How long is long enough to say that one has done due diligence in investigating an unusual claim in order to conclude that there is nothing there? I wondered about that question when reading a photo essay on CNN.com this morning in which three Danish photographers asked for money to put together a photo book about American UFO culture, which they described as something like a religion.
Looking through the digital photo gallery was somewhat sad, and most of the people depicted in them were old, weather-beaten, and essentially living in the past, constantly replaying the controversies of their salad days over and again. But one photo caption struck me more than the others. The picture showed UFO researcher John Lear napping on his couch. Lear, a former airline pilot, is famous for his dark conspiracy theories. “He spends all his time going through material people send him from all over the world,” the caption reads. It then quotes him as saying “I’ve probably been at my desk for 8 to 12 hours every day the last 15 years.”
I’m at a bit of loss to decide what is sadder: That Lear spends virtually every waking hour obsessing over UFOs, or that all of that research—some 55,000 hours by his estimation—turned up exactly no incontrovertible evidence of aliens. Surely, at some point it becomes overwhelmingly likely that one is on the wrong path if 55,000 hours of research yields no usable results.
The same thought struck me when reading an article celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Zecharia Sitchin’s The Twelfth Planet, which was published in 1976, alongside that year’s other major ancient astronaut release, Robert Temple’s Sirius Mystery. The article, in the Digital Journal, a publication that offers scalable digital content “verticals,” is by Jonathan Farrell, who contacted me less than 48 hours ago to ask me to comment for the article. I hadn’t had a chance to reply to him before he published his piece. He linked to my website in his article.
In it, Farrell summarizes Sitchin’s major ideas, specifically that the Mesopotamian deities Anunnaki, who are also the Nephilim, came to Earth from the wandering planet Nibiru and created humanity to mine gold to repair Nibiru’s atmosphere. He said that he contacted his high school science teacher to ask for another view on Sitchin:
Intrigued by this theory, this reporter asked my former high school science teacher what he thought of Sitchin's book. "I read it years ago," said retired science, math and biology teacher Phil Amormino. "It's fascinating and I have my own theories on Sitchin's ideas. Yet, I am a man science but also of deep faith in God and have reservations on how he arrived at such conclusions."
Farrell’s article attempts to take a critical perspective on Sitchin, but in so doing it rests on Farrell’s interest in Christian perspectives on whether the aliens are “really” angels and the degree to which we can recontextualize Sitchin’s ideas in a Christian Nephilim-based framework. “If nothing else, his book clearly points to even more ancient texts and artifacts that pre-date the Bible as we know it. And, continue (sic) the ongoing quest of the question, ‘where did we humans come from?’”
You will, of course, recall that yesterday I reviewed a new book by Chris H. Hardy in which she, too, found Sitchin’s work essential for pondering the true origins of humanity, apparently due to a widespread dissatisfaction with materialism and evolution. I can’t help but wonder, though, why so many people are so deeply interested in ideas that fail to bear fruit. It’s been forty years and Sitchin’s research program has failed to produce any usable results, and indeed is based on claims that are demonstrably false. After four decades of sterility, at what point does one concede that a bad idea will not bear fruit?
This is of course a rhetorical question; fringe authors are still working on failed nineteenth century ideas like the lost race of the Mound Builders, and even older failed claims like the medieval belief that the Great Pyramid predated the Flood. I’m guessing we have at least another century before they concede that Sitchin Studies aren’t generating results.
4/30/2016 10:19:24 am
A while back when I helped run a skeptical blog I made a chart of famous cryptozoological animals, when they were first witnessed, and how long they've gone without being verified. Maybe I should revisit that idea, compare those times to other famous failures.
4/30/2016 02:10:33 pm
I would totally read that. Please do it!
