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Richard Smoley's Blog

UFOs, part 2

It’s dangerous to write about UFOs in any but the most contemptuous fashion. Even a reasonably even-handed treatment of the subject, as I tried to write, makes one suspect.

And vulnerable to derision.

And who needs stigma in addition to the usual woes of daily life?

A friend of mine writes, “What’s this sudden UFO trip, as it were? Corso was a ding-dong, he was discredited; John Mack, by the way, is not credible.”

How do we know that Corso was a ding-dong? Well, we have the excoriation of him written by debunker Brad Sparks, mentioned in the previous posting (link, below left).

But then I do a bit of searching and find another view, from UFO researcher Michael Salla, analyzing Sparks’s article, which, he finds, focuses entirely on the negative and prematurely dismisses other explanations for supposed errors. Scalla writes: “In attempting to debunk Corso in an effort to discredit his testimony, Corso’s critics deserve to be admonished for distracting UFO researchers from the task of identifying the truth in Col Corso’s remarkable testimony. What remains to be done is a truly objective and impartial analysis of Corso’s testimony” (link at left).

Without wanting to dig into the facts of Corso’s story, I at least find Scalla’s views more even-handed and reasonable in tone. I certainly agree that “a truly objective and impartial analysis of Corso’s testimony” remains to be done.

But as I wrote yesterday, mainstream periodicals like the Guardian took it for granted that Corso was a ding-dong and that his book had been satisfactorily debunked. Hence Corso's books took a place beside Clifford Irving's biography of Howard Hughes and the poems of Ossian among the great literary hoaxes of all time.

This is an example of a practice that I find disturbing. Here’s how it goes: Some kind of paranormal claim is made. Soon — very soon — one or more “debunkers” comes out with a supposed exposé allegedly “proving” that the claims are not only wrong but ridiculous. The mainstream press takes the debunkers at their word.

If you read my previous posting, you saw exactly how this happened with Corso’s book.

Nevertheless, the writing of these debunkers often displays a certain hysterical tone that is usually present when the position you are arguing is much weaker than you would like.

As for John Mack, it is the case that at Harvard — an institution that is as reactionary as it is liberal — noises were made about stripping away his tenure for having the audacity to cover something as ludicrous as alien abduction. But since it was clear that Mack was guilty neither of ethical or methodological lapses, certain professors — mindful of something called academic freedom — took up his cause. And the matter was left to drop.

The mainstream press is more judicious in tone, but the attitude is similar. Take the New York Times’s review of The Divine Life of Animals, a 2010 book by my friend Ptolemy Tompkins about whether animals survive death. The review is by one Mark Oppenheimer.

An author knows he’s in trouble when the first line of a review contains the word “embarrassment.”

Judge for yourself (link at left). For my part I would say that it is not a review of a book, but a dismissal of one. It is a review written by someone who found the idea of an afterlife for animals ridiculous before he opened this book and never seriously wanted to believe otherwise.

Another example, going further back: a 1996 essay by Frederick Crews in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Consolation of Theosophy” (link at left). It’s quite obvious that Crews knows very little about his subject other than what he has read in the books he is reviewing, and which he is happy to take at face value. Would The New York Review dare treat any other subject that way? Have someone review a biography of Lincoln, say, who knew Lincoln only from that biography?

After writing about this field for thirty years, I’m willing to say that there is practically no intelligent thinking or writing about the paranormal, or about figures connected with it, in the mainstream press.

And then I face another, still more disturbing question: is it only this field that they are so ignorant — and so willfully ignorant — about? There’s no real reason to think so.
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