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OK, So I Lied About There Not Being an Email Today [Trenchant Edges]
An Introduction to a book I probably won't write but need to get out of my head
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges a newsletter about blah blah blah.
Listen, I just kinda need to get this out of my system today so I can focus on other stuff. A series of coincidences involving the UFOlogists on the social media platform Clubhouse has gotten me thinking about critical thinking.
In short, I think the quasiscientific body of folklore around UFOs in the US is an ideal subject matter to test and practice one’s critical thinking on. I did a bunch of this in my teenage years and it was super formative for me.
I’ll explain why UFOlogy is an ideal ground to stand on here.
Critical Thinking and UFOs: Escaping Naive Contrarianism in a World of Disinformation
The late 20th Century USA is haunted by many specters. Nuclear war, communism, millenarian fervor, and UFOs.
It’s this last haunting that interests us. Not because of the somewhat unanswerable question of if we’ve been visited by space aliens or even because of its pop-culture significance.
But because since the 1950s, the UFO subculture has gestated under conditions of adversarial paranoia that it seems more and more of the world is forced to live under thanks to increased global interconnection, social media, and an ever more sophisticated propaganda machine.
Or should I say machines? Yeah, probably.
Sussing the truth out of any particular news item these days can turn into a research rabbit hole in an instant. Let alone larger stories. Rumors, half-truths, and youtube comments prevail in all directions.
A grim state of the world for anyone who cares about the truth. Or even wants to pretend to.
This book isn’t for everyone. Most of us grow up accepting the institutionally promoted stories about the world and it usually takes near-traumatic events to rip the wool from our eyes. If you, as a habit, just assume that a President or Journalist is telling you the truth… well, this book is probably just going to annoy you.
This book is written to help a certain kind of person out of one of the more dangerous traps around. What often happens to people who bought into what I’m terming “institutional narratives” is they flip to the other extreme: Naive contrarianism, just assuming the opposite of whatever an institution says is true.
This is both wrong and dangerous for a slew of reasons but the most important is that the most effective lies are built on partial truths and so deceptive actors will rarely tell lies from scratch. The CIA is a dangerous, violent, and untrustworthy organization.
But to look at the CIA world factbook entry on Zambia is so filled with lies that they don’t mainly speak Bantu, that their population wasn’t about 19 million in 2021, and that it didn’t spend 13 years as a part of Northern Rhodesia is probably a mistake.
So how do you know what’s true? What techniques can you use to find the truth? And how do you deal with all the goddamn ambiguity of the world?
These aren’t idle questions. To be able to live in the world is to need to understand what’s happening and how you can respond to it. They are questions without absolute answers, though, and that’s frustrating. But it’s better to confront that frustration rather than retreat into some faux-moral absolutism or zealotry.
If nothing else such choices represent dead states where you cannot grow until you shed the emotional armor they’re made of. And the fact that such belief systems, when combined with organization usually create mass graves just gives another reason to avoid them.
So where does that leave us? Guessing with style, basically. Learning how to effectively rule out possibilities while remaining creatively flexible about options is far more of an art than science, but there’s some science to it as well.
Where do we sit with science here? Happily, science’s brand cache is down a bit at the moment. Which is undoubtedly frustrating for many, but treating Science as a magic talisman that can ward away untruth was also a long-running mistake for many people.
Science is a pretty specific process that produces a certain kind of result. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit here.
One of the challenges with classical discourses on how to think better is they kind of assume all those thinking together are somewhat aligned in purpose and outcome. Disinformation, the intentional spreading of the plausible but wrong to nudge victims towards incorrect conclusions, is rarely considered.
Media Studies does it better for external sources but doesn’t help sorting out one’s own confirmation bias. And the fact one needs to actively interrogate some piece of content to even start to apply its tools is a disadvantage.
This book is more concerned with metacognition: Thinking about how you think and attempting to refine the process.
As the bible put it, we see through a glass, darkly. Cleaning the glass and knowing when it’s clean is hard. I’d say that metaphor is pretty optimistic. Once you get into the nitty-gritty it’s more like we see through a Kaleidoscope.
Awareness of the problems, be they logical fallacies or cognitive biases, doesn’t solve them. As I said, we’re working towards guessing with style here more than DISCOVERING THE TRUTH.
Grand pronouncements feel great to make but rarely hold under serious scrutiny.
If you’ve gotten this far I’m going to make a few assumptions. First, you’re willing to put in the work to be a little less wrong about the world. That’s good, the world is staggeringly awe-inspiring and horrifying to gaze at up close.
Second, you’ve probably tried a lot of Big Ideas that promised you’d understand the world way better and then helped to a point before burning you. I know I have.
There’s no grand formula for all this stuff. It’d be easier if there was, but it’d be a lot less interesting too and we’ll just have to accept that blessing and curse with as much grace as we can fake up. ;-)
Back to UFOs
So how do UFOs fit into all this? Well, Unidentified Flying Objects represent perhaps a unique category of study.
First, it’s inherently anti-institutional in character. By definition until the fabled days of disclosure, to believe that the Truth Is Out There about aliens is to believe that the machinery of our civilization is arrayed against the truth.
This gives us a body of work inherently at least a little paranoid. Paranoia is good because sometimes it’s right, but it’s usually wrong. IE: Perfect to practice scrutiny on.
Second, there’s just an endless supply of this stuff. More than 70 years worth. You’ll never go through all of it. So you’ve got to make a guess on incomplete information.
Third, it exposes a lot of assumptions about cultural needs and anxieties, metaphysics, and the nature of our capitalist settler-colonist culture. Assumptions you’ll probably want to work through for their own sake just to have some orientation in the world we live in.
For example, are UFOs the same things as angels or demons? Lots of complex questions down that rabbit hole.
Fourth, UFO stories are pretty inherently fun. There’s a lot of drama to be had. Heroes! Villains! Galactic conquest! Trying to imagine what sentient life from another biosphere is like! It’s good shit. The best kind of pulp alt-history and maybe even real!
X-files didn’t get a reboot 20 years later for nothing, you know?
Fifth, it forces complex questions of trust to the surface. Do you trust the government and journalism? Do you trust fringe researchers who’s entire income comes from telling people aliens are real and have massive chips on their shoulders?
Is one of these groups actually more or less credible than the others?
Like I said, it’s good shit. Trust Networks are among the most important aspects to deciding who to believe and the issues of judging between them are rarely discussed. Especially not when both have different flaws.
How can you prevent yourself from being drawn into delusion?
The pull is real.
Now, let’s help you swim better.
Alright, that’s it.
As a project, fuck if I know if this is even worth doing. Even surveying the available options for ways to frame critical thinking is an expansive job. I wouldn’t want to base this entirely on my own most used frameworks.
But it does have some interesting benefits as a project: Clarifying and deconstructing my own methods and adding some new tools to the kit.
Would anybody care though? I think so. More than ever is an awareness of how janky eachother’s belief systems are and it’s only a short trip from “Everyone else is crazy” to “I’m just as crazy as they are”.
Good stuff. Can’t really become sane any other way.
I did a couple short surveys on what books people like on critical thinking and got a goddamn mess.
The most interesting so far, from a friend with a master’s in a kind of math I can’t pronounce let alone spell is this How To Solve It, which just has extremely solid advice on problem-solving.
Here’s a summary:
Alright, I’ll be back tomorrow with more conventional fare.
Let me know what you think of this idea as a project. It’d be a year or two of work at my current rates. So I think it’s a someday later project, but I kinda love the premise of it.