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War of the Words

Peter Brookesmith, Fortean Times, July 2001

original source |  fair use notice

Summary: Sceptics hate debunkers hate true believers hate sceptics hate... PETER BROOKESMITH dissects the great and unbridgable divide between wilful believers and stubborn sceptics.

Sometime late in the last century, I had a job with a famous international publishing house that was packaging a series of books on the paranormal for another famous international publishing house. One of the subjects we decided to address was the notorious experiments at SORRAT (the Society for Research into Rapport and Telekinesis). In a basement in a house in Rolla, Missouri, SORRAT had placed sealed transparent boxes – adapted fish aquaria, actually – in front of a movie camera. The film appears to show things in those boxes hopping around, or exiting the containers (straight through the glass, as casually as any alien ever floated an abductee), or pens, untouched by human hand, sitting up and scribbling furiously, or seamless leather rings interlinking, and so on.

It is all pretty astonishing stuff and, about 20 years ago, it exercised the minds of the Society for Psychical Research to the extent of a good deal of arm-waving. A very funny film made by Prof Tony Cornwell debunked the claim that SORRAT would have needed a huge special effects budget to fake their films. Which was a pity, if only because, whether or not their films were faked, the people at SORRAT had invented a handy foolproof kit for testing claims of psychokinesis. Down in Covent Garden we thought this worth noting but, being anxious to present all sides of a question, we also thought it worthwhile to elicit the opinion of a sceptic or two.

We wrote to James Randi, for example, hoping he’d tabulate the reasons why he’d question SORRAT’s claims, and perhaps (if we were lucky) his opinion as to how SORRAT might have faked the films. We weren’t expecting the three-line dismissive reply we received, in which Randi simply stated that SORRAT’s claims were “not any more worth refuting than the Santa Claus myth.” We did our best to remember what breathing was, forced our mouths shut and, sadder but wiser, got on with whatever else we had to do that day.

Now it may be that, in this Universe or perhaps another, Mr Randi’s is the best opinion to be had on the subject. But by itself it offers evidence of nothing – other than scorn – and its blanket intransigence precludes any kind of discussion.

Not all who are labelled ‘sceptics’ and ‘debunkers’ are as dismissive as Mr Randi, and some provoke discussion in ways that step outside the merely confrontational. One of my favourite sceptical commentaries on ghosts and poltergeists, for example, comes from researcher Melvyn Harris. He once remarked in passing that he suspected such hauntings in England were – like almost everything else there – a matter of class. In his experience, if someone claimed to have a ghost in the house you could bet they were ferociously respectable and that the premises were rather grand. People plagued by poltergeists, on the other hand, typically lived unwillingly, resentfully, and unhappily in council houses. Working from the empirical observation that poltergeists targeted the working classes, Harris proposed a ritual of exorcism for them, consisting of the advice: “Never mind about that silly old polt dear, why don’t you read some nice Karl Marx?”

At the opposite end of the anomalistic spectrum from what are called ‘sceptics’ and ‘debunkers’ are those who, regardless of all and any evidence or argument to the contrary, remain resolutely convinced that UFOs are ET spacecraft; that poltergeists are indeed noisy, mischievous spirits; that ghosts are the diaphanous shades of the dead; that it’s possible to bend metal or levitate people by “mind power alone”; that people can communicate telepathically or see into the future – and so on. True believers don’t care very much for the laws of nature as revealed to science. Some true believers react with a savagery quite startling to the un-forewarned at the merest hint that anyone is even contemplating questioning their treasured beliefs.

For example, in January 2001, James Easton announced that he was establishing an Internet forum for those interested in “a critical, scientific appraisal of purported ‘UFO’-related evidence.” The forum was to be called UFO Skeptics, and (titles with the word ‘skeptic’ having been snapped up previously) its address would be debunk@listbot.com. This last detail – more an accident of fate than a choice – seemed to jerk a lot of chains. Something not entirely unlike hysteria broke out on one Internet discussion list when Easton issued an invitation to subscribe.

“You don’t even have to subscribe,” wrote one respondent, Robert Gates. “The skeptics have lacked meaning and substance for years... You just have to understand the words Pelicans, Lighthouse, Venus, misidentification, hoax, stars and you have understood the entire list and most of the postings without reading one message.”

