained does seem very scientific and yes, only a person who is very familiar with physics can really grasp what Tipler is saying. Also, Tipler says on page 305 that there is still no evidence in favor of this “theoretical beauty”... and so... what? No evidence in favor would indicate that it is merely a hypothesis.
` Sort of like string theory, only a hundred times more outlandish.
` Clearly, this hypothesis is not only highly speculative but it is bend-over-backwards abstract, even for something that has to do with physics. ...Yet in the introduction, Tipler wrote: “If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: ‘Be comforted, you and they shall live again.’”
` Wow. Now that’s a pretty big thing to promise someone, especially for something that is leagues more tentative than the mere existence of dark energy. And yet, Tipler can tell you somewhat confidently that after everything is assembled into the Omega Point, you can not only have sex, but the Omega Point can match you with the most attractive mate logically possible and that yes, your nervous system will be able to stand this much beauty.
` And when are we promised this? Hundreds of billions of years in the future. Ah, typical. In every way, there’s no way to test this hypothesis, nor find any practical application for it. And yet, Tipler insists that he can provide a lot of answers about the afterlife, despite the fact that his hypothesis is not needed to explain any phenomena but instead is propelled by wishful thinking.
` I am not saying that there could not be an afterlife, only that Tipler is going ludicrously far with his assumptions. It is, as Raymo put it; “the kind of pseudo-physical mysticism that gives physics a bad name.” And, it is the kind of pseudo-physical mysticism that I had once mistaken for real science.

` On a grander scale, pseudoscience is stuff that gives all science a bad name because it is the kind of thing that keeps people from being able to understand what science is all about. Even more confusing, many actual scientists – even well-respected ones – have been known to practice pseudoscience and peddle it as actual science from time to time!
` Generally, though, the perpetrators are not specialists in the area in which they make their claims. In fact, many pseudoscientists are not even scientists at all! But ones who have fancy degrees may choose to hide the fact that they are not specialists in the fields which they profess to have theories in. In fact, there are several characteristics that tend to go along with pseudoscientists, which Raymo lists and describes:
Mack and Tipler offer more under the banner of scientific respectability than their empirical evidence can support, and by doing so they dangerously blur the boundary between science and pseudoscience. They may be the best-credentialed names currently offering benediction to the paranormal, but they are not alone. Bookstore shelves burgeon with books by fringe scientists and pseudoscientists purporting to offer what I’ll call New Theories of the Universe (NTUs). Herewith, rules for packaging a NTU if you want to offer one of your own:

1. Give your NTU an aura of real science. Use words like cosmic, morphic, plasma, energy matrix, astral, etheric, resonance. By all means invoke the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which can be interpreted by the uncritical mind to mean “anything goes.” Quantum theory and chaos theory can be made to sound vaguely compatible with the paranormal.

2. Flaunt your credentials. Put an M.S. or Ph.D. after your name on the jacket of your book; it doesn’t matter in what field of study you acquired your degree.

3. Make sure your NTU is easy to understand (“easy-to-follow layman’s language”). You may use schematic drawings of warped space-time, but, please, no mathematics. If you must use mathematics, keep it to an impressive but unreadable “technical appendix.”

4. Don’t hesitate to point out all the things that real science can’t explain [at least very well, so far]: the origin of life, the development of organisms, consciousness, dreams.

5. Remember, your NTU needs evidence. A good rule of thumb: You can always track down at least a dozen purported occurrences of any phenomenon.

6. Distance yourself from the most simplistic superstitions. For example, make fun of newspaper horoscopes and the stories in supermarket tabloids. But also make sure that your NTU is vague enough to allow for – or at least not prohibit – astrology, aliens, ESP, psychokinesis, ghosts, immortality, and other popular paranormal phenomena.

7. Keep your NTU human-centered. Real science tends to make people feel isolated, forgotten, like cogs in a machine. A good NTU makes every individual feel like the center of a cosmic web of influences.

