I spent a big chunk of my writing time yesterday at the doctor’s office waiting to be diagnosed with a viral sinus infection, presumably the same one my son picked up at his toddler play group a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, the congestion and coughing had gotten quite bad and I had to try to do something about it. Unfortunately, the doctor said that there is almost nothing that can be done other than the usual treatments for cold-like symptoms. It has made it hard to focus and concentrate, which has made me something less than enthusiastic about writing.
Anyway, today I wanted to talk about a recent half-assed effort from Micah Hanks that almost started to say something interesting before giving up and deciding not to. Yesterday, Hanks published a piece asking if Americans are uniquely resistant to consideration of scientific anomalies. At first glance, the answer seems a rather obvious no. More than half of Americans claim to believe in Atlantis and ancient astronauts, according to a recent Chapman University survey, and another poll found that the vast majority of Americans believe in at least one pseudoscientific claim, so it seems unlikely that “Americans” as a category are closed to anomalies.
Instead, by “Americans” Hanks is actually referring to academic, government, and corporate elites, who control the funding mechanisms that help decide which topics are worthy of scientific investigation. Hanks is, for some strange reason, resurrecting claims made in 1996 by physicist William R. Corliss, who died in 2011, and is best remembered for his work collecting stories of unexplained scientific anomalies related to weather, physics, astronomy, biology, psychic powers, etc.
“What has happened to that vaunted American pioneering spirit?” Corliss asked. “We suppose that an American scientist cannot paddle too far out of the scientific mainstream without jeopardizing his or her funding.”
Hanks quickly related this to “paranormal” research and suggested that European scientists are more open to the paranormal than their American counterparts. He did not, however, rigorously check this by examining statistical evidence, relying instead on an impressionistic and selective list from 2012, a problem he himself acknowledged.
Hanks’s discussion bordered up against a potentially interesting question of the degree to which structural factors act as a curb on extreme hypotheses, and the degree to which the need to justify funding requests limits the range of potential research subjects. Basically, do scientists intentionally tailor their research questions to areas where they feel they have the best chance of convincing those who hold the purse-strings to fork over some cash? Recent research on the subject has found that scientists who receive grant funding are more productive and more likely to have more successful careers. A 2014 study indicated that the pursuit of funding can cause scientists to distort their research or even bias the results, intentionally or not, in order to align with funders’ expectations. Generally, this is considered a flaw in the system because it gives power to those with money to pursue their agendas at the expense of pure research. But Corliss’s question raises another point that is worth considering: What if it also works to limit interest in pseudoscience by rendering ideas outside the mainstream unprofitable? This can be both good and bad, and it’s a shame that Hanks devoted exactly no thoughts to the epistemological question of how the structure of scientific funding systems impacts what we consider “science” and “pseudoscience.”
Instead, Hanks wonders if the real problem isn’t TV:
However, if there’s truly one thing that the United States seems to have in greater amounts than most other countries, that might well be its paranormally-themed entertainment. The motion picture business only really began booming in the early 20th century thanks to a burgeoning American industry being built around it, and with the resulting prevalence of film and television entertainment produced in the U.S. over the last century, it is only natural that the amount of paranormal-themed programming would be higher here too.
Does he know for sure that other countries don’t have paranormal TV in similar abundance? It’s true that most other countries are smaller and produce less TV overall. But most “American” paranormal shows are produced for international distribution, not just American consumption, and I’m pretty sure that you can watch Ancient Aliens from Melbourne to Mexico City to Manilla. Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines all hold Ancient Aliens fan conferences to roaring crowds, and the international media treat ancient astronaut theorists like visiting royalty. America doesn’t do that.
Hanks’s final paragraph leaves out the subject. Whose “negative attitude” is he referring to? It’s surely not the American public, which has never failed to fall for the latest crazy claim. It’s also not the American media, which treats even ridiculous scientific claims with a fake seriousness they don’t deserve. I suppose he must mean scientists, even then, large numbers of them still line up to appear on pseudoscientific fake cable TV “documentaries,” and many credit exposure to pseudoscientific ideas on TV or in the media for creating their interest in science.
I don’t have the answers here, but I know that this question deserves more serious and rigorous consideration.
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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