Another raised the tone no end with this: “Pelicans of a feather will flock together. That’s just a Law of Nature. It appears that ‘Lists’ are springing up all over. When somebody can’t take the heat on one list, they just start their own and stock it with people of a like mind. You know, kinda like ‘a *cult* of personality’. Anybody in the ‘guano’ business will get rich following James’ new flock around! Now I’m going to get the flock outta here. I don’t want to disturb these meat eating birds while they’re feasting on ufologist carcasses. [...] Let the Pelicans and the rest flock on their own little island. At least that way the mess that their droppings create are restricted to a small area. With the added bonus that we won’t have their guano sprayed all over us!”

Magonia editor John Rimmer summed up the mirror imagery of such violently opposing camps thus: “Robert Gates’s view of ‘debunkers’ seems to be a reversal of his own attitudes to UFOs. For ‘it can’t be, therefore it isn’t’, substitute ‘I believe it, therefore it is.’” 1

Even the legendary feuds of ufology look pale and uninteresting beside the paroxysms of dissension that rack the exquisite world of crop circle watchers. One of the truest of true believers in these remarkable pieces of landscape art is architect Michael Glickman, who maintains that “crop circles are gateways between the earth and another dimension... There is a record... of continuing inventive genius which is beyond man’s capacity by a factor of hundreds of thousands.” 2 Ergo, strange patterns in cornfields cannot – ever, it seems – be the product of the hand of man.

But circlemaker John Lundberg reports 3 that “Glickman maintains that the demonstration formation we created for the Daily Mail in 1999 is genuine. He claimed as much at a Centre for Crop Circle Studies [CCCS] lecture in London which I attended. I explained that I had designed the formation and, with a team of six plus a journalist and photographer from the Mail, created the formation opposite Avebury stone circle. The paper ran a three-page article about us and the formation on 7 August 1999. In terms of proof beyond the testimony of all those involved, the farmer was paid a handsome fee for the use of his land and would verify as much. We were all booked into a hotel in Cherhill and they probably have a record of it. I have all the original construction diagrams, and the photographer took several photos of us creating the formation. All in all a pretty good body of evidence.”

Glickman has a special take on the revelations of circlemakers and, in the best tradition of debate among anomalists, leaps at the chance to lash the opposition with a gratuitous ad hominem attack: “It [an investigation by the CCCS] was held in 1993 around Julian Richardson’s claim to have made the majestic Bythorn Mandala. This rather unappetising young man who, while claiming the authorship of one of the most important formations ever, did not know even the difference between formulas [sic] for Circumference and Area. I had never met him, and when I arrived he held his hand out and said ‘Hello, I am the perpetrator.’ The delight, the simple glee, with which he pronounced the word ‘perpetrator’ was memorable and, I believe, pathological. It was clear to me that, despite his elaborately wrought confessions, the idea that this pathetic figure could have conceived, let alone made, Bythorn was high surrealism... Was there ever a single crop circle confession which was shown to be true? Well, no. Were there confessions that were clearly false? Yes, the majority.”

The “pathetic”, yea “pathological” Mr Richardson has photographs of the formation half-completed (he did it in two stints) as well as his working diagrams; but Glickman refuses to this day to admit that the Bythorn Mandala formation was man-made.4 Glickman has a similar problem with the notorious Oliver’s Castle video hoax. Indeed Glickman takes crop circles, quite literally, in deadly earnest. Asked in 1995 by an interviewer if there was any “sequential development” to crop formations, he and his writing partner Patricia Murray responded:

Murray: Oh yes! If you were to put them in a timeline, you would see steady development. They never could have landed what they landed in ’95 in the fields, in ’85. We weren’t prepared then.

Glickman: I get the feeling we literally would have died.

Murray: We would have gone into shock – trying to make sense of it in our world.

Glickman: We would have died.

Interviewer: Really?

Glickman: There are energies of power which we cannot comprehend and we could not have confronted. For example, the Spider’s Web or the Asteroid Belts of the last couple of years – I think we can only accept these big formations because we saw Barbary Castle in 1991.

