Note: This is a reprint from my other blog.

I’m thinking, because it’s what I do. Often, I’m thinking up hilarious, politically charged epithets to hurl at dingbats, but tonight I am a-cogitating on my writing/argument class from two nights ago.  I’m not certain how this relates to the Show Me Progress blog theme, but since I have extensive schooling in the art of fancy philosophical tap dancing, what I am in fact saying here is that even crazy beliefs, even when they come from Holocaust deniers, alien abductees or Republicans, are usually (if not invariably) explainable in normal, everyday terms.  We also see the self-reinforcement of confirmation bias in groups (pay attention, Dems–this applies to everyone!), in that people only see evidence that confirms their own opinions. 

The subject of the week was UFOs. We do a 50/50 thing. Half of my class is from the textbook, the other half is from my own bag o’ tricks. Actually, because my class is a writing class, and you can write about anything, this semester I have chosen a number of readings that have to do with the weird things that people believe.  One of the assignments that I am having them do is write a blog entry about next week’s extra bonus topic. This week we talked about UFOs. I gave them a story. Here’s what I said:

“I have been followed by UFOs for at least 9 or 10 years. In high school, my hobby was astronomy, and whenever we went to visit my cousins at the Lake of the Ozarks, I would bring a small telescope and a pair of binoculars, since the sky was so dark down there. Well, it was well after dusk and I was setting up when suddenly, almost directly overhead, I saw, well, I had never seen anything like it before. There were at least a dozen small glowing disks up there moving back and forth but holding the rough shape of a triangle. That’s what I saw. I saw it again, oh, within the last year or so. Exactly the same pattern.”

At this point, I would say that the atmosphere was like that around a campfire, except in a brightly lit computer lab. They were interested. (It’s always fun to have an audience captivated.)

“Every word of that is true. I believed in UFOs for about 15 seconds. You see, I had my binoculars with me and when I looked up at the disks, you could see the wings flapping. It was a flock of geese flying very, very high, still in the sun even though it was basically night on the ground. Their white bellies were very convincing UFOs.”

Their assignment was to find a believer’s web site, to write a blog entry about these people’s claims (this is where the rhetoric and argument comes in–haha!). While I’m in class, I’m usually behind a desk and I take notes of what students say–it keeps me focused and lets them know that I am listening. So here’s the list of claims that they generated:

  * aliens look like people and gave us religion
  * angels are aliens
  * the apollo 11 crew saw something outside their window on the way to the moon (they did, but hey, what are the chances it was an alien’s party barge?)
  * human race is being experimented on by aliens
  * Aliens live under Albuquerque and were going to emerge in 2004 and start the end of the world, but stay inside and everything would be alright
  * government knows, and the military is in on it
  * lots of air force officers have seen UFOs
  * in 1970, some fellow was taken by “Pleidians”–he has a piece of metal that he claims is from elsewhere, and he has had the metal studied by a scientist and sells the report for $9
  * we don’t know what their intentions are, but they are probably awful
  * There are so many “facts” that they have to be real
  * we live in one paradigm, and the aliens live in another (the way I understood this was like overlapping universes)-sometimes the aliens come through and there are alien human hybrids
  * the “cosmos” made us
  * we are victims of an experiment
  * 1000s of people saw a UFO in Chicago at the beginning of this year (well, maybe not that many after all–I found a newspaper that said maybe as many as a dozen)

My first reaction was how many similarities there were between the types of claims that people were making.

  * They draw on the authority of the bible, religion, or angels. (I have recently seen people pushing the Jesus half of the equation–those ghosts/aliens/snot monsters from outer space that we can’t prove are there are real and they are demons and you should be afraid of them. That’s actually pretty flipping common.) You also, like any other movement, have “true believers.”
  * The military/govt is in on it. This is an easy one, but completely understandable. Militaries have secrets, just not about aliens. Governments also have secrets, just not about aliens. When you know there is a secret (and we all know there are) but you don’t know what it is, the human mind will project–whatever story it likes onto them. Yeah, there are cover-ups, just not the ones that you believe there are.
  * There is a lot of paranoia. Manifested as caution, this is a powerful survival instinct. Everyone has that. Some people have too much. Hey, what are you looking at?
  * “They look just like us.” This is interesting. If you were going to look for aliens, well, they are hard to come by. But the world is full of people. Did you ever see Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Well, this is very similar to the paranoia thing. You recognize the person’s body but fail to recognize the “people” inside. I once had a dream where I had the distinct feeling of a specific person’s presence even though they weren’t there (I felt as I did when I was in their presence–and it was stunningly specific). Imagine not having that feeling when you looked at someone you knew. They would be absolutely familiar but alien. Almost if they weren’t “real.” There would be “something off.” And it has nothing to do with them, really. You just don’t feel right. Interpretation? There are aliens in there. Uber-skeptic Michael Shermer had a very similar experience to that during an endurance bike race that deprived him of sleep for long periods of time. His support crew suddenly became aliens. He was totally abducted by aliens and forced to sleep. Sometimes people have brief deficits like that and the way that they make sense of it, well, doesn’t make sense. (It’s absolutely real to them though.)

The underlying problem is one of interpretation of data, of very mundane data. The one that gets me is the one in Chicago: “I saw something over O’Hare!” No kidding?!? There are never things in the air around O’Hare!

But you can feel sympathy for these people; but for a lack of binoculars, go I.

So, this week was one of extraordinary confirmations. Next week, we are looking at extraordinary denials: Holocaust deniers! I’m WWII boy, so it should be interesting. (I learn so much from running this class.)


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