Of UFOs, Loch Ness monsters, Independent Thinkers, and dogmatists
Posted by Henry Bauer on 2008/09/29
Last Saturday I enjoyed the company of interested and interesting people at a one-day meeting of the Virginia-North Carolina section of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). I talked about “Challenges and advantages of researching UFOs and similar subjects”. The text (mufon2008) and PowerPoint summary (also titled mufon2008) are posted here because there are many similarities between taking an unorthodox view as to HIV/AIDS (or global warming, or cold fusion, or fluoridation of water, etc.) and taking the view that it’s worth looking into the claims about Loch Ness monsters, UFOs, psychic phenomena, and the like.
The fundamental similarity is that one is cut loose from the support structure of mainstream scientific activity, and that has consequences in organizational, intellectual, and personal or social matters. Being clear about this can be very useful; I’ve certainly found it so. When I stumbled into active HIV/AIDS skepticism, I recognized quite a few aspects as being specific instances of generalizations that I was familiar with: lack of agreement and cohesion among the skeptics, for example; for another, the cadres of fanatical defenders of the orthodoxy, typically people who themselves had not contributed substantively to the orthodox case and who play the role of attack dogs and character assassins.
The similarities as to organizational and social or personal matters are considerable, but there are important differences regarding the intellectual aspects. Those who look for UFOs or Loch Ness monsters suffer from a dearth of hard data, a lack of clear indications about how more and better data might be obtainable, and the absence of any satisfactory explanation for the putative phenomenon. By contrast, with HIV/AIDS the hard data are on the side of the skeptics, not of the mainstream orthodoxy. However, those data are hard only in the destructive sense of disproving HIV/AIDS theory, not in a positive sense of pointing to all-encompassing explanations of everything about AIDS and about HIV that everyone would agree with. Defenders of HIV/AIDS orthodoxy experience intellectual challenges similar to those of UFO buffs, because their phenomena don’t cohere with an overarching theory: if it’s a virus, then vaccines and microbicides should be possible — but all attempts over more than two decades have failed; if it’s spread sexually, then there should have been epidemics in every country — but there haven’t been; breast feeding by “HIV-positive” mothers should be deleterious — but it isn’t, quite the contrary; since HAART reduced dramatically the death rate among “HIV-positive” people, “HIV-positive” people should have been living longer — but they haven’t been; since there’s a long latent period, and benefit from antiretroviral treatment, people should on average be dying at much greater ages than those at which they become infected — but that’s not the case, the age distributions are superposable; higher viral load should mean lower CD4 counts and worse clinical prognosis — but those three things don’t correlate in that manner; untreated “HIV-positive” people should die, but many don’t even become ill; Africa’s population should have been decimated — but it’s grown steadily and quite rapidly. HIV/AIDS phenomena and HIV/AIDS theory don’t cohere, the same sort of dilemma faced by UFO buffs and by searchers for Loch Ness monsters.
As to behavioral matters, defenders of HIV/AIDS orthodoxy display the same characteristics as one finds within the mother of all pseudo-skeptical organizations, CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and among its associated groups. Most members of CSICOP are science groupies, not scientists — and similarly some of the most extreme HIV/AIDS vigilantes are economists, psychologists, and the like. Among those with technical scientific credentials, the vast majority have not themselves contributed anything of much note — for obvious reason: as Bernard Shaw remarked long ago, “Those who can, do” — it’s the low achievers who spend (waste) their time attacking characters and denigrating open-mindedness. The orthodoxy-defenders reveal deep personal insecurity, behaving as though it were life-threatening if everyone doesn’t agree with their views.
By contrast, those who don’t take the orthodox position on trust and as absolutely certain don’t display that degree of personal insecurity; they’re often much more interesting, and they certainly seem to enjoy themselves a lot more. Last Saturday, for example, the people I encountered were there out of pure interest. I heard from a man who had spent decades gathering information and whose life had thereby been greatly enriched, through wide travels and through making an enormous variety of friends. I met a couple who traverse the globe with the aim of observing eclipses, and along the way they have learned a great deal about many cultures. Another couple had relocated simply in order to offer their children a better intellectual environment. These are what Patrick Moore described, with empathy and sympathy, as “Independent Thinkers” (Can you speak Venusian?, David & Charles, 1972) — whereas less objective and insightful pundits than Patrick Moore use terms like “crank”, “crackpot”, “pseudo-scientist”. What Independent Thinkers explore might often turn out to be wrong in minor or major ways, but these individuals think for themselves. And that’s what the world needs more of; there’s a vast oversupply of people who just follow their leaders.
My own experience has been that an inclination to think for oneself brings interactions with a marvelous range of personalities, some of whose interests jibe while others do not. I find myself collaborating as to Loch Ness monsters and the like with people whose political views are almost diametrically opposite to mine. I find that my critiques of students who don’t study bring me into touch with others who make similar critiques and who also see flaws, as I do, in HIV/AIDS theory — but who tend to the orthodox view as to global warming whereas I do not. And so on. The company of Independent Thinkers is wonderfully refreshing, compared to the constipated rigidity of the vigilantes of orthodoxy. The latter don’t know what they’re missing.