True, no one has yet admitted to creating the Barbary Castle formation. But the circlemaking grapevine whispers it was most likely the handiwork of a group – dubbed ‘the A Team’ by researcher Jürgen Kroenig – who created it to wind up veteran fortean John Michell, then publisher of The Cerealogist. But a human claim to have made Barbary Castle is unlikely to cut much ice with Glickman. As he says, in this area “we are not in [the] real world. Around the crop circles all bets are off. Everything is reversed.” Quite so.

In his comment above on true believers, John Rimmer advisedly put the word ‘debunkers’ in quotation marks. And here be dragons. What does anyone mean when they speak of true believers, sceptics, debunkers – or the ‘open-minded’? It turns out that things are not what they seem in the dictionary.

The word ‘debunkers’ has come to be tossed, in the mouths, writings and ravings of true believers, at anyone who denies or even criticizes whatever the writer happens to have invested his faith in. CSICOP members are particularly vilified as debunkers. But that sets up a fresh semantic problem, as CSICOP call themselves ‘skeptics’ [the American spelling], which is generally taken to mean a debunker with a mind that’s at least half-open some of the time. Dictionaries can be dull to read, but the emergence of a private language of almost Wittgensteinian proportions (see panel) among paranormalists, anomalisticians and, to a lesser extent, their critics, is in danger of making their disquisitions inscrutable to the uninitiated.

Here is the Shorter Oxford Dictionary (Third Edition), on ‘sceptic’: “One who doubts the validity of what claims to be knowledge in some particular department of inquiry (eg. metaphysics, theology, natural science, etc.); [popularly], one who maintains a doubtingattitude to some particular question or statement.... [Occasionally], A seeker after truth who has not yet arrived at definite convictions.”

The word comes into English via French, whence it came from late Latin, which got it from the Greeks – skeptomai – which, according to Liddell & Scott’s abridged Lexicon (1871), means: “I look to, view, examine, or consider.” This last is the meaning the word still has in modern Greek and is used when expressing a mature opinion about something.

All of which tends to confirm what Marcello Truzzi has to say 5: “...organized skepticism is a fundamental norm in science. However, the term skepticism is properly defined as doubt, not denial. It is a position of agnosticism, of nonbelief rather than disbelief... The skeptics’ attitude towards extraordinary claims (for example, those of parapsychology), where proponents have so far produced inadequate evidence to convince most scientists that their hypotheses about anomalies are true, is characterized as a case not proved.”

In light of CSICOP’s fundraising piece (see panel), it would appear that rather than merely doubting, this ‘skeptical’ organization is in the business of the wholesale denial of anomalies.

Such denial, some true believers insist, is what ‘debunkers’ do. To the average pedant, this hijacking of a useful word is particularly irritating, since ‘to debunk’ means exactly what it appears to mean – “to expose the falseness of a claim” or, in short, to take the bunk (“nonsense, humbug” in the Oxford definition) out of something or some statement. So, while CSICOPians may also be debunkers in this proper sense of the word, their hardline characterisation of all things paranormal in such terms as “lunacy”, “torrent[s] of foolishness”, “silliness”, and “pro-paranormal pandering” – all taken from that same 1996 flier – gives some justification for true believers’ special (mis)usage of “debunker” to mean “one who denies the reality of anomalous phenomena.”

But then the issue becomes confused yet again when, on other occasions, the very same true believers may proudly recount that they themselves have debunked such and such a piece of nonsense. So debunking is fine when it means disposing of bunk by believers, but at other times a debunker is a suspect character with an agenda of denial.Deploying a word to mean whatever you want it to mean does not aid communication. It may even cause the cynical to wonder if such lack of clarity and consistency does not permeate all true believers’ thinking.

“Debunking done properly is an honorable activity,” notes Prof Truzzi. He, however, is partly responsible for running the idea together with denial, having years ago put into circulation the phrase ‘Skeptics doubt, debunkers deny.’

Today, he prefers to hold debunkery to its proper meaning, and gives “deniers” the new label “scoffers” 6 : “Scoffers... are pseudoskeptics who deny while usually calling themselves skeptics, [or] doubters... The reason I don’t like the word debunker very much is that it, too, is badly misused. There is definitely bunk out there, and it needs to be debunked... The problem is that many scoffers offer purported debunkings that actually fail (actually pseudodebunkings). Scoffers are often more interested in discrediting than in actually disproving claims.”

