Christopher Knowles: UFO Debunkers Are "Disheartened" Believers with "Insatiable" Desire for Alien Contact
Back in 2013, National Geographic made a big deal about the discovery of ancient ruins some had linked to the so-called White City of Honduras, a legendary lost city whose story developed out of a mix of pulp fiction, myth-making, and treasure-hunting in the first half of the twentieth century. At the time, I wrote that researchers claimed that the earliest sighting of the city (not counting some unrelated passages by Hernan Cortez roped in for the purpose) was by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, and I noted that this claim does not seem to appear in print before the 1950s, and certainly not in any contemporary account of Lindbergh. Dr. John Hoopes was kind enough to point me to the earliest report of the White City, from a Spanish-language academic article by the Luxembourger ethnologist Eduard Conzemius in volume 19 of the Journal de la Société des Américanistes in 1927. It appears that this reference, while occasionally cited in Spanish and (logically enough) German discussion, was not noticed in English research on the city (it doesn’t appear, for example, in Jungleland, Christopher Stewart’s book about the city). It apparently uncovered sometime between 2013 and now. For your edification, I have translated the entirety of Conzemius’ passage:
It’s interesting how similar to story is to various other lost treasure and lost city narratives from around its period—from the mysterious stranger who leaves an account of the story, to the rumors of a curse, and the inability of subsequent explorers to find it. It’s also a strange coincidence that the story should be told right at the time when Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett had made headlines for disappearing in search of a similar lost city in Brazil. It sounds a lot like a folktale, but for what it’s worth, this is apparently the origin point for the White City myth.
On a much less interesting note, regular readers will remember Christopher Knowles, the author of Our Heroes Wear Spandex (two part review here and here), a book that used some fringe history claims to tie superheroes to ancient mythology. Knowles also had some not so kind things to say about me and my work on the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft when asserting that Lovecraft had access to specific Theosophical texts he almost certainly did not read. Knowles recently weighed in on the so-called Roswell Slides, which had claimed to depict an extraterrestrial corpse in the 1940s or 1950s but which actually showed a child mummy on display in a museum. Knowles took the opportunity to argue that skeptics of ufological claims are angry zealots upset at their lack of contact with the divine.
The fact of the matter is that debunkers are just disheartened believers, longing with all their hearts for the skies to open and for the saucermen to take them to the stars. It probably wouldn't take much coaxing to draw this out, maybe just a few beers and a starry sky.
There is likely a grain of truth in this, but I think Knowles greatly overstates his claim, particularly when he next asserts that like a spurned lover the debunker becomes obsessed with ufology and its culture, which he claims occurs to the exclusion of all other interests, as though he would know what’s in other people’s hearts. He then contradicts himself by asserting that these obsessive debunkers are not actually interested in or doing debunking: “To complicate matters further the new generation of skeptics are mostly concerned with social and political issues and think paranormal skepticism is not only corny and irrelevant, but actually counterproductive.” How can one both spend “all day” debunking UFOs while also devoting oneself entirely to “social and political issues”?
The answer gets at the underlying motive behind Knowles’s seemingly incoherent claims. He has taken different issues, some of which have merit, and melded them together to create a straw man designed to bolster a particular point of view. He’s right that many skeptics, especially in organized skepticism, have taken on the ideology of secular humanism and have developed a fixation on promoting atheism and secular humanism as a social and political agenda. But these activist skeptics aren’t generally the “obsessive” debunkers he accuses of infiltrating ufology to antagonize the faithful. (You won’t find Michael Shermer or Sam Harris, for example, analyzing UFO cell phone footage for signs of CGI.)
However, his argument needs the various groups who dispute UFO claims to be part of a single movement to support a paranoid worldview evident throughout his blog post, one where “intelligence agencies,” the U.S. federal government, and the Jesuits are somehow all-powerful organizations that manipulate and control our perceptions of reality. He suggests that these powerful cartels have perhaps used ufological subcultures as disinformation agents, and then in his conclusion he reveals the underlying ideology behind his series of claims:
UFOs themselves are kind of boring. To my way of thinking they only take off when plugged into the overall matrix of esoteric thought, parapolitics, quantum consciousness and all the rest of it. But the present generation of UFOlogists- trained to view the phenomenon in a sci-fi mindset and often blindingly conventional in their attitudes- are keeping that alchemical mix from its boiling point because they turn so many people off from the topic with their endless dysfunctions.
Debunkers are, by definition, a threat to this way of thinking because they bring too much science and reason into a phenomenon he prefers to view in mystical terms. To be clear: Knowles has more or less explicitly divided ufology from “science” and in so doing creates a justification for his essential thesis, which is: Keep out of my playground! Knowles would like ufology to be the plaything of the occultist rather than the scientist, of magic rather than logic. When cast in those terms, it is no wonder he sees skepticism not just as a threat but as the obsession of those who would betray reason itself to score points against an ideological opponent. Knowles went on to write a follow up post decrying supporters of science for trashing the work of Charles Fort as so much unreadable gibberish. Knowles endorsed Fort’s view that scientists act like ancient priests, all the while oblivious to his own veneration of Fort as a secular saint, and his writings as Talmudic commentary on reality.
It should be obvious that I disagree with all of this on many levels. In the comments on his blog post, Knowles expands his discussion to include ancient astronauts, so I guess that ropes my area into this as well. On the surface, I’d seem to meet his definition—when I was a teenager I believed in ancient astronauts, and I write a daily blog about weird things. But on the other hand, while I like and enjoy the weird for many reasons (mostly what Lovecraft called the momentary illusion of the suspension of the tyranny of natural law), I also recognize it as a tool. Knowles asked why debunkers or skeptics don’t devote themselves to discussions of digestive enzymes or other “science” topics. The fact of the matter is that the reading public is interested in the weird more than the obscure. I’m interested in mythology and how the stories people tell shape our view of reality, but few people would read about that. So I write about the weird, and I use it as a tool to create a platform for talking about my own interests under the cover of subjects the public wants to read more about.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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