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Site Archive: Commentaries
Too Many Anomalies, Not Enough Time
A Commentary by T. Peter Park*
Reprinted from The Anomalist:5
"The scientist who pauses to examine every anomaly he notes," said Thomas Kuhn, the late historian of science, "will seldom get significant work done." Few people have the time to examine more than a very small portion of the possibly paradigm-shaking, anomalies they hear about. The ordinary working man or woman is as limited and time-constrained in checking out every conceivable anomaly as Kuhn's scientist who realizes that no significant work will ever get done if he or she must pause to examine every anomaly that comes down the pike. The ordinary demands of life, love, family, school, and work make it impossible for us to devote more than a tiny fraction of our time to tracking down, checking out, and confirming or disproving every story, anecdote, rumor, statistic, or alleged fact that we hear, see, or read from our friends, from our co-workers, on the bus or subway, in the supermarket check-out line, from our bartender or garage mechanic, from zealous members of our church, from television evangelists, in the headlines on our corner newsstand, on television, or in a book perused in the local bookstore or public library.
We would have no time left over to eat, sleep, make love, buy our groceries, or go to work, if we decided to drop everything for an in-depth investgaton of every miracle story recounted by Pat Robertson or Oral Roberts, or every UFO, Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, Elvis Presley, Adolf Hitler, or Virgin Mary sighting. Getting the ordinary everyday business of living done requires us to just shrug off and tune out nine-tenths of all such rumors bombarding us daily. Sanity, and the ordinary needs and activities of normal living, demand that we steel ourselves to ignore all but a tiny fraction of the countless self-appointed purveyors of information, knowledge, and enlightenment competing for our attention and credence. Tuning out 99 percent of possibly disturbing anomalies is as psychologically and practically necessary for the ordinary member of the general public as for the scientist who would seldom get significant work done if he or she paused to examine every anomaly.
Most of us, most of the time, just ignore and tune out the vast quantities of potentially anomalous or discordant information (or alleged information) we hear about. We must automatically say to ourselves that such things just don't happen on the basis of our phhosophical, theological, scientific, sociological, or political worldview, or we just automatically discount them on the basis of the person or communication medium describing an occurrence. Some of us, however, do seem to be much more eager than others to actively debunk rather than simply ignore or shrug off alleged reports of anomalous or extraordinary phenomena. In a sense, such zealous, often furious, debunkers are psychologically closer to "believers" than are those in the general public who simply dismiss "oddball" events or "damned" phenomena out of hand. (By the "damned", I mean "the excluded," as Charles Fort put it.)
Professional hard-line scientific debunkers like Martin Gardner, Paul Kurtz, Philip Klass, Carl Sagan, James Randi and Joe Nickell who devote their lives and careers to debunking UFOs, alien abductions, crop circles, ESP, psychic-spoonbending, faith-healing, Kirlian photography, auras, spontaneous human combustion, and the Shroud of Turin in books and in artcles in The Humanist and The Skeptical Inquirer sometimes seem to be curiously disturbed or threatened by the alleged phenomena they so zealously labor to demolish. They take such things quite seriously indeed, even if in a negative, mirror-image fashion. They seem to half believe such things, to suspect and feel that they might perhaps turn out to be "for real" after all. In a sense, furious UFO debunkers like Philip Klass and the late Carl Sagan (or Donald Menzel in the 1950s) are closer to zealous UFO believers and gung-ho abduction enthusiasts like Whitley Strieber, Budd Hopkins, David Jacobs, and John Mack than they are to the flatlandish, hard-headed businessmen who refuse to even waste five minutes reading an article or watching a TV show on UFOs. Conjurer and "psychic" trickery exposer James "The Amazing" Randi is perhaps a bit closer psychologically to Israeli psychic sponon-bender Uri Geller than he would quite feel comfortable about admitting. Zealous Shroud of Turin debunker Joe Nickell is psychologically perhaps actually a bit closer to Catholic fundamentalist Medjugorje pilgrims or born-again Protestant miracle enthusiastists than to hightoned Protestant and Catholic theologians who simply never ever deign to mention contemporary miracle stories in their learned tomes. Fanatical atheists, it has often been said, are closer to God than the religiously lukewarm and indifferent.
