I imagine that by now you’ve heard about the Sirius documentary tied to the pseudo-Congressional UFO hearings going on in Washington. The “star” of the documentary is a six-inch corpse found in Chile that the filmmakers hyped as a potential extraterrestrial being. Apparently the body was discovered back in 2003. It looked to me like a carved doll, apparently but the film claims it is actually a six-year-old dwarf boy. Instead, an examination by a forensic specialist at Basque Country University determined that it is a mummified human fetus. This is sad and somewhat macabre, and I wonder why the Chilean government is OK with people digging up fetuses and selling them to hucksters and sideshow barkers like its current owner, Barcelona-based Ramon Navia-Osorio, of the Institute for Exobiological Investigation and Study, a UFO group.
But this sick display of grotesquerie is par for the course in the “alternative” world’s quest to exploit anything and everything in pursuit of a more satisfying and magical world.
I was perhaps less shocked but more disturbed by Thomas Sheridan’s painfully un-self-aware rant about how skeptics and debunkers are mentally ill.
The reality is that apart from their own kind—other self-proclaimed non-'idiots'—most people find such arrogant and obnoxious debunkers and hardcore skeptics to be strangely angry and boorish, and often confrontational to the point of hysterical. So many of them seem to lack basic social and behavioural skills when 'debating' with their 'kook' of choice. Their absolutism can be staggering at times. Yet, despite all this, they have somehow come to consider themselves 'cool' and even 'sexy' within the last decade. This is simply a lack of critical thinking on their behalf; a distorted worldview where only they are right and everyone else is an idiot.
I think with minor edits this could describe the cast of Ancient Aliens or America Unearthed:
The reality is that apart from their own kind—other self-proclaimed “alternative” believers—most people find such arrogant and obnoxious proponents of outlandish conspiracy theories to be strangely angry and boorish, and often confrontational to the point of hysterical. So many of them seem to lack basic social and behavioural skills when accusing their academic discipline of choice of conspiracies. Their unsystematic hypocrisy can be staggering at times. Yet, despite all this, they have somehow come to consider themselves 'cool' and even 'sexy' within the last decade. This is simply a lack of critical thinking on their behalf; a distorted worldview where only they are right and everyone else is conspiring against them.
Scott Wolter’s frequent claim that academia is conspiring against him comes to mind, but also the similar claims by Erich von Däniken, Graham Hancock, Robert Bauval, and especially Robert Temple, who accused the CIA and the “hypnosis community” of sabotaging his book deals. In other words, the us-versus-them mentality is not a function of skepticism or alternative belief per se but a function of people who form their identity around ideology of any kind.
Sheridan goes on to claim that debunkers are close-minded and support “fascism.” While he recognizes that there are good skeptics—so defined by how receptive they are to alternative claims—he then makes a strange argument that “obsessive” debunkers have “turned off” the right hemisphere of their brains in “self-induced schizophrenia.” With only the left hemisphere, they are therefore overwhelmed by logic and unable to embrace intuition and art. This is, of course, based on the lateralization of brain function theory, which once suggested that the two hemispheres of the brains controlled separate functions; today we know that many cognitive functions are shared between hemispheres, though not evenly; for that matter, schizophrenia is not a shutting down of one brain hemisphere. But taking this at face value, Sheridan must therefore agree that “hardcore” alternative types have “switched off” the opposite hemisphere, leaving themselves full of emotion and immune to logic. Sheridan claims that such skeptics cannot be reasoned with because they use only fifty percent of their brains.
Sheridan, who just finished complaining that “skeptics” lack scientific degrees and are therefore unfit to debunk anything, asserts without a degree in neuroscience an entirely new brain science that conveniently confirms his preconceived views about “skeptics.” In this he is only a bit of pseudoscience removed from Chris Mooney’s argument (of which I am not convinced) that contemporary American political positions are dictated by political party members’ opposing brain structures—though Mooney, of course, is much more careful (at least in his book) in acknowledging the limits of research and the provisional nature of brain science studies.
I trust you can see that Sheridan’s argument is scientifically ridiculous, but it is disturbing that Sheridan takes the worst of internet trolls as representative of critical thinking as a whole—not to mention his frequent contempt for the “men in white coats” (scientists) whom he views as an outside priesthood of frauds who try to impose “logic” on an intuitive world. For him, the world is a Manichean dichotomy of “skeptics” enforcing a materialist status quo and open-minded heroes who are seeking out the spiritual. (Yes, we have appeals to the spiritual, again,)
What does he make of the fringe of alternative believers, I wonder. I don’t think it’s any secret that at least one Ancient Aliens pundit exhibits several traits associated with autism, and Graham Hancock has admitted being a drug addict with extreme paranoia. Erich von Däniken was diagnosed as a compulsive liar by a court-ordered psychiatrist during his embezzlement trial, and Robert Temple has demonstrated traits associated with paranoia as well—as his published descriptions of his almost certainly imaginary persecution by angry hypnotists and government spies shows. Jason Martell, of course, is just as “angry and boorish, and often confrontational” as any “hardcore” skeptic, and Giorgio Tsoukalos hounded me for years over a perceived slight. And these are just the authors.
The rank and file believers are so much worse, filling my inbox with all manner of psychosexual filth coupled with a bitter, irrational hatred of any type of authority—real or perceived. (Some even seem to follow Pol Pot in being angry at glasses for making some people look “smarter” than others.) And that’s not the opinion of some Victorian dowager in high dudgeon. My father was a firefighter, my friends in high school and college were football players, and I remain friends with professional athletes. Trust me, I’ve heard about the worst that can come out of people’s mouths, and the filth that extreme “believers” spew is leagues beyond that. The internet has made it too easy to be vile.
Which goes to show: You can’t judge an entire group by its worst members, or invalidate an entire system of inquiry because a few people are being mean. Alternative beliefs fail on facts, not how warm and fuzzy the advocate is.
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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