4/30/2016 08:08:51 pm
5/2/2016 01:29:09 am
+1 for reading that... also it would be cool if you added a count, ie. 3000653 days and still no evidence ;)
4/30/2016 10:35:37 am
That ranks right up there as one of the most depressing slideshows ever assembled. The Lyle Michel slide alone says even more than it's caption:
4/30/2016 12:03:47 pm
4/30/2016 11:32:38 am
I am, at present, attempting to read "The Twelfth Planet". I find it hard going due to the fact that his ideas and theories are so ill-formed and illogical. He presents his theories as fact instead of speculation and has no facts given to support them. He also jumps from one ancient culture and civilization to another ignoring both their geographic and time differences. Then he tops it off by unsupported observations of the stars and planets, instead using astrology to to prove his points.
4/30/2016 11:32:40 am
This reminds me of "When Prophecy Fails," by Festinger et al, about a UFO cult that just wouldn't give up.
Duke of URL
5/2/2016 06:41:52 am
You mean the Jehova's Witnesses? Or maybe the 7-day Adventists?
4/30/2016 01:51:11 pm
"How long is long enough to say that one has done due diligence in investigating an unusual claim in order to conclude that there is nothing there?"
5/1/2016 08:37:56 am
Ken makes a very good point. UFO belief or more generally fringe belief is indistinguishable from religion. We can argue against it by teaching critical thinking and so on, but religious belief is growing, so I'd expect UFO belief to grow too.
5/1/2016 12:01:30 pm
Imagine how hard it would be to admit to yourself and others that you wasted 55,000 hours of your life.
terry the censor
5/1/2016 10:57:58 pm
> trying to prove that God exists
5/2/2016 09:03:59 am
A true believer requires no proof. His or her faith is all the proof required.
4/30/2016 02:24:03 pm
I have the same question in regards to SETI. Since the first attempt to detect signals of extraterrestrial origin in 1924, the only possible evidence has been the Wow! signal from 1977.
4/30/2016 06:01:16 pm
That's a tricky one because we already know for certain that technologically capable life exists in the universe.
4/30/2016 06:16:31 pm
I haven't heard that before. Do you have some info you could share?
4/30/2016 06:29:06 pm
"life exists in the universe"
4/30/2016 08:12:35 pm
Only, notice that he said "in the universe", and not "elsewhere in the universe". =)
4/30/2016 08:59:01 pm
Okay, you got me. ;)
5/1/2016 11:33:32 am
I think we have a while yet to go, at least among the scientific community - the politicians will probably get tired of paying for it before we get tired of looking. There are strong philosophical and probabilistic arguments that life should exist Out There, so I think people are more likely to conclude that it just doesn't communicate in the way we expect it to then that it doesn't exist.
5/2/2016 07:40:18 am
SETI isn't government funded. While other government funded institutions like NASA might pay to use it's equipment for other research, the actual project and it's own research are entirely supported by private donations.
4/30/2016 02:36:26 pm
The Danish photographers were closer to the truth than they may have realized. Or they were just being polite. The current explosion of fringe theories has become a new religion. As with any religion, there will be some who believe everything the guru says, and others who believe nothing the guru says.
5/2/2016 11:01:05 am
If there is a 12th planet beyond Pluto it would get so little light it would be a frozen chunk of rock and ice.
5/3/2016 10:36:38 pm
Interestingly--and frankly unrelated to the fringe theories--there is emerging evidence of another full-on planet beyond the orbit of Pluto, an actual ninth planet, instead of eight planets and a Kuiper-belt object. And it's not a frozen chunk of rock and ice, if it's actually there...but only because it's a gas giant.
4/30/2016 04:38:13 pm
Oh, I'm sharing this Jason. Great.article!
5/2/2016 01:40:33 am
Apologies for the copypasta but my comment on the previous past is apt here too:
5/12/2016 03:04:22 pm
I like this post and have thought about this question of when to give up. Wrote a piece that provides another example in the news today. https://idoubtit.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/well-worn-paranormal-paths-go-nowhere-when-to-give-up/
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