When I was in college I developed a bit of a reputation for being willing to ask famous people difficult questions. It started in freshman year when the Today show’s news reader, Ann Curry, came to my college to give a speech on journalism and social change, and she took questions from the audience. Most were timid inquiries about how wonderful Curry was, and I, and journalism major then, stood up and asked her a difficult question that essentially boiled down to the disconnect between the high ideals she espoused in her speech and the actual practices of NBC’s news division. The school paper reported on it, Curry sought me out to thank me for my question, and my professors were somewhat aghast that I put into practice the affliction of the comfortable they preached.
Being young and lacking in social propriety I made it something of a habit of challenging speakers by asking them to explain their hypocrisies, and mostly the assembled speakers I questioned over the years took it in stride. Clarence Page, the anodyne Chicago Tribune columnist, changed his mind as a result of something I said, for example, but ABC News anchor Carole Simpson became visible angry at being challenged about ABC’s journalistic ethics and practice while holding court at a meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists. Overall, I’m sure I was somewhat rude, but I thought at the time that it was the point of journalism to try to provoke people to spill accidental truths rather than reinforcing comfortable narratives. It did not occur to me that a journalist would get upset to be treated the way journalists treated the people they interview.
After I made Simpson upset, a professor let me know in no uncertain terms that the éminence grise did not appreciate being treated less than regally, and the college had paid her a lot of money to come and pontificate comfortably. My classmates came up to me and thanked me for upsetting her because she had spent the day criticizing everything about the college’s TV station and program, but everyone was too afraid of her to say anything about it. Ironically, Simpson, who retired from ABC in 2006, is now a professor herself.
I tell this story not because I am proud of having been a bit of a dick when I was a kid, but rather because I haven’t entirely changed my view that letting people settle into a self-satisfied rut of propaganda and self-promotion is not a sure path to truth. I was quite willing to challenge those who were in my field, but every time I read an article about fringe figures meeting one another, it never seems to result in that frisson where conflict, or even mild disagreement, sparks insight. Instead, it seems to become a mutual love fest that reinforces bad ideas with worse ones.
Our case study today comes from the Daily Grail, where the writer known as Red Pill Junkie reported on his trip to a recent UFO conference with ufologist Greg Bishop to meet their idol, Jacques Vallée, for whom they have an unwarranted respect bordering on hero worship. RPJ describes Vallée as a man who had revolutionized a field of study: “But all the high strangeness present in close encounter accounts, which Vallee was among the first to point out and compare it with ancient folklore, seem to indicate we are dealing with something far weirder and more complex than extraterrestrial explorers.” (Note the appearance of “high strangeness” as an epistemological category rather than a classification, as it originally applied in J. Allen Hynek’s scheme.) But, really, it is his celebrity that overshadows his work,
So much do RPJ and Bishop love Vallée that they were nervous at thought of speaking with the Great Man. Indeed, RPJ describes the meeting in quasi-religious terms:
This is why this trip was such a huge deal to Greg, and almost like a pilgrimage for the both of us: Showing the fruits of his long labor of introspection, research and quiet consideration, after many years of treading the excluded path in the middle of this confounding mystery, as homage to someone who blazed that narrow trail for the likes of us so many years ago.
RPJ went on to compare Vallée to the Time Lords from Doctor Who and thus to attribute to him mastery of all knowledge. This is not the search for truth as much as it is seeking the blessing of a saint at the end of a lifetime of meditation and prayer. That kind of quasi-worshipful approach, so much the antithesis of science (in theory, if not practice, where Great Man syndrome lurks), seems custom-designed to reinforce bad ideas.
RPJ reports that all of the assembled ufologists and UFO fans had been reduced to giddy squeals by Vallée, whose physical appearance RPJ describes in terms usually used to describe a movie star or the subject of a cult of personality. RPJ betrays no familiarity with my sustained criticisms of Vallée’s work, notably his reliance on other people’s fabrications and incorrect translations of ancient, medieval, and early modern texts, and intentional misrepresentations of the same. In some cases, his errors have carried over uncorrected from Passport to Magonia (1969) to Wonders in the Sky (2010), and only corrected for his new edition of Wonders after I pointed out his hundreds of errors. RPJ, however, either is unaware or intentionally dismisses such criticism. RPJ instead wonders whether “academic naysayers actually bothered to employ the same level of open-mindedness their predecessors employed to lay the foundations of modern Science, and took a good look into the impressive body of historical evidence Vallee and Aubeck gathered…” I did, and it remains wanting.
