Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Derrida
A friend sent me a link to a recent French study which links Creationist beliefs to those who believe in conspiracy theories. The research study basically asserts that faith in a higher power which created a universe for humanity is no different than those who believe in the Moon landing being faked or that the government is covering up the existence of aliens and UFOs. It is an interesting study, and while I mostly agree with it, we ought to be cautious buying into it wholeheartedly.
As I read this study, I was reminded of a quote from one of my favourite books, “Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency” by the late Douglas Adams.
“Don't you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity because it hasn't developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don't expect to see.”
I want to focus on this idea of “filters.” I also want to touch on the myth of objectivity in science and link it all back to UFOs and the UFO community which, discursively, often engages in conspiracy theories.
The study hinges upon a common philosophical concept called Teleology. In simple terms, teleology is the idea that all things function towards some goal or end result. While big in Ancient Greece, teleology today is in contention with modern scientific ideology. For example, as the article presents, “the sun rises in order to give us light.” This statement contains a teleological bias or error. The sun does not rise to give light, rather, it “rises” due to the Earth’s rotation, axis, and that it is a star whereupon we are gravitationally stuck. In simple terms, it has nothing to do with “us” nor “giving.”
Aristotle argued that the purpose of an acorn was to grow into an oak tree. We can argue that this is not really true. The acorn simply is, and its state changes due to DNA and biology. The acorn, objectively, has no purpose or goals. The acorn has no destiny. It is simply existing as an acorn. As the study points out, the belief that a divine creator formed the planet out of mud and placed it on the back of a turtle is a teleological bias. Similarly, believing that the American government or some Deep State cabal faked the September 11th attack, murdered JFK, or is hiding dead aliens in a bunker also hinges upon the same bias. They view all things moving towards a specific end result, or a plan devised to lead to a certain result, when that may not really be the case.
The study itself was simple. The researchers,
“…conducted a survey of 157 Swiss college students designed to ascertain conspiratorial thinking, teleological thinking, as well as their abilities to analytically reason. They also analyzed a survey of 1,252 members of the general French population to look for a link between creationist beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. Lastly, the researchers recruited 733 more subjects to complete an online questionnaire to test whether creationism, conspiracism, and teleological thinking are correlated.”
What they concluded was that the teleological bias that “everything happens for a reason” is common amongst creationists and conspiracists. As the study’s author stated,
"By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events…We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called 'post-truth era’…Because teleological and animist thinking are part of children’s earliest intuitions about the world and are resilient in adulthood, they thus could be causally involved in the acquisition of creationist and conspiracist beliefs. However, our results do not rule out the possibility that acceptance of such beliefs could, conversely, favor a teleological bias.”
As I mentioned before, I generally accept the findings of this study. It makes sense. However, I wish to problematize a few key ideas which this study alludes to.
Before I continue, allow me a brief aside. Science, which I love by the way, will contend that it is an objective act or practice which leads to ‘truth’ and knowledge, and to understanding the reality we live in. Science is progress. The obvious and ironic point of contention here is the teleological bias which presents itself in the very function of science; science is end driven, it has a purpose which leads somewhere. The notion that science generates ‘true’ knowledge or leads us towards ‘true’ knowledge, while other things do not, is a teleological claim. It’s cute.
While exploring teleology in science is interesting, the study itself makes the assumption that science is objective, and therefore free of bias. I wish to address two specific sociological experiences which seem to cast doubt on the above idea; the ‘objectivity’ of science dwells purely within two very subjective realms; language and cultural paradigm. I then want to link this back to the UFO community and how it often engages with science.
Language, in really simple terms, is a series of filters. We use our senses, which naturally filter data from the ‘objective reality’ around us and transmits them into a series of sounds and symbols. That symbolism of language, letters and numbers, but more importantly, what words themselves come to mean through our cultural and social backgrounds also filter data and, in turn, meaning. Trying to think of any object, concept or idea without its specific symbolic representation floating around your mind is impossible. Now imagine trying to communicate those things to someone else without the use of symbols; good luck.
