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Saturday 1 September 2012

Theoretical Crankology

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 are plenty of really interesting things to see in the sky besides UFOs. A ufologist who wants to be taken seriously ought to be a half-way decent plane spotter and a half-way decent amateur astronomer -- at least to the point of knowing where to look for Venus, Mars and Jupiter on a particular night. Many of them do, of course... but not the cranks. I’m suspicious of anyone who thinks planes and planets and re-entering space junk are simply “boring” things that debunkers use to explain away UFO sightings.

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!]


Dave Clarke said...

Absolutely spot on target Andrew...the problem being that the cranks give all of us a bad name and perpetuate the popular idea that anyone interested in anomalies is nuts. This might be amusing if it were not from the fact that these attitudes result in, for example, the reluctance of academic funding bodies to approve research into these subjects for fear of bad publicity. This is turns feeds back into academia and government, whereby genuinely open-minded scientists such as yourself do not want to be publicly associated with, for example, UAP research as it would be perceived as career suicide.
A vicious circle from which there appears to be no escape!

Andrew May said...

Thanks, David - although I can think of one senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University who seems to be able to get away with it...

Terry the Censor said...

Very good post.

I've been reading about alien abduction through my interest in psychology.

That sentence would elicit howls of outrage from UFO proponents, for they would immediately whine that my bias is shown, and that I have predetermined that abductions are delusions of the mind. Anything I said after that would be discounted as debunking. End of dicussion.

Proponents of alien abduction are not interested in psychology, even though both fields discuss memory, amnesia, trauma and hypnosis (for starters). Experiencers and proponents have developed a folk psychology parallel to but not informed by science. Proponents engage psychology only so far as to attack it, usually by invoking 1) that evil man Freud, 2) nefarious CIA experiments, and 3) paradigm paralysis (though I doubt anyone in ufology has ever read Thomas Kuhn).

I'd like to take Dr. May's thesis one step further:

I think many cranks show no interest in mainstream science because they believe their anomalous science is the true science.

Andrew May said...

Thanks for your really constructive comments, Terry. The whole abduction/psychology area is another perfect example of what I was talking about. You also add another dimension that I didn't even touch on -- the fact that the cranks are so convinced their world-view is right, and the mainstreamers are wrong, that it's impossible to have any kind of dialog with them.