In the pages of eSkeptic, Robert Sheaffer and George Michael (no, not the singer) have been sparring over Leslie Kean’s UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record (2011), which Michael found compelling. Sheaffer correctly noted that Michael took a highly uncritical look at the book and was far too easily impressed by the credentials of the men whose testimony forms the bulk of Kean’s book. Michael defended Kean based on her sources:
Michael is right; these are by and large good men (and they are almost all men) who report fairly what they have seen and felt. But that doesn’t make them right. History provides us with a very close analogue to this situation that is highly informative.
Flash back 200 years. In the early nineteenth century, scholars were trying to ascertain the origin of large earthworks found throughout the eastern United States—the so-called “mounds.” Scholarly opinion was divided between those who thought (correctly) that the mounds were Native American constructions and those who attributed them to a lost white race whom the Native Americans had massacred a thousand years ago.
Into this controversy, military men and politicians provided credible, eyewitness testimony about the earthworks that most east coast elite scholars and members of the public could not visit. These men included Revolutionary War heroes, high-ranking American generals, respected militia captains, prominent members of the clergy, and two presidents of the United States: William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson. All of these dignitaries asserted that their eyewitness investigations of the Native Americans and the mounds proved incontrovertibly that the mounds were the work of a lost race of white mound builders. What’s more, the military men said that their expertise proved to their satisfaction that these mounds were fortresses and defensive works built for the great race war between the red and white men.
None of this was correct. There was no lost white race; the mounds were not fortresses—they were temple mounds, burial mounds, and religious works. But the credibility and the testimony of these military men—who were acting in good, if misguided and racist, faith—contributed to scholarly acceptance of an absurd claim with no grounding in reality. They did not lie; they simply were unable to see beyond their anti-Native American ideology during a period when America was actively at war with Native Americans.
In short, even the most credible of observers interpret events through the lens of their own experiences and preconceptions. This is not a replacement for actual scientific evidence.
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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