Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Sign Of The Apocalypse: I Defend Michael Shermer

I just left a comment over at Mac Tonnies blog,, in regards to some quotes that skeptic Michael Shermer made in an ABC News article about the reality behind UFOs. After reading it over, I decided that it was a piece I wanted to share here.

I’ve made the mistake in the past of jumping the gun, reading through an article too quickly and missing some key points. It happens to all of us. In this case I think Mac and most of the commenters at his blog have done this. To put this issue in perspective, click on the links above to Mac’s post and the ABC News article. Then read my following comment.

Sure, I sometimes engage in wild speculation and humor, but I strive to be fair (it's not always easy). Mac and the anti-Shermer commenters also try to be fair, but this time I think they overreacted.

= = =


I’m not a “fan” of Michael Shermer. One time he was pushing for a euphemism to replace the word “atheist” as if another term would disarm all the strict fundie believers out here. Also, he can be just as “fallible” as any human UFO witness when he doesn’t check out a source (Link) .

At the same time, he doesn’t come across as a complete skepwoo in the ABC news article. He does state: “So unfortunately we can't just, we can't always count [on] eyewitness accounts being reliable." (My emphasis.)

I do agree with that statement: you can’t always count on eyewitness accounts. (But you can never discount such accounts all the time. Accounts have to be judged on a case-by-case basis.)

And here are the last three paragraphs from that article that indicate that Shermer isn’t as close-minded as one would think.

* * *

Shermer says the problem comes in a kind of leap of faith — with UFOs it's a leap of explanation.

"In science it's OK to just say, 'Let's just withhold judgment for now and do more research. We don't have to commit to some big, grand theory of aliens visiting us. Let's just say we don't know what it is.' … But we have to follow the standards of evidence in science that we apply everywhere else. In no other science would anybody accept just a few random anecdotal stories and grainy videos and blurry photographs."

"The question itself I think is legitimate," he said. "It's interesting, it's fascinating. It's mythic in scale … one of the grand questions. It's like the God question or, you know, the meaning-of-life question. It's one of those, on that scale. So you'd have to be made of wood not to be interested and, you know, have they come here? Are they up there?"

* * *

So he does think the question is “legitimate.” What he states that more research should be done before any leaps of faith are made. I don’t argue with that. Until unquestionable evidence is found, we can speculate about the UFO mystery, but no one can truly say what ultimate answer lies behind the phenomena.

Apparently Shermer’s not a wooden dummy when considering the issue. Also, he’s right when he says that science is limited in trying to find answers in certain areas such as the reality behind God or UFOs. And that is indeed a limitation of traditional science when it comes to “mythic” subjects.



Mac said...

Sorry, Ray. I read the article and, if anything, the bits you quoted make him sound even more condescending. Instead of a vague reference to "blurry photographs," for example, why not a summary of a well-investigated case such as RB47?

X. Dell said...

I've made this comment on Post Human Blues, and will repeat it here:

If the article were written by Shermer, then we would have a better way of contextualizing the remarks bade to ABC News. The problem is that his qualifying statemeents at the end are out of context, and perhaps even contrary to context. After all, it's one thing to say that eyewitness accounts are irrelevant, and another to say that we have to be more patient in our assessment of validity. One thing the article doesn't make clear is the weight or emphasis that Shermer put on each point.

Part of mainstream coverage of UFOs seems almost bent to raise the issue without saying hardly anything. Or to leave it up to the reader/viewer's perception what was actually said. This piece seems to fit into that groove.

I reckon everyone's entitled to their own opinion, even Klaas. I don't see, really, a need to villainize anyone for accepting any orthodoxy. Rather, the point is to find out what we can and add to our knowledge, and critique when and where necessary. (BTW, I thought Post Human Blues was an exceellent venue for such critique.)

My interest in ufology isn't really to win converts, after all, but rather to find truth. I can see where if grant money or something else were involved with the image of ufology in the public sphere, then yeah defending the discipline becomes important. But how many of us are getting grant funding?

Obviously, eyewitness accounts are relative evidence, and they're certainly relevant. Since courts, academia, and other instutions rely upon witness testimony, we can hardly dismiss them as unimportant or irrelevant. If Shermer wishes to do so, he may at his own peril.

If Shermer also concedes that the UFO phenomenon poses important questions, he's free to do that too. But I don't usually count opinion as evidentiary (medical and psychiatric testimony notwithstanding). So whether he says kind things or nasty things about UFO witnesses, UFOs, or the UFO question, Shermer's beliefs don't have much bearing on truth.

Ray said...


X. Dell beat me to the punch with a point I was going to make. Shermer is quoted and we don’t know in what context his quotes were made. Also, due to the limitations of space, maybe he did go into detail with a case like RB47 but his observation was cut.

One fault I find with the format of the ABC News article – and I’m seen this with too many MSM pieces – is the assumption that each issue only has two sides, pro and con. Obviously Shermer was set up as the “con” POV. But he doesn’t come across as rabidly anti-UFO, saying that the subject is silly and that no one should bother talking about it. When someone makes that statement, they do belong to the skeptical elite.

Maybe part of the problem is that Shermer is supposed to represent the con and his quotes are filtered through that perspective. Thus certain readers expect him to be completely anti-UFO and interpret his statements that way. Articles can force interviewees to play certain roles. Stereotypes are easy fits for a piece; they facilitate the reader’s “understanding” of a topic. That’s lazy writing, bad writing, a disservice to readers.

I debated about going over Shermer’s statements point by point, but I don’t think parsing will make that much difference.


Ray said...

X. Dell:

I like the word you used, “villainize.” It ties in with my previous comment about someone being put into a stereotypical role to serve the narrow needs of an article.

On occasion I will let loose and label someone, but that happens when I have facts to back up why I’m using such a term. If someone is a “pious hypocrite” – just to pick a label at random – I will show through that person’s actions and statements why he’s a pious hypocrite. For example, if a religious leader rants on about the evils of homosexuality and he’s caught with a male prostitute, then the label fits, even if it’s a cliché.

Michael Shermer doesn’t fit into what I call the “skepwoo” category. There are others who are more vehemently attached to their unreasonable disbelief.

For the most part I try to respectfully disagree with someone, even when I take a good-natured poke at him. Shouting ain’t debate.


dr.alistair said...

shermer is a typical scientist with human biases.

he is typical of the bloke who can convince the government of france to build an underground tunnel made of silver to race teeny-weeny bits of energy around so that they will hit eachother to somehow prove that the universe started with a big bang.

but they won`t for the life of themselves go after reports of lights in the sky or crashed disks or alien abduction accounts, of which there are millions.

maybe it`s simply about the money.

Ray said...

Dr. Alistair:

If it's about the money, then how come I'm not raking in big $?

Some skeptics claim that there's no money in skepticism, that the real dough is in promoting the paranormal. But people like Shermer seem to be doing OK.

As for money and priorities, scientists can point to tangible results of their research. E=MC2 seems to be a meaningless equation -- until an atomic bomb explodes.

UFO researchers need something tangible before any money will be put into their field.


dr.alistair said...

ray, i agree that ufology needs something tangible to work with, unless the focus can be aimed toward those who consume sylvia brown and john edwards.

there is a living to be made by preying on the hope of people who have recently lost loved ones or who believe that sylvia can "see" thier missing child, and there is a living to be made selling scary stories, which tales of ufos have the potential to be......but it seems that lights in the sky and magical beings are the realm of religion and must be protected as such.