Jun 02 2020

Journalism Without Skepticism

A recent interview published in Scientific American is a good case study in what can happen when you have journalism without skepticism.  By skepticism I mean a working knowledge of the discipline of scientific skepticism, which combines our current understanding of the philosophy of science, the nature of pseudoscience, critical thinking, mechanisms of self-deception, deliberate deception, and specific knowledge about individual pseudoscientific and paranormal topics.

The interview was conducted by John Horgan, who I have trashed in the past for criticizing skepticism while demonstrating an almost complete ignorance of it. The subject of the interview was Leslie Kean, a journalist who has written a book on UFOs and another on life after death. Doing a deep dive into these two issues is beyond this one article, and they have already been covered at length here and elsewhere. I want to focus on what the interview itself reveals.

Kean appears to take a solid journalistic approach to these issues, but there is a massive hole in her approach. She does not seem to be aware that there is already a thorough investigation into these questions, showing convincingly in my opinion that they are not genuine. She ignores it because she thinks she already understands it, when she doesn’t – so she is missing the skeptical take on these issues. She is dismissive of skeptics as deniers and as closed-minded. She then goes on to make rookie mistakes, that any well-informed skeptic could have pointed out to her. The result is a repetition of long debunked fallacious arguments, but with a patina of serious journalism.

Here are some examples on the UFO front. First, she is being coy by saying she is not concluding UFOs are aliens. She is just concluding that they are real physical objects displaying characteristics that cannot be man-made or natural. This is the “Intelligent Design” approach – we’re not saying it’s God, it’s just a god-like intelligent designer. Right. To be fair, this is better than concluding UFOs are aliens, but it does not make her approach more serious or her conclusions more solid. She writes:

The documentation goes back more than 60 years, when no one on this planet had technology like this. In some cases, experts, such as officials from the French Space Agency, had enough data to rule out all conventional explanations (meaning it wasn’t something natural or man-made). These cases represent only a small fraction of those reported, but they are the ones that matter.

I disagree that the small fraction of best cases are the ones that matter, for several reasons. First, none of these cases are smoking gun evidence of non-terrestrial craft or something similar. They are simply the most difficult to explain. That might make them seem the most interesting in isolation, but that is a severe intellectual and investigatory mistake. She is essentially ignoring the 99% of the evidence that tells the full story. Let me give you an analogy.

Imagine a hypothetical world in which stage magicians, as a matter of professional culture, all claimed they were doing real magic (as opposed to the reality, where most admit they are doing tricks and illusion). Would the best understanding of the phenomenon of stage magicians come from only focusing on the few best magicians in the world, those whose tricks were the most stunning and difficult to penetrate? Or do you think if you studied the less-skilled magicians, or the tricks that were easier to unravel you might learn something important about stage magic in general, something that might help you put even the world’s best magicians into proper context?

Now apply this to the UFO phenomenon. The bulk of the claims are easily demonstrated to be misperception, natural phenomena, illusion, and hoaxes. That doesn’t mean they are not important – to conclude that is a bias. It is to start with the conclusion that UFOs are real, and then ignore any evidence that suggests otherwise. When we study the breadth of the UFO phenomenon we learn a lot of things – we learn things about memory, illusion, culture, delusion, group dynamics, the pitfalls of investigation, and the nature of belief. It becomes evident that a complex and large phenomenon can exist that is entirely a psychocultural construct. In that context, the residue of “interesting” cases can be seen as an extension of this phenomenon, not an entirely separate one.

Kean also prematurely concludes that these best UFO cases represent real and unexplained phenomena. Of course once you arrive at that conclusion, everything else flows from there. Once you think pilots have actually documented physical objects moving at supersonic speed, then stopping on a dime and making a right angle turn, that does require an extraordinary explanation. But that conclusion is not warranted. She gets there by putting blinders on and ignoring the vast skeptical literature that puts these events into a better light.

Let’s consider her recent article in the New York Times where she hypes the recent navy videos of alleged UFOs. Yeah, these videos seem superficially interesting, and if you cherry pick the moments of the video that are released you miss a lot of information. Of course, UFO skeptics have been there numerous times. What happens right before and after the revealed segment of video is often the most important, and gives away the answer. Also, those with expertise in optical illusion on video have already convincingly explained these videos. One is almost certainly just a bird, with the apparent motion due to the motion of the jet itself. The other is almost certainly just a commercial airplane at distance, and so is distorted into a blob.

So Kean was incredibly wrong in her hyping of these videos, and missed the more mundane explanations that a truly skeptical investigation would have revealed. She further fails to learn the bigger lesson from these specific cases – yes, even pilots can be this deceived. It is extremely difficult to properly perceive distance, size, and speed in the air. Instruments can be misleading.

Also she misses the important point that alleged evidence for UFOs and similar controversial phenomena always seem to be right at the edge of perception. They are suggestive, but never definitive. Why? After 60 years why is there not a single smoking gun piece of evidence? Why is there not one non-fake video that is more than a suggestive blob or light? There always has to be the possibility of misperception. The simplest answer is because – when objects can be identified, they are something known and mundane. We only see the objects that cannot be identified because “they are the ones that matter” to borrow Kean’s phrase.

I could go on about the many failures of critical thinking her work displays. Her works stands, unfortunately, as a cautionary tale. Even if you are a skilled journalist, if you venture into the areas of pseudoscience and the paranormal, you need experience and skill in those specific areas. Do not dismiss the skeptics, because this is their area of expertise.

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