Saturday, 1 September 2012
The biggest problem with being interested in anomalous phenomena is that people assume you’re a crank. There’s good reason for this, since many of the most vocal proponents of the subject really are cranks. But just what is a crank, and how do you tell the difference between a crank and a serious researcher? For a long time I thought this was one of those grey, subjective questions that it’s impossible to answer, but it’s just occurred to me that there might be an objective, black-and-white criterion after all. It all comes down to what a person finds interesting, and what they find boring. Anomalies don’t exist in isolation, but they can only really be understood in a wider context (for example, cryptozoology in the context of mainstream zoology, ancient aliens in the context of ancient history, etc). My theory is that serious researchers will be as interested in the broader context as they are in the anomalies, while cranks are bored to tears by the context -- which to them is just an irrelevant waste of time.
To be honest, I didn’t really come up with this idea myself, but I got it from a recent blog post by Nick Redfern. He was talking about some of the more annoying traits of ufologists, and one of these was the fact they never “turn off the ufologist switch”. Well, I think serious ufologists do, but the cranks certainly don’t.
There’s a similar situation in cryptozoology. One of the reasons I have so much time for Jon Downes and his colleagues at the CFZ is that they’re as happy talking about insects and spiders and amphibians as they are about monsters. These are real creatures, which may be rare or outside their natural habitats -- but they’re not cryptids by any definition. Yet it’s only by understanding the behaviour and ecology of known species that you can have a hope of understanding the unknown ones. In a recent article, Jon described himself as a “naturalist, cryptozoologist and journalist”, in that order: he put naturalist before cryptozoologist. Now, that’s my kind of anomalist -- and there’s nothing remotely cranky about it. A crank is someone who thinks there are only two species of creature in the woods: (a) Bigfoot, and (b) everything else, which is simply a distraction and a waste of time.
I often get accused of being a skeptic, but that’s not true (well, I suppose it’s true from the point of view of the sort of cranks I’m talking about, but it’s not true from any rational point of view). I’m interested in physics (in fact I’m reasonably well qualified in it) and I’m convinced there are major discoveries waiting to be made in areas like gravitational control and inertialess propulsion. But I’ve got no time for the countless internet cranks who claim to have proved Einstein wrong, yet can’t even get the units on each side of an algebraic equation to agree -- let alone understand the finer points of tensor calculus.
I’m also a believer in ancient aliens. Well, perhaps not ancient aliens, but certainly an advanced level of technology (or paranormal equivalent thereof) in certain ancient civilizations. But that comes from a wider interest in ancient history -- trying to understand it in its own context, identifying where there are apparent anomalies, and looking for an explanation of the anomalies. That’s quite different from a crank’s approach, which is the other way around altogether -- starting with the assumption that extraterrestrial visitation is an indisputable fact, then looking for evidence of it and dismissing everything else as an irrelevant waste of time.
[For anyone who is wondering, the photograph above—which die-hard ufologists will find utterly uninteresting—shows the re-entry and breakup of an ATV unmanned resupply craft. Perfectly explicable, therefore only of interest to non-cranks!]