Monday, November 19, 2007

It’s Academic

Fortunately Loren Coleman was there to set the record straight.

Over at Coleman has posted an article showing how academic types, despite their vaunted degrees, can get still get it wrong. (The Flatwoods Monster Decoded – 11/6/07.)

Coleman recently attended a conference in Maine, the Twenty-First Annual Conference of The Society for Literature, Science and the Arts 2007. He attended panels dealing with cryptozoology, his area of interest.

One such panel dealt with Gray Barker and the Flatwoods Monster incident. Four academic types – three of them from the University of West Virginia – discussed their research into the Gray Barker archives related to the sighting of a strange being in Flatwoods, West Virginia back in 1952.

To quote Coleman: “They mentioned many people I had worked with or have known, such as Ivan T. Sanderson, James Moseley, John Keel and Barker, so the material was firsthand to me.”

While he sat in the audience, Coleman noted a few historical statements that were incorrect in one of the four papers presented, “How to Make a Myth: The Flatwoods Monster as Cyborg,” by Nick Hales.

After the presentation the floor was open for Q&A and responses. No one in he audience (around 25 people) felt compelled to say anything – except Loren Coleman.

The focus of this essay isn’t the misstatements that Coleman corrected. He does an excellent job of covering them with his post. What concerns me is what would have happened if he wasn’t in the audience or didn’t speak up.

People would have walked away with misconceptions, assuming that they had real insights to the topic because some academic types supposedly discovered the truth.

I’ve seen this happen in other situations. The sheep assume an academic knows what he’s talking about because he has special letters preceding and following his name, unchallengeable marks proving membership in good standing in the priesthood of knowledge. (That’s my take, not Coleman’s. In another post, “Cryptid: Code Beyond Cryptozoology,” Coleman did say he enjoyed the conference; the people there were friendly and informative. He didn’t mention any problems like those with the Gray Barker panel.)

No, I’m not staying all college professors are pompous asses disseminating information tainted by egoism and lack of proper research. And I don’t know if the academics mentioned in Coleman’s essay are like that. But self-important “assademics” do exist.

Remember the Hale-Bopp Comet that put on a spectacular show years ago? During its apparition I attended a talk about HB presented by astronomy professor at a local college.

After his presentation, he was open for some Q&A. I asked that since some comets are associated with certain meteor showers, could there be a meteor shower caused by Hale-Bopp?

The professor dismissed my question in such a way that he made me feel stupid. He authoritatively stated that Hale-Bopp wasn’t in the proper plane to create meteor showers.

A year or so later I read an article about a new meteor shower, one apparently associated with the passing of the Hale-Bopp Comet.


X. Dell said...

What you're describing is known in psychology as "social lerning theory" (SLT), which states that we inform ourselves from cues in our enviornment. We tend to respond more forcefully or with more conviction if the cues are given by an authority figure--however one defines 'authority figure.'

Academics, newsbroadcasters, celebrities, teachers, parents, etc. all carry a presumed authority because of their roles in a hierarchical society. So you're right, had Coleman not questioned the scholar, those attending would have been left with many misconceptions.

Although it's clear to me that you aren't dismissing scholarship as one avenue for exploring certain areas, you rightfully point out the need for everyone to check each other--especially in this day and age when we're so innundated by uncritically disseminated data. And I see mistakes made from all sides, so it becomes important to balance perspectives and authority.

Ray said...

X. Dell:

I have nothing against scholarship as long as it's good scholarship. But sometimes a dirt farmer knows more than a PhD - especially in the area of bullshit.


Doug said...

Whenever someone at work asks me a question about a subject where I am supposedly the authority (be afraid), I always couch my answer with equivocating terms like "it should be" rather than "it is" because I must concede I don't control things, so I could be proven not necessarily wrong but not necessarily correct either.

We're all full of crap in one way or another. I don't forget that.

And I think it's a sign of insecurity to need to show off one's supposed expertise, especially in a manner condescending toward those seeking that knowledge. So when I've been dismissed after asking a question, beyond the disappointment, I sort of feel sorry for the falsely arrogant person.

lthanlon said...

What honks me of is how college academics get tenure -- which essentially means that they can't be fired from jobs with salaries paid by taxes. I want a job like that.

Ray said...


I encountered that astronomy professor one day on the street and mentioned what he said at his lecture and what the news article stated. He wasn't condescending then, saying that he was sorry if he implied his statement was the absolute truth.


You raise a good point but there's the flip side: sometimes a good teacher needs tenure to protect himself from the unfair politics of the institution where he works.


lthanlon said...

I'm not too familiar with the academic reception accorded the theories of Drs. John Mack, Leo Sprinle, but my guess is a lot of what they said didn't go over well.

Ray said...


I know that Dr. Mack caught some flak for his invesitgations into UFO abductions. The University wanted to distance itself from his work. But that's a story for another day. As for Dr. Sprinkle, I'm not up to speed with his background, even though I've seen his name. Research for another day.


PS: You're not related to Orthon, are you? [g]