Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hits and Myths

Legend: A lie that has attained the dignity of age. ~ Laurence J. Peter

We do love our myths. The success of "Mythbusters" on the Discovery Channel is tribute to our love of legends (and explosions) both great and small. In addition, the endless programs about UFO's, legendary creatures, and prophecies show that many people just can't get enough of this sort of thing.

Take the Loch Ness monster. People have been seeing this thing since there were people to see it. They have produced pictures, have sworn on a stack of Bibles to seeing it, and have funded lengthy research efforts to find the illusive Nessie. What we have to show for it are some grainy films, some dubious photographs (include one outright forgery), and no sea monsters.

We should expect no more than that. Loch Ness doesn't have enough fish in it to support a large sturgeon population, much less a family of pleisiosaurs swimming around for hundreds of years. But, if one was to assume that somehow Nessie and her mates could eke out a living, there would have to be enough of them to ensure that they could reproduce in sufficient numbers to maintain a population of them in the lake. If you have so many of something so large swimming in an enclosed lake, a sonar survey would have revealed them. One such survey, which featured boats strung completely across the loch, came up completely empty.

Yet people want to believe so much that they can be fooled by the so-called “surgeon's photo.” The photo, taken by someone who was angry at a newspaper that had not paid for his search efforts at Loch Ness, was fronted by Robert Wilson, a surgeon, to give it legitimacy. Long held to be absolute proof of the existence of Nessie, some years ago it was revealed, by Wilson's son, I believe, that in actual fact the photo was of a fake “Nessie” head attached to a toy submarine.

Our oceans are full of exotic and wonderful creatures, like the giant squid, yet people prefer to believe in a prehistoric creature lurking in a Scottish loch.

Then there's the matter of UFO's. No one is more intrigued by the possibilities of intelligent life on other planets than me. I've speculated about since I was old enough to realize that there were other planets. But the bulk of the UFO believers are wrapped up in conspiracies (what would they do without Area 51?), abductions, and metaphysics that they seem to have a weak grip on the realities of the situation.

J. Allen Hynek was the official de-bunker for the U.S. Air Force for years. He left after some time, not because he thought there some some deep governmental conspiracy to hide the “facts” about alien visits to Earth, but because he felt the Air Force was forcing explanations on observations that were truly unidentified. His stand was that there were indeed some things showing up in the sky that we didn't understand, and he wanted to be able to research them. As far as he was concerned, calling every strange sighting a weather balloon was just as bad as calling it a flying saucer.

In fact, Dr. Hynek continued his debunking of faked photographs and hokey abduction stories for years after his retirement, all the while trying to get people interested in investigating more mundane but completely unexplained sightings. He never really got anywhere, but he was popular amongst the UFO set, despite exposing some of their cherished “evidence” as fakes or erroneous interpretations.

The alien abductions always have rankled me. If we visited a planet and found intelligent life on it, would we:
  • a) Spend time observing the planet, attempting to learn how to communicate with the beings?
  • b) Make an immediate attempt to contact them using mathematical patterns?
  • c) Sneak down in the middle of the night, find a couple of drunken yokels, take them for a ride around their solar system, poke them with needles, then return them to the swamp where we found them?
To most UFO enthusiasts, the answer is most definitely c).

A co-worker and I were discussing this the other day, when he, a born and bred Alabamian, offered his opinion on why the abduction-of-drunk-rednecks theory is hokum.

“Listen,” he said, “if some good ole boy is stomping through the woods at night and sees a little green man coming at him, his first thought is going to be, 'I'm-a goin' to shoot that l'i'l green feller. He'll look good on the wall next to my buck and big bass mounts.” And blammo! There'd be one less E.T. left to phone home.

It's strange really how humans hold on to the ideas of the paranormal, legendary creatures, and flying saucers, among other myths. Much of this fascination has to do, I think, for the desire for something beyond the routine word we think we understand so well. People believe in ghosts because it gives them comfort about what happens after death. We like the idea of monsters in the oceans the same way we like dinosaurs; these are monstrous creatures that generate a sense of awe. And we love (and fear) aliens for a variety of reasons, many of which have to do with the idea of finding someone with greater wisdom than we have because they are so much more advanced.

Of course, if they're so advanced, how come they find bayou drunks so fascinating?

What's really ironic about this is that the universe around us is so much more fascinating than most people realize. As Sir Arthur Eddington once said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” At the time, Sir Arthur may have been motivated by Edwin Hubble's findings, Einstein's theories, or the blossoming science of quantum mechanics. All of those events were jarring us out of a comfortable parochial sense of complacency, with the realization that not only did we not know everything about our surroundings, but we actually didn't know very much at all.

The average person, though, takes much of this scientific “stuff” for granted. They don't see the challenge of isolating a Higgs boson as all that interesting, while a huge sea monster floating around in Loch Ness is amazing. There's also a little rebellion at work here. Our teachers and the “experts” (whoever they are) are forever telling us what's what. We like seeing their balloons punctured. Of course, balloons are punctured all the time, but the argument over the expansion rate of the universe seems so abstract compared to the possibility that a spaceship set down last week in Biloxi.

There's nothing wrong with keeping an open mind toward myths. In fact, keeping an open mind is what discovery is all about. Investigating the strange has often led to very real discoveries. But the danger is in spending inordinate amounts of time and resources on those myths, as well as a willingness to discard facts in favor of unsubstantiated evidence.

So, keep an open mind toward the mythical, but never close your mind to reality.

2 comments:

Aaron Clark said...

You need to read some more about abductions. You obviously don't know much about them. Instead you're promoting a stereotype on this web page. The most popular authors on this subject are:

John Mack
David Jacobs
Budd Hopkins
Whitley Streiber

The Gog said...

I'm sorry. I didn't make myself clear. Alien abductions are hooey, along with "autopsy" films from Area 51 (pity the poor monkey dying for the sake of hoaxers), crop circles (despite the fact that people admit making them and have been videotaped doing so, there are still those who scream "Aliens!" every time one turns up),and all the "Chariots of the Gods" theories of how aliens built the pyramids and the Inca cities (some people just can't bring themselves to admit the ancients were as smart and determined as we are -- perhaps more so).

If promoting real science is a "stereotype", then I plead guilty every time.