To keep this Ufologically relevant, let’s look at owls as an example. Owls, biologically, are birds. They fly. They are predators. They typically hunt at night. With all that information, consider your ideology here. Owl as predator and hunter versus owl as flying bird. They draw two very different interpretations, two different feelings, two different symbolic states of what an owl is, or perhaps more appropriately, can be. Toss some Ufological mythology into the mix, and owls become symbolic of alien abduction and/or contact, messengers between realms, screen memories, or a link between humanity and The Phenomenon. Owls, like anything else, coexist within multiple symbolic meanings, from simple biological bird to complicated mythological archetype.
Science, whether it likes it or not, functions within a linguistic reality. The study’s author uses the expression ‘post-truth era’ in the summary of the paper. That expression is hugely complex, not just politically, but symbolically. Furthermore, what do we mean by truth? Does this assume that there was an era of ‘actual’ truth where nothing was questioned? The current political situation within the United States also gives significant symbolic impact to the term, whereas fifty years ago, it would have meant something totally different. The very use of that phrase only adds credence to my claim; no discourse or practice is objective.
Another example often thrown around is the expression “anti-science.” Again, what symbols and myths are generated with this expression? Flat-Earthers and climate change deniers could be considered ‘anti-science,’ but what about someone merely being skeptical of scientific dogma and the current paradigm which suggests science is ‘the way, the truth, and the light.’ Is being critical of scientific ideology tantamount to being opposed to it? Last time I checked, criticism does not equate to open rebellion.
What we see here is that the scientific community, particularly established bodies of power within that community, have used the symbolic and mythological power of language to generate meaning in order to retain power. “Post-truth era” and “anti-science” are political and social terms designed to target those who are critical of established scientific ideology. The people and groups who fit into those two categories are considered irrational, yet “rationality” by its very nature depends upon consensus by the majority, and is not always objective. Many things we do on a daily basis are irrational, yet we have all agreed to do those things, therefore they have become rational. No one looks at you funny when you buy bottled water or decide that you need to own an automatic assault rifle, yet both acts, it could be argued, are irrational due to various reasons.
"Anti-science" creationists, conspiracy nuts, and scientists all work within the same framework. Language governs all of them. It creates filters which alters meaning away from objectivity but into the realm of mythology. The problem is that the more words you create and the more ideas you generate, the more filters get put up. As philosopher Jacques Derrida reminds us, language “differs” (I know what something is based upon everything it isn’t) and “defers” (The more words and symbols I add when I communicate, the more those words and symbols adjust meaning). The more information and data you have and provide, the more your ideological framework jumps around. Seeking ‘the truth’ is like walking down a path where every single movement of your body generates an infinite amount of more paths. Where scientists, creationists and conspiracists differ is that they all simply choose different paths. Where they are identical is that they all believe that their path is the correct one.
This leads me to cultural paradigms, and I am reminded of author and scientist Rupert Sheldrake. I am not a scientist, so I cannot comment on the validity of his scientific claims. His peers consider him a parapsychologist and he is often charged with dabbling in pseudo-science. While he very may well be a terrible scientist (I honestly do not know), the criticism hurled at him points to a clear dogmatism, and therefore symbolic mythology, present in the scientific community. An editor of the science journal Nature once charged him with “heresy” because his work openly criticized the scientific community.
As Sheldrake points out in his book, The Science Delusion, science and scientists are not the problem. Rather, it is the economics of science and the bodies which govern it. Disrupting the status quo within the scientific establishment leads scientists on a path towards professional death. Exploring concepts and ideas, even if the evidence points in that direction, that deviates from the standard and accepted ideologies will not be funded or, at times, even allowed to continue.