8. Include a bit of sex.

9. Don’t be afraid to evoke the wrath of the scientific establishment; this will prove you are onto something big. For example, the best thing that ever happened to Rupert Sheldrake was a bit of intemperate editorializing in the science journal Nature. Sheldrake (an ex-Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard, Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge University) is the author of A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation and The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Memory of Nature, books claiming that everything from a crystal to a human becomes what it is because it remembers what it is supposed to be. When the former book was published in 1981, the editors of Nature called it an “infuriating book... the best candidate for burning there has been in many years,” and immediately propelled the book onto the best-seller lists.
` [Of course! Many people assume that scientists are not being objective and purposely squash the paranormal.] Subsequent editions of Sheldrake’s book have used the Nature denunciation as a publicity blurb. Why is Sheldrake’s theory infuriating? Why is the dreaded scientific establishment running scared? Could it be that...?

10. Remember those famous lines from Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Scientists don’t know everything. The key to success for any good NTU is to amass enough anomalies, coincidences, oddities, exceptions, prodigies, and wonders that the sheer bulk of your data will convince the reader that your theory is correct. After all, if orthodox science can’t explain All of This, then alien abductions, the Omega Point, or (insert your own theory) begins to look better and better.
` This is generally the kind of thing I have observed in all the pseudoscience books I used to read (and believe in) from The Intelligent Universe to Beyond the Quantum. Even so, I didn’t realize that there was any such thing as pseudoscience.
` In fact, I used to complain constantly; “But this is science, just as much as any other! So why are the other scientists saying it doesn’t make sense? Why are they so close-minded? What is so wrong with them that they cannot accept something another scientist says if they don’t like it?”
` Similarly, a group of young, talented nature writers that Raymo had met with said that they loved his columns, except for his attitude ‘toward astrology, channeling, alien abductions, extrasensory perception, quantum immortality, and other New Age enthusiasms.’ They said he was condescending in his dismissal and pointed out that ‘even Galileo was a victim of close-mindedness.’
` This may be true, but there is a huge difference between simply dismissing or believing in something because of the way you feel and trying rigorously to verify it and accepting whatever implications that follow from the outcome!
Give me the evidence for your belief,” I asked them. “It makes me feel good,” they said, or, quoting TV’s The X-Files, “The truth is out there.” They have become, in short, True Believers by default.
` So, the fact that these paranormal concepts have failed all stringent tests does not tell us that they definitely do not exist in any way, only that we’ve tried to disprove them in various ways that we can (and using only a limited number of people) and have either succeeded or at least not failed.
` Actual phenomena are the ones that, when they are tested, are expected to fail being disproved. Only then do you know that you may be onto something!

` Well, I am getting hungry. I think it's time I started dinner. Ta!

7 comments:

Aaron said...

Spoony, your posts are so long. It would be nice to have Noci-Notes in smaller installations.

S E E Quine said...

` You know, I think that was my longest Skeptics one yet!
` Hrm....
` What's sad is that its extreme length was to make up for my lack of Noci-Notes in the past couple of months!
` ...Yeah, that was it!

` Grah.

R said...

Wow. I need to re-read that when I'm more awake. Having not had an alien experience, but having studied mediaeval history, that was incredibly interesting. I intend to write my own NTU. It looks like it could be great fun. And, obviously, distract me from my hunt for a new job.

Galtron said...

Hey, Noci! You could write your own NTU! That would be a great idea for a job!

I also like your story in the Skeptics Forum where you turn the aliens purple!

It's so funny the way you responded to having that experience - instead of being a mega victim, you took control of the situation! Ha ha!

S E E Quine said...

` Indeed. I guess I have better control of my reactions to internal life than external life. I'm working on it, though....

` I think I'll leave it to R to make the NTU. A least, until I make up a fake joke-cult.
` Good luck, R!

Beckjord said...

Spoony-

Cut the weird background skin,
and makle posts shorter.

Beckjord

monsterfinder@gmail.com

S E E Quine said...

` Weird background skin?