To that end, I’m going to create an index to my blog posts about Vallée’s errors and post it in my Articles section in the next day or two. I think I’ll call it Blunders in the Sky. [Update: Here it is.]
But for RPJ, attacks on Vallée are the work of “fundamentalist skeptics,” again reinforcing the quasi-religious overtones.
Anyway, perhaps little shows the difference between RPJ and me than the fact that when RPJ and Bishop finally met privately with Vallée he was too overawed by the Great Man to speak coherently, or to ask a single question.
This isn’t to criticize RPJ so much as it is to say that uncritical praise of anyone doesn’t lead to revelation but to calcification. If one must admire Vallée, it seems prudent to recognize where he made errors and where his “research” was little more than bad copies of earlier UFO books wrapped in New Age babble. At its heart, Passport to Magonia is essentially an inverted Chariots of the Gods: Where Erich von Däniken claimed myths and legends reported the truth about aliens, Vallée wondered whether aliens were simply a modern form of myths and legends. But, crucially, his speculation rarely extended into deep and detailed understanding of the material he superficially collected, and his admirers tend to gloss over this and to ignore the assumptions that underlie his claims.
Newton (and Bernard of Chartres before him) once claimed that he saw farther than others by standing on the shoulders of giants. We shouldn’t, then, stare up at the giants and consider that view to be equally informative.
4/26/2016 10:29:13 am
Fundamentalist skeptics? Isn't that an oxymoron?
4/26/2016 11:48:32 am
We are living in a skeptics paradise because there is such a thing called democracy that supersedes religion.
4/26/2016 11:51:27 am
And what was the origin of homo sapiens civilization if not from sacred potions that infused the origin of religion and civilization.
4/26/2016 02:59:15 pm
The development of language?
4/26/2016 11:25:18 am
I think you are entirely correct about "celebrities" being called upon to answer real questions. A good example, coming from our current election year farce, is when Donald "I am smarter than anyone else in the room" Trump. When asked difficult questions by reporters or others, he blusters, turns red in the face and attacks them for asking him such questions.
4/26/2016 11:38:04 am
DT is an easy target for journalists, because the perception is that 'nobody likes him'. How about they exhibit some of the same balls questioning more established individuals, like the President, entertainment celebs, religious leaders, etc.
4/26/2016 04:36:58 pm
The answer, Ken, IMHO is that journalists, newscasters, talking heads, all need access to the politicians, celebrities, religious leaders, etc. who’s shenanigans ARE the news. They need to get quotes and factoids and appear “connected” in order to have credibility. If they step too hard on the wrong toes they lose that access and are consigned to rehashing others’ product. Chris Matthews went after President Obama (and a few other top tier pols) as hard as I’ve ever seen anyone go after a liberal President but he didn’t push too hard when he got a pre-fab answer that didn’t actually fit the question. It’s a pretty big deal to sit down with a President one-on-one with cameras rolling. He couldn’t jeopardize that kind of opportunity. Trump, on the other hand is assumed to be the upcoming loser to Dame Hillary so he’s fair game.
4/26/2016 11:55:50 am
4/26/2016 12:21:02 pm
Hi Jason, I rarely comment on your posts but I would like to point out, once and for all, that corrections to the Wonders in the Sky text began way back in 2010 and while I am grateful for the errors you have pointed out in your blog, they only constitute a fraction of the changes made to the book for its current limited edition. I'm not belittling your useful suggestions in the past, just underlining a fact. When a new popular edition comes out again I have no doubt it will be another revised version.
terry the censor
4/26/2016 11:45:56 pm
Chris, it is good that you are making corrections -- I don't want to discount that, because corrections are rare in ufology -- but you seem to miss the point entirely.
4/27/2016 03:50:12 am
Hi Terry, I do not miss the point. The book, in its 2009 version, contains errors but not "hundreds." Jason's observations can be consulted right here, you don't have to take my word for it. We have acknowledged the need to correct them, and have corrected them (in the sense that any book is ever free of errors) but our publisher isn't interested in releasing a revised edition any time soon. Therefore we have used the clause in the contract that lets us make an "artistic limited edition" with a price and format (hard cover, full color, totally deluxe) that could never compete with the original, until circumstances align to let us print a revised edition cheaply. That's really all there is to it. The great thing for us: we actually have the opportunity to improve the content, which isn't common in this field. The great thing for Jacques: he's delighted to have made a book with aesthetic qualities that go beyond what publishing companies usually allow. Good for him.
