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.
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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