Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Matt Graeber: Knowing, Not Simply Believing

Time to set the record straight.

In a previous post, "Voodoo Skepticism," I talked about Matt Graeber's articles in the online magazine, SUNlite. Matt examined various UFO cases with a psychological slant, showing how the mindset and experience of the witness could connect symbolically with the details of the sighting.

While an interesting approach, I didn't really buy into Matt's angle, at least all of the symbolism. To me it was "voodoo" -- mainly because too much of psychology/psychiatry, the Freudian stuff, is voodoo.

But that's my opinion. I did screw up assuming that since Matt's article appeared in SUNlite -- Tim Printy's spiritual successor to the late Phil Klass's Skeptical UFO Newsletter -- that he was a UFO researcher who ended up becoming a skeptic as the result of disappointments along the way with his research. Thus my "Voodoo Skepticism" title.

Matt emailed me and through our correspondence I've learned that he's not an all-out skeptic, just a careful researcher. Let me quote from one of his emails:

"I haven't an answer for the UFO enigma, and my researches merely ask different questions about it. I think knowing what MAY have affected the observer(s) is something that has been long ignored, primarily because it is not exciting and is believed to be skeptical and restrictive to the ETVH. This is a bias which has long existed in UFOlogy. I would rather know that something may have influenced a sighting, than simply accepting anecdotal accounts and the word of shoddy investigations and embellished UFO stories as book fodder.

"I'd rather know than simply believe, because the enigma is not a matter of faith for me, it is something to learn about."

I have no argument with Matt on taking the psychological approach if it's used as a tool to dig out what may have affected witnesses. To me the human mind, the subconscious, is too messy to definitely break down into symbolic connections with any sort of certainty.

Once again, opinion. But getting back to the facts: Matt isn't a skeptic in the sense of a diehard cynic. He's a critical researcher with an open mind, unlike skeptics who completely categorize the whole field of ufology as garbage.

My assumption that Matt was a skeptic was voodoo reading-between-the lines.


X. Dell said...

(1) Our "knowledge" of "reality" is simply the best we can interpret the empirical world with our limited sense perception and consciousness. Oftentimes this is informed not by objective testing or inner contemplation, but through societal convention. In other words, when we talk about knowing, we're really talking about a shared belief. It would be arrogant of us to think that we could actually know anything--just as we once "knew" the universality of Newtonian physics, or that sickness was caused by an imbalance of humors, or that rockets won't work in a vaccuum.

(2) After reading Graeber's article, I still see it as highly problematic. I can imagine someone like Jung--who actually went over his patients' lives thoroughly so that their UFO experiences were in context with the rest of their experience, and who had training in psychology, knew Freud, etc.--could tell us a lot about the perceptual (if not the natural) anomalies that find their way into UFO reports. I do take a very dim view, however, of armchair psychoanalysis.

It's not that one can discount Graeber's speculation, or say that it's patently false. One would be remiss, however, in pointing out the subjectivity of the methodology and conclusions. Well, if subjectivity is cited as a potential root cause of UFO misidentification, it would stand to reason that it's not a very good way to determine the nature of that misidentification.

That, plus the term skeptic really should involve the invocation of critical thinking. It really should distance itself from circular reasoning.

That's why I agree with your initial perception of Graeber's article. From what I gather here, however, the problem wasn't so much what you thought of the article, but rather your characterization of Graeber as a skeptic, while he sees himself as someone who's critical, but has an open mind. On that score, I'll take him at his word. Still, that article is problematic.

X. Dell said...

(3) Hmm. Among the ufology community there is a bias to take the researcher at his word, without critique? Actually, I see people like Phil Klaas and Tim Printy as an integral part of ufology, not people who are in opposition to it. To me, it seems that they already have a bias not to take the experiencer at her word.

One could argue, that that's a good thing, of course. Perhaps no one should be taken at their word, even though in such cases their word is all they're going to have left (-minus the odd photograph).

Yet I see a certain orthodoxy growing out of that wing of ufology that the witness has to be wrong, which seems (to me) almost as spurious and troublesome as the AIF orthodoxy on abductions.

True, there are a very vocal bunch of people who insist that they saw what they saw, don't bother to convince them otherwise. I have often encountered such people, and if you listen to them, they will complain of a bias against the validity of their perception. After all, neighbors might poke fun at them. Their friends might say, "Wow, that's a great story to tell at a cocktail party," but otherwise not take them seriously. Their families might entertain notion of counseling, and so on. To be honest, such people are quite used to others' assumptions that they are wrong--despite the fact that the doubter wasn't there at the time.

There were some within ufology--perhaps because they too had sitings--who could provide an atmosphere of "we won't judge you wrong," to witnesses. They can even err and lapse into a bias that affirms every crackpot report from Maine to Lompoc. But to UFO witnesses, the arcane debates within ufology don't really matter, since its the stigma of real-life biases against them that dominates their perception.

Eyewitness evidence might not be ironclad, but it's not totally worthless either. I think some parameters of the argument (something more helpful than a presumption of mistaken identity) would have been far more helpful in adding new understanding. Also, publishing it perhaps in a place other than Sunlite (or simply posting it online himself) would have challenged the bias of those who read it. This challenged no one's bias, but rather confirmed it for the majority of its readers.