But for most of us, the mere presence of a seeming anomaly does not automatically inspire a frantic scramble to debunk or explain it. "We do not usually surrender the intellectual system of a lifetime for one bit of information that does not fit," noted the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. This, he argued, explained the tardy and reluctant acceptance of Darwinian evolution by the 19th century American naturalist James Dwight Dana (1813-1895). "Single facts almost never slay world-views, at least not right away," noted Gould, and "properly so, for the majority of deeply anomalous observations turn out to be wrong." Thus, "every datum for the revolution of the earth" is matched by "a hundred claimed observations for cold fusion, perpetual motion, or the transmutation. of gold." Usually, rather, "anomalous facts are simply incorporated into existing theories, often with a bit of forced stretching to be sure, but usually with decent fit because most worldviews contain considerable flexibility."
1 What makes an anomaly worth concerted or intense scrutiny? Kuhn felt that an anomaly must be "more than just another puzzle of normal science" before "the transition to crisis and to extraordinary science" gets underway. The mere existence of an anomaly does not itself induce crisis. To do so, it must usually be more than just an anomaly. In general, the anomaly must in some way impinge upon an individual's personal psychological development, or on his or her daily life, sexuality, morals, politics, social position, etc., or involve people personally close to oneself. Anomalies that on their own merits would merely strike an investigator as unimportant minor oddities, transparent tall tales, or exaggerated figments of a credulous or neurotic imagination may yet gain attention because of widespread popular interest, strong political pressure, or even the involvement of people personally known to the investigator.
UFOs illustrate this point beautifully. Reports of curious celestial phenomena, many now obviously explicable as comets, meteors, mirages, "sundogs," aurora borealis or peculiar cloud formations, but others still puzzling, are as old as history, though they seldom produced more than local excitement. Early 20th century chroniclers of the anomalous like Charles Fort exhumed and reprinted many such half-forgotten reports from 18th and 19th century magazines, newspapers, and scientific journals for the edification of a few other other anomaly-lovers like themselves. Amateur pilot Kenneth Arnold's June 24, 1947 sighting of nine flying disks over Mt. Rainier could have easily sunk into obscurity as one more report of peculiar things seen in the sky. However Cold War national security jitters and the dawning awareness of the emerging Space Age made Arnold's sighting grip the public imagination, and our Age of Flying Saucers was born with its popular belief in space visitors reconnoitering Earth. Two decades later, UFOs seemed unimportant, uninteresting, and nonsensical as a purely scientific problem to physicist Edward U. Condon, the late Chairman of the University of Colorado physics department. However, popular and political pressure led the Air Force to put him in charge of its 1968-1969 UFO research project. Despite his personal contempt and distaste for the subject, Condon accepted for the sake of getting Federal funds for his department. On a societal scale, widespread popular interest and government concern over a remote but still possible threat to national security overrode the skeptcism of most scientists about UFOs.
The same is true of most other anomalies. So-called "psi" phenomena like ESP stir the popular imagination because of their bearing on profound religious and philosophial questons about the nature of the human personality, its place in the Cosmos, and its possible immortality. Otherwise, how many people would care about statistical oddites in card-guessing experiments? Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, sea serpents, and alleged living African dinosaurs arouse more excitement than the discovery of a new species of beetles or a new phylum of mud-dwelling marine worms because of popular interest in human evolution, prehistoric hominids, and dinosaurs (by mcsweeney at tforge). Popular interest in extraterrestrial life made possible traces of Martian life in meteorite a hotter topic in 1996 than the discovery of bacteria forming a third major kingdom of Earthly life alongside the eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Alleged religious miracles are usually just ignored by sophisticates as the delusions of ignorant peasants. However, they elicit more "cultural elite" curiosity when they mobilize popular passions over sensitive political-cultural issues (e.g., abortion, school prayer, or a nation's religious identity), threaten secular-humanist norms of rationality, or compete with the sober devotons of enlightened liberal Protestants, educated post-Vatican II Catholics, and urbane Reform Jews.
In all these cases, extra-scientific factors related to popular or cultural interest helped focus attention on odd occurrences that otherwise might have attracted little notice from scientists at all. No popular anomaly is an island.