Monday, July 2, 2007

Skepticism Need Not Imply Boredom

Aliens are back in the news, due to a deathbed confession. Most likely the confession won't convince anybody (the confession comes from an owner of a UFO museum; even if he can't benefit from raising interest in UFOs after his death, presumably friends or relatives of his now own the museum and have much to gain).

But let's ignore the question of the existence of aliens, about which enough (or more than enough) has been said. What is less remarked-upon is the cultural phenomenon of interest in UFOs. This is clearly one of the more striking trends in the second half of the twentieth centuries, including innumerable pop-culture references and scores of fanatics-for-the-cause.

If aliens exist, then that is clearly thought-provoking. But if they don't, then the widespread interest in them is perhaps no less fascinating. In that case, for not-immediately-obvious reasons scant evidence became the basis for a self-sustaining movement. Why do some conspiracy theories die, others linger (such as that concerning the JFK assassination), and others thrive?

Many have said that UFO abduction stories are merely a replacement for, or a contemporary version of, previous myths and beliefs (for example, Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World"). But in such skeptical interpretations something may be missed, and that is the speed and and wide reach of the current phenomenon of interest in UFOs. Psychological, cultural, sociological, historical and other factors may play a role here, in ways that I do not believe are yet fully understood.

The real danger in these matters is to make them bland, uninteresting, when they are not. "Explaining away" the UFO phenomenon, in the sense of ignoring the fascinating cultural aspects of it, is a shame. Skepticism need not be less interesting than the alternatives.

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