That seems a strikingly good set of reasons for taking the misplaced venom (and intolerable ambiguity) out of the concept of debunking – which can be done without scoffing and snorting – and sticking with the plain quotidian meanings of words. How many of the enraged engaged in rhetorical wars are ever likely to take any notice of Truzzi’s wisdom is another matter.

One might extrapolate from Truzzi’s comments an implicit scale of belief – it could also be a bell curve of open-mindedness – running from true believer on the far left through sceptic to scoffer (denier, unbeliever, infidel) on the far right. Debunking is an activity common to all these categories, while pseudo-scepticism is allegedly a vice of the third.

Notable by its absence here is the word ‘nonbeliever’, which should be distinguished from “unbeliever”, which is used here with all its religious connotations deliberately intact. The precise but neutral term ‘nonbeliever’ is clearly to the right of scepticism, but might be handy to denote those who have faith in the laws of nature and other fundamental truths described by science – and who bring to what some might call “denial” at least a battery of reasons for dismissing, in a style free of ridicule and scoffery, the material reality of anomalous phenomena, while recognizing the existence of anomalous experience.

Such rare creatures deserve a word of their own, do they not?



In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein discusses the logical and linguistic problems involved in understanding a public statement of a private, subjective, experience that is possibly unique to the speaker – such as “How blue the sky is!” [€275], or the sensation of pain [€240ff]. He wonders if such statements belong to a “private language.”

The classic statement of the difficulties in that concept is in €293: “If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ‘pain’ means – must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly?

“Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case! – Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. – Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. – But suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? – If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. – No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.

“That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation’ the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant. “

In practice, no one quite manages a private language. Poets edge close to it: consider Andrew Marvell’s use of the word “green” in various contexts in his poetry, most notably the astonishing line “A green thought in a green shade”. But Marvell’s distinctive meanings may be gleaned by sensitively considering the contexts in which he uses the word, and so it is possible to pick the bones out of his “green thought” – and, incidentally, to appreciate his genius. (Henry Vaughan has a similar peculiar way with the word “white”.)

Those who want to understand those working on the frontiers of language expect to have to contribute some work of their own; finding the key to the code of feeling in the best poetry is a kind of collaborative process between writer and reader. Poets are not concerned with selling concepts. In that, they differ from proponents of anomalies qua anomalies, who (for example) want us to believe that ET is here, now, early and often. Many laymen find the idea somewhat preposterous and most scientists find it mildly risible. True believers thus find themselves, whether they like it or not, in the business of persuading both public and specialists, and in that there’s no place for smart jargon. Having both a common and an esoteric sense for the word “debunker” is bad public relations, regardless of the anguish afforded pedants.

More esoteric still are coinages like “pelicanism”, “pelicanise”, and “pelicanist”. The term comes from James Easton’s development of Martin Kottmeyer’s proposed solution to the famed Kenneth Arnold sighting of 1947 that kick-started the modern UFO era – see FT137. Exactly who coined it is not entirely clear, but in July 1999, on the ‘Project 1947’ Internet mailing list, Canadian ufologist Don Ledger responded to a post by Tom Tulien suggesting that “pelicanism” might be “a handy term for something that has been debunked but not disproven to the majority’s satisfaction. We can now say a [UFO] sighting or incident has been ‘pelicanized’.” Larry Hatch offered: “Maybe we can agree on ‘pelicanization’ as the attachment of an unconvincing or unsatisfactory mundane explanation to a UFO.”

This is navel-gazing enough as cant goes (and is no help to the uninitiated), but Jerome Clark then introduced the still more obscure term “pelicanist”. This is now deployed largely as a pejorative expression, and appears to mean “anyone who will endorse any prosaic explanation of a UFO event”. That some prosaic explanations of some UFO events have some value seems to be irrelevant as long as the user’s derision is plain. The website of the psycho-socialist journal of contemporary vision and belief, Magonia, now lampoons this tendency to private language with a provocatively ironic banner that reads: “Promoting Pelican Pride”.8

Meanwhile, the world breathlessly awaits a common usage of the phrase “serious researchers” that doesn’t connote the private meaning “people who think like me (no matter how nuts I am).

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