UFOs: The Cosmic Rorschach test
Unexplained Phenomena as Edge Case
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, where we try to come up with clever introductions without mimicking Behind The Bastards’ Robert Evans.
Oh, and something about digging through fringe ideas for hidden gold.
Unidentified Flying Objects
I probably picked up my love for weird ideas watching the History Channel (I almost typed Hitler channel, which… fair) at my Dad’s in the late 90s. The idea that the world advertised to us was just a front for a more wonderful and terrible world appealed to me then as it does now.
Granted, the hidden stuff now is more open secrets most people try not to care too much about because they’re hard to cope with and you can’t really address them as an individual.
But UFOs were the first thing I fixated on. The possibilities just seemed really interesting: A combination of obvious fakes, sincere mistakes, government claims, and so on. Angels and demons even. There were thousands of sightings, could any one explanation account for all of them?
I didn’t know and I still don’t.
What got me out of the UFO community was an increase in my sophistication about counter-intelligence. Another way to put it is that I realized that no matter what “UFOS” were, the government had used them to distract and confuse from secret projects, most notably the aircraft testing down out of the CIA and later the Airforce’s Groom Lake facility (Area 51).
Later, I’d find this view confirmed and reconfirmed when UFOlogist A-listers turned out to be informing on other people in the UFO community to the government they were accused of harboring dangerous interstellar secrets.
Real cool behavior, right?
Projecting on Ambiguity
What I find interesting about UFOs now is the way different people approach them. From wild claims they’re angels or hyperdimensional beings or, as Terence McKenna described reflections of our own souls.
Whatever that means.
So, UFOs are handy because they let us see how we react to unclear information. Some of us spiral off into paranoid ideation. Some of us skim the details to find some reason to dismiss the info. Some of us construct elaborate theories. And yet others of us wonder why bother considering such impractical information at all? Others still find ways to turn this new information into more confirmation of our existing beliefs.
I don’t think any of these are necessarily the right or wrong way to approach the subject. They’re just styles of reaction.
UFOs are edge case information because they contradict a lot of our assumptions about what categories are and what’s possible.
Personally, I don’t recommend hardline skepticism or enthusiastic belief. The number of skeptics who find themselves transformed into enthusiastic believers doing the same shit they were previously critical of is legion.
Instead, I recommend a literary approach. The interpretive lens allows us to look at evidence from a variety of perspectives without necessarily forcing us to identify with those perspectives, which magnifies cognitive biases.
Let’s see the play of what’s explanations there are. Marshall McLuhan called this style of technique an “Inventory of Effects” when applied to how technology shapes our perceptions.
You learn more about a person from the explanations they choose than you learn about the thing they’re explaining. This is usually true but gets exaggerated in edge cases.
Believers often slip into misrepresenting evidence to strengthen their beliefs. Skeptics often ignore the implications of the evidence for the same reason. Those poles are worth understanding, but rarely worth staying in.
The goal isn’t to have the bestest beliefs. It’s to understand the world accurately. Which, unfortunately, starts with understanding yourself.
And that sucks.
But it’s the only way out of reflexive living.
See you next week ;-)