Sheldrake points out in the book that unconventional ideas are typically pushed aside because journals are only willing to fund research that gets a “high citation index” which really only benefits established scientific fields. What this all leads to, according to Sheldrake, is an “innovation deficit.” Scientists are not allowed to follow their data or evidence if it contains deviation or abnormalities, nor if they wish to study something off the beaten path. To the mainstream, any anomalous data is flawed, or the scientist has clearly lost their mind. What this leads to a slowdown in scientific development and innovation.
I am not suggesting here that science is wrong or bad. Such a statement is silly. Nor am I saying that Flat Earthers are ‘as correct’ as, well, everyone else. The Earth is not flat. Climate change is happening. I can go on. I love science.
What I am trying to get at here is that the idea and act of science, and more importantly, the power structure of science, is entrenched within the same cultural frameworks as everything else. It has its own series of filters, ideologies, social and cultural pressures, paradigms, financial concerns, and desire to remain as the arbiter of human knowledge and understanding. Science and those who do it hold all the power. Those who disagree and challenge that power are considered irrational, stupid or ‘woo woo’ (which are all mythological and symbolic ideologies, and not based in any objective evidentiary truths). This includes those of us out here in the fringes, as well as those scientists who are also pushed to the edges due to their interests.
Within UFO discourse, we see science holding this curious dual position. On one hand, Ufologists often want science and scientists to be more involved in the process. MUFON allegedly investigates UFOs using scientific means, and one often sees great excitement when academic scientists get involved in the UFO debate, especially if they support ‘the cause.’ On the flip side, UFO discourse is quick to point out that science is elitist, embargoed by secret cabals, and, at times, the tool of skeptics and debunkers. Nowhere are the symbolic and mythological paradigms of the illusion of scientific authority more debated than within UFO circles.
We are at a curious place. The UFO community has plenty of scientists working in it, some of them engaged in Tom DeLonge’s To The Stars Academy, while others seem to be working alongside other investors or on their own. Have they found a little niche for themselves, pursuing the un-pursuable? Have they broken out of the established paradigm, appreciative of the fact that science is not so clear cut as their high school teachers may have taught them? Or, perhaps as that one editor of Nature put it, are they heretics?
Bearing the study in mind, the UFO community regularly engages in conspiratorial thinking. On the various online UFO forums and social media outlets, To The Stars Academy has often been labeled as a government program, or involved in purposeful perception management to disinform the public. Robert Bigelow’s NIDS and BAASS programs were also the target of such talk as well. While not directly, the study points to the fact that the UFO community does often suffer from teleological bias. Yet, at the same time, the very debate which circles around UFOs bluntly asserts my earlier points that while science may hold a lot of cards, it doesn’t hold all of them. While it claims higher truths and objectivity, it unfortunately dwells in the same muck as the rest of us. We ALL are governed by our symbols and ideologies.
To The Stars and Bigelow’s former programs, while connected to the government in certain ways, are not necessarily conspiratorial disinformation or intelligence programs. There is no actual evidence which proves some grand conspiracy, but only little circumstantial foot prints which one can follow in any direction. What actually occurs is the conspiracist “feels” something is going on, when really, it could be nothing more than simple coincidence.
The UFO community is a mixed bag. It is a curious collection of science and conspiracy, attempts at truth surrounded by myth. What becomes ever more difficult is deconstructing that jumble of symbolism and meaning into simpler parts. To be honest, it is impossible. The more we attempt to deconstruct, the more constructs we tend to form. UFOs, real and not, force us to question not only our own teleology, but also the teleology of science and other established power systems. Whether this is by citing conspiracies or scientifically driven ‘objective truths,’ we tend to end up in the same place. As Dirk Gently points out, we end up with filters on top of filters. This begs a big question; do all of our Ufological disputes, rivalries, and back biting simply all lead us down the path towards symbolic illusions? If so, the zealot believers and conspiracy theorists, and the skeptics and debunkers all seem to be pulling meaning from a place of teleology.