4/27/2016 04:46:30 am
If Jason's considerable (and relatively fundamental, it seems to me, not just spelling mistakes and wrong dates) changes only constitute a small number of the corrections you made, how was the original text allowed to go to print so chock full of errors? Given the information is out there if you're prepared to look for it, do you think you did enough research before publishing?
4/27/2016 05:28:07 am
Hi Mark, our 2016 revision isn't just for correcting mistakes. Let's not exaggerate here: the 2009 edition doesn't contain page after page of errors, we're looking at a large book and over 500 entries in all. Basically some of the cases and data weren't as reliable as we thought at the time and we should have spent another year going over them. The new edition also improves on illustrations, the prose, the structure and the sources in ways we couldn't when we compiled it. Some material has been added, some removed, some improved.
4/27/2016 06:03:54 am
In all fairness I should also note that some of Jason's comments on the cases are interpretations, not corrections. I have no qualms about either, but whether a weird omen in the sky should be considered ufological or propagandist or fiction is a debate I won't usually participate it because it's not what I do. It has never bothered me if bizarre encounters all or partly turn out to be psychosocial in origin or have to do with giant Venusian junkies on a joy ride (though obviously I know we're looking at a wide range of stimuli, including possible anomalies). I have no personal mission except to identify the historical roots of Fortean mythology, and every year UFOs get less of my attention anyway.
Day Late and Dollar Short
4/26/2016 12:41:42 pm
Ha! Blunders in the Sky. I like what you did there.
4/26/2016 01:37:18 pm
While this post is aimed at the vaunted trailblazers of the fringe community, it applies equally well to the little fish in the really big pond.
4/26/2016 10:42:43 pm
Actually what you've just described there also fits the behaviour of student activists since the rise of the 'disinvitation/safe space/trigger warning' movement.
4/26/2016 11:47:35 pm
....you clearly fail to understand what safe space/trigger warnings are all about, sir. A trigger warning is when you say, "Okay, we know that this thing is something that is generally a traumatizing topic for victims who have experienced it, so instead of diving right into the topic and not giving a shit that we are causing some people to vomit on our shoes, we will give them the courtesy of warning them that we're going to discuss this topic and giving them the chance to 1. leave, or 2. prepare themselves to they aren't vomiting on our shoes." You know, that little thing where you actually give a flying fuck about other peoples' feelings instead of telling them that they are lesser human beings for having feelings at all.
4/27/2016 02:59:29 am
Except in real life it's not "that simple" at all ....
Day Late and Dollar Short
4/27/2016 01:12:47 pm
You're an ignorant garbage person.
An Extremely Erudite Garbage Person
4/27/2016 02:43:42 pm
4/26/2016 11:26:08 pm
> I’m going to create an index to my blog posts about Vallée’s errors and post it in my Articles section in the next day or two. I think I’ll call it Blunders in the Sky.
4/27/2016 08:21:44 am
My son is a freshman at Jason's old school (Ithaca college) in the same school (Park) and from what he tells me and the student newspaper have a subscription to, I"m not surprised at the level of differment to the "exalted" ones who come to campus. The left and it's hypocrisy does seem to be in charge there as People of Color went on a a jihad to get rid of the President (for reasons that were never clear to me) but then since POC had asians in it, the AA left to form a BLM group because the "transgressions" on students were more felt by AA than Asians...or something like that. Given how expensive Ithaca and as a "evil white family" we don't get much financial aid I told my son to shut his mouth and go to class.
Day Late and Dollar Short
4/27/2016 01:21:02 pm
You are also a garbage person.
4/28/2016 08:22:57 am
I forgot why RPJ was blacklisted for commenting on Doubtful News a while back. Now I remember.
4/28/2016 11:34:35 am
You appear to have missed one or two words in the third-to-last paragraph, between "me" and "than" - I'd have used "myself" as well, but I'd presume your intent was to say "more than" or "more clearly than" in that sentence.
5/1/2016 04:18:57 pm
"Where Erich von Däniken claimed myths and legends reported the truth about aliens, Vallée wondered whether aliens were simply a modern form of myths and legends."
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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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