Skeptics, Debunkers and Believers

by Mac Tonnies

Students of ufology and extraterrestrial archaeology are constantly confronted with three terms that quietly challenge assumptions of reality: “skeptic,” “debunker” and “believer.” In the storm of claims, hypotheses and accusations that define esoteric research, these labels are routinely misused. I’d like to take this opportunity to look a bit closer at these emotionally charged words in order to see what they really mean, and how they sculpt the epistemological landscape. (I suspect that most readers versed in “forbidden science” secretly know all of this already, but the public arena incessantly distorts definitions to suit its own politics; consequently, one rarely sees “skeptic,” “debunker” or “believer” used in proper context.)

1.) Skeptics

Skeptics are thinkers. Skeptics evaluate evidence, realizing that there is no absolute plane of reference on which to cling. Skeptics neither debunk nor believe--unless they are able to establish that a given phenomenon deserves to be debunked. “Belief” is not a luxury the true skeptic can afford; the mechanics of skeptical thought are rooted in probability and open-mindedness. Being a skeptic requires courage and intellectual flexibility. What looks like a neat idea may turn out to be unsubstantiated nonsense; conversely, it might be the real thing.

2.) Debunkers

Debunkers comprise the most virulent of contemporary self-described “skeptics.” There is nothing inherently unsound about debunking, contrary to the many appeals on behalf of the “pro” side of any given paranormal controversy. But in order to debunk, the subject being debunked must be bunk. Valid, substantiated evidence cannot be debunked until new evidence supplants or alters it.

The term “debunker” is often taken as a negative word, perhaps best personified by orangutan scientist-theologian Dr. Zaius in “Planet of the Apes.” But there’s nothing wrong with being a debunker as long as the debunker can back up his or her claims. Of course, this doesn’t mean that some commentators won’t abuse the urge to debunk--usually in the name of “skepticism.” For example, astronomer Donald Menzel “debunked” countless UFO sightings based on his scientifically baseless a priori conviction that there were no UFOs. Veteran ufologist Philip Klass continues in Menzel’s role, correctly debunking many spurious UFO reports but erroneously “debunking” others. This is inevitable, as Klass’ self-stated maxim is that all UFO reports can be attributed to prosaic causes. His personal bias manifests again and again in his proclamations, and one wonders what genuine contributions he could provide if he parted ways with the sloppy (if intellectually fashionable) debunking community to pursue uncorrupted skepticism.

3.) Believers

Along with faux-debunkers, believers are the most significant fetter to open-minded inquiry. Believers have no pressing need for facts; a few vague correlations or anonymous “insider” remarks will suffice. Believers typically revolve around the notion that great shifts in scientific thought are usually initiated by lone eccentrics whose genius is often recognized only posthumously. Thus, their being branded as “cranks” by the mainstream is flaunted as a badge of honor, as if identifying them as architects of the Next Great Paradigm.

While genuine pioneers are indeed often derided in their time (i.e., Galileo, Darwin), this is no promise that today’s “crackpot” theory will be vindicated. However, this doesn’t faze believers. Nothing fazes believers. True believers will weave contradictory evidence into their own models of reality, rationalizing it with painfully arcane philosophical acrobatics. (Try wrapping your mind around the schizophrenic cosmos conceived by Christian Fundamentalists and “Creation Scientists.”)

We should all strive to be skeptics. But that means taking a hard look at the “principles” of skepticism as relayed by the mainstream skeptical community (whose output is as flawed by what it doesn’t present as believer-oriented media is flawed by its excessiveness).

I consider Carl Sagan one of the century’s true heroes. But at times his reductionist approach (as sublime as it was) betrayed an unsettling condescension: his arguments against the extraterrestrial hypothesis for UFOs was lazy and hopelessly anthropocentric; he dismissed evidence of alien architecture on Mars in a flippant magazine “hit piece” so unlike the passionate, reasoned perspectives in his books. He also popularized the single-most annoying pseudo-intellectual sound-bite to grace the pages of the “Skeptical Inquirer”: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

As researcher Daniel Drasin aptly notes in “Zen and the Art of Debunkery,” “extraordinary” is an essentially emotional word, not any sort of qualitative objective standard. This allows the would-be debunker to define “extraordinary” at her whim, establishing a forever out-of-reach “evidential horizon” that no amount of evidence can hope to surpass.

“Skepticism” is not merely the focus of semantic confusion. Its implications are exceedingly political. Cults, governments, advertisers, religions, schools, and the news media have an abiding interest in infecting you with their beliefs. If you're not vigilantly skeptical, it’s all too easy to succumb. The moment you do, you trap yourself in a given “reality tunnel” (to borrow a term from skeptic extraordinaire Robert Anton Wilson).

The Earth of the early 21st century is a deceiving, perilous place, and we may ultimately pay for the luxury of our zealously guarded tunnel realities with our own extinction. Wrench your mind out of its routines. Eviscerate your most cherished notions, leaving “belief” severed and twitching on the dissection tray where it belongs. And the invisible fog begins to part; the idiot chatter of our collective human television channel (all ads, all day) fades to a whisper somewhere in the distance.

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