I know that I’ve been rather harsh on Micah Hanks’s articles whenever I’ve read them, but one of the reasons for this is that Hanks, the self-described “Mouth of the South” and host of the Graelian Report, consistently casts himself as a researcher of a much higher caliber than he has ever proved himself to be. He also fancies himself to be a much better writer than he has ever proved himself to be. (Disclosure: In April I agreed to his producer’s request for me to go on his radio show to “debate” skepticism and Fortean phenomena, but they never had me on.)
But I come here today to agree with Hanks, though not quite in the way he would like.
In an article on Mysterious Universe, Hanks tried to imagine what the future of Fortean research might look like, taking himself (of course) as the model for an ideal balance between open mindedness and skepticism. If you think that I’m just being mean in saying that, remember that Hanks also considers himself a model podcaster, and wrote a book on how to follow in his footsteps. He is his own yardstick. However, the most noticeable takeaway from his article is that Hanks must be paid by the word to judge by all the extra verbiage he throws in. Consider this whopper of a sentence:
There are many things in nature which may qualify as being deemed “unexplained”, though admittedly, much of what comes to mind when such a label is evoked does constitute, in large part, myth and folklore, urban legends, and at times, pseudoscientific pursuits which are complimented with speculation and served as “possibilities”, whereas in truth, little basis exists for such claims.
The editor in me wants to cross out a third of the words, fix the homonym error, and cut the inflated language and repetition:
Many things qualify as “unexplained,” though admittedly, much of what the label evokes is myth and folklore, urban legends, and pseudoscientific pursuits. These are complemented with speculation and served as “possibilities,” while in truth, little basis exists for such claims.
The whole article is like that, and desperately in need of editing. (I say this with the full knowledge that I often have typos in my work, but unlike Mysterious Universe, this website has a staff of one.) This isn’t just idle criticism; it’s part of a broader point about the “house style” of fringe writers. I’ve made the same point with writers like Nick Redfern, for example, and overwritten sentences and repetitive language seem to be a hallmark of the fringe writer. We can find this in many of the classics of the genre going back to the 1960s or earlier, perhaps because the bad writing helps to hide the paucity of evidence beneath the puffery. Part of me thinks that this might be a case of trying to “sound smart” by writing beyond their talents, and another part of me thinks that this might be in imitation of the willful obscurity of much of academic writing, which prizes opacity as a measure of depth.
Anyway, Hanks describes himself, generously, as a “researcher of the unexplained” and confesses that he has been subject to passing off “idle, uninformed speculation” as research, though he claims that he has moved beyond this by embracing the scientific method. Sadly, though, in giving an example of why he feels that skeptics are wrong in their approach to the mysterious, he betrays the fact that he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of the difference between speculation and evidence. In his example, which is too long to reproduce here, he asks us to imagine that a nuclear physicist sees a new type of fast, bright military drone streak across the sky and mistakes it for an alien spacecraft. He tells the world it acted and behaved like no known earthly technology. He then asks us to imagine that a “prominent skeptic” listens to the testimony, finds it likely that the witness saw a meteor, and determines that if the supposed craft acted like no known technology it therefore could not be technology. Therefore, Hanks says, the witness was correct in his observation but not interpretation, while the skeptic is simply wrong about everything because he focused on interpretation rather than observation.
With hope, this example illustrates a fundamental point that I often hope to address with my own research, in addition to the advice I give to others: there is room for both skepticism, and open mindedness, in any reasonable examination of such intellectual pursuits, whether they involve history, the sciences, politics, society and culture, or yes, even the unexplained. However, I think that too much of either can be, if not dangerous, at least very limiting in terms of the body of knowledge potentially at our disposal as researchers.
While Hanks’s peroration uses many words to say essentially nothing, there is an important point to draw out of his example: The so-called skeptic didn’t actually do any research. His viewpoint isn’t a conclusion but exactly the type of speculation Hanks said that he could distinguish from science. The so-called skeptic in his example simply pulled an explanation out of his ass, and Hanks seems to think that this is what skeptics of strange claims do instead of research. In a better example, the skeptic would have gathered FAA reports, National Weather Service observations, and looked for other witnesses to triangulate the exact location of the object and eliminate possibilities.
But instead Hanks envisions a type of “research” where the investigator simply listens to witnesses and… what, exactly? None of the research techniques Hanks advocates would actually bring the Fortean investigator to the “truth” in his example. Instead, his imaginary Fortean investigator would spend years researching aliens and UFOs and completely miss the military drone. That seems to be the point of Hanks’s idea of “investigation,” though; the mystery is the end in and of itself. Perhaps that is why Hanks isn’t known for having “solved” any mysteries. (I confess to not being familiar enough with his books to know if they contain original insights; I was unable to find references to any in reviews.)
Oh, right: I said at the beginning of this blog post that I planned to agree with Micah Hanks. I agree that careful, thoughtful, and open inquiry is the best method for getting to the bottom of seemingly impossible mysteries. But I disagree that skeptics are unable to do this because of a dogmatic desire to dismiss. Indeed, skeptics—and here the word should really be more of an adjective: researchers who are skeptical—are doing exactly what Hanks would have his Fortean researchers do. They investigate, test hypotheses, and apply evidence to reach conclusions. The difference is that the conclusions they reach don’t promote the continued existence of Fortean mysteries, not because of dogma but because the phenomena have, so far, produced no evidence of a supernatural, phantasmagorical wonderland.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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