"Does it all boil down to credibility?"
The next two posts should be a little shorter. I apologize for the length of the first few- but there is always tons to get through when you start something like this. My initial idea for this project was a simple grade 5 book report; it has become something bigger- a way of linking the roots of ufology to the branches we all exist and differ on.
For modern ufologists, there is a cesspool of data out there. I’m sure if we combined all the sighting reports over the last decade into a stack- it would go for miles and miles. The vast majority of these reports are lacking data and wander about the lines of storytelling, assumption, and fact. So what is a person to do and how can we sort out the good from the...crap?
Can we boil this issue down to witness credibility? And to throw another wrench in this machine, ufologist/investigator credibility? These two questions raise a lot of concerns and, hopefully, a little fur. This is a controversial issue- as it can link to a negative cultural dualism: educated vs non-educated, privileged vs poor, professional career vs entry-level/unemployed, social and cultural capital vs otherness.
These issues of education, class and even race can present themselves when skeptics and critics refer to the old standby of, “Why is Hillbilly Joe always getting abducted or having aliens land in his backyard? Is the White House lawn not good enough?” The argument that the uneducated “see” aliens, while those with university degrees do not is a straw man argument that critics will often use- however, it does need to be properly addressed.
Hynek does deal with a couple of reports in his book that come from sources he would probably deem “uncredible” (see: The Night of the Full Moon, p. 80; Kelly-Hopkinsville Sighting, p. 212) when it comes to knowledge or education. However, he does not seem to doubt their stories. Whether these cases are true or fabricated, it does not matter. What does matter is: Does the credibility of witnesses be used in measuring the accuracy of their sighting?
Yes, it should. Credibility is a key factor our society uses in nearly every facet of its functioning. Most employers seek credibility from potential employees. Banks ensure credibility before loaning money. Witness testimony and even potential jurors are screened for credibility before they go into live court. Judging credibility is not only a social norm but a huge aspect of human evolution, as I need to decide when I meet you if you are a threat or an ally.
Why is ufology any different? Every investigator needs to make a judgement call as to whether the testimony is true or hoaxed, accurate or flawed, likely to have occurred or “bat crap crazy.” We can ultimately boil credibility down to two main constructs; education and experience (typically in a career or profession). Does a university degree typically impart credibility? Yes. (I have an Arts degree, let the flame war begin…) Does a high school diploma with a decade of military service impart credibility? Yes. Do a lot of things impart credibility? Of course. Can I define what a credible person looks like in relation to someone who is not credible? No, and if I could, I’d be a billionaire. It all comes down to a judgement call. Can I trust their account of an event?
Do credible people lie? Yes. Does education and experience provide a wider knowledge base to better measure a stimulus or event? Yes. The more I’ve done in my life - the more access I have to background knowledge. The more background knowledge I have, the more critical I can be of an event as I can judge it against my background knowledge. We put kids in school for this very reason - so they become well rounded, experienced and critical thinkers.
When I experience an event, such as a UFO sighting, my “credibility,” my combined education and experience, will affect my outlook of the situation and how I report that situation. If my education and experience have taught me to be a critical thinker, that too will only make my report of the event more accurate as my brain is not necessarily jumping to specific conclusions; the old “I’m not saying it’s aliens...but it’s aliens” line.
Reports that immediately claim a paranormal event occurred automatically destroys the credibility of the witness. Is this to say that a witness is lying? No, they may believe in what they saw without a doubt. Could their report be accurate, true and real? Yes, but we cannot throw scientific and critical inquiry out the window because something wierd may have happened. One would not convict without evidence and due process every single person charged with a crime because one or two of them may be guilty. Banks do not loan out money to anyone who asks hoping that a couple people may pay it back. We do not accept all claims of the paranormal simply because a few might have some truth behind them.
This plays a role with investigators as well. Credibility is key, especially since they are the ones making the judgement call concerning another person’s credibility. Knowledge of science - important; knowledge of human psychology, how to read people and our own biases - vital.
When someone tells us something that happened to them, we want to believe them, especially if that event fits into our world view. We need to be honest here; who are the majority of UFO investigators and ufologists? People who have experienced something strange themselves (real or not), or at the very least, people who are highly interested in this field. If you refer to my last post, there is a massive saturation of data and knowledge here; the investigators can often be the least credible, as they “believe” in the paranormal. Can one be unbiased towards something they believe in and want to be real?
So - who watches the watchers? I think Hynek was a great example of credibility. He was honest in claiming what he knew and did not know. Each report was dealt with integrity and criticism. He did not believe in the paranormal but was open to the possibility (with enough solid evidence to back it up) that something strange was going on. What will create credibility? Organization under the mantra of scientific inquiry and critical study. Does this exist yet? Not that I know of. Can it someday? If you build it, they will come.