News Briefs 11-04-2008

Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority...

Quote of the Day:

Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing...

T. H. Huxley

Down the Rabbit-Hole

Paranormal researcher and pundit George P. Hansen - the author of the seminal book The Trickster and the Paranormal - has posted a quite amazing entry on his blog, which touches on the crossovers between UFO/paranormal research and the shady world of government agencies. This is a really sensitive topic, with most people preferring to sweep it under the carpet - but it is one that really, at some stage, needs to come to a head. Most importantly because it has ramifications for the reputation (and research) in multiple fields, from parapsychology to ufology, and alien abductions.

Hansen's blog entry is basically a frontal attack on the credibility of C. B. "Scott" Jones and Colonel John Alexander, as speakers at this year's "X-Conference" (held next weekend):

In the early 1990s, Jones publicly proclaimed that he "honestly did not know of any activity of the U.S. government" in the field of UFOs.1 But in 1992 Robert J. Durant produced a detailed, widely circulated white paper demonstrating that Jones was in a position to throw considerable light on government-UFO activities...

Colonel John Alexander (U.S. Army, retired) was heavily involved with the U.S. government’s psychic spying program, but he was also active with UFOs. In fact, Alexander admitted that he was the model for the "Harold Phillips" character in Howard Blum’s book "Out There: The Government’s Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials".

Hansen then goes on to detail some rather shocking connections, which include links to the JFK assassination investigation, and also to the strange case of Armen Victorian - if you care to research either of these two topics, you'll head down some very deep rabbit-holes indeed! Far too deep to go into here...it should be enough to say they involve plenty of shady government agencies, various levels of harassment and threats, and all the other cloak and dagger you'd expect from such folk.

Hansen's point is this:

Whatever one may think of Jones and Alexander, one cannot reasonably conclude that they have worked to inform the public about government-UFO activities. They have fostered ambiguity and suspicion, and perhaps worse. One might be skeptical of any statements they may make on the topic.

Now, George Hansen is not some kooky conspiracy guy. He is a respected thinker on paranormal topics who has been involved in the field for many years - though he is also disliked by many because he tends to 'call it as he sees it'. And in this case he may be calling the biggest topic there is in the paranormal field. John Alexander is linked to various high-profile research efforts on the paranormal - from the 'Stargate' remote viewing project, through to Robert Bigelow's National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS). Beyond Alexander though, numerous high-profile researchers on paranormal topics also have been connected to government agencies.

My point? Considering its already shaky reputation, the field of paranormal research is one that must be open, honest and transparent. Involvement of government agencies throws a huge - and unwelcome - shadow upon that goal. That's not to say that those involved with such agencies have nefarious goals or are bad people - I know quite a few myself, and most I would have nothing but praise for. But it is a huge issue that needs to be discussed more openly.

Atheists at Ten Paces

There's been some interesting developments going on in the atheist/skeptic/rationalist community over the past year, with it all coming to a bit of a head last week. Science blogger Matt Nisbet posted a controversial story noting his concern over the high-profile involvement of mega-popular science blogger (Pharyngula) P.Z. Myers, and the iconic Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), in the debate over the upcoming Intelligent-Design/Creationist movie Expelled:

The simplistic and unscientific claim that more knowledge leads to less religion might be the particular delusion of Dawkins, Myers, and many others, but it is by no means the official position of science, though they often implicitly claim to speak for science. Nor does it stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions.

...As long as Dawkins and PZ continue to be the representative voices from the pro-science side in this debate, it is really bad for those of us who care about promoting public trust in science and science education.

Nisbet's article sent the Scienceblogs community into overdrive, and provoked this response from Myers:

I'm not exactly feeling pleasantly conducive to continuing the latest sanctimonious whine-fests from some of the people who share a server with me. I have been avoiding the various framing flare-ups around here, despite the fact that everyone of them seems to drag my name into the mix.

We appreciate your concern, it is noted and stupid.

Reading the comments beneath Myers entry, from his fan base, things get even more prickly. I do find it odd though, that we have this reaction now, when other more high-profile atheist/skeptics have been saying similar things over the past year. Most notably, Michael Shermer, who wrote a Scientific American column late last year titled "Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens".

I can't speak for everyone else, but I do have to say that I think Shermer is right on this one. I can't see Myers approach having any effect except to alienate people outside his fan base, and Dawkins - though he has some great ideas, and can explain them in great prose - similarly polarises the audience when he descends into intellectual snobbery and scientific bigotry.

News Briefs 10-04-2008

Why the Hell do I take free-lance jobs if I can’t stand the pressure of deadlines? *sigh*

Quote of the Day:

"In all of this, there is only one thing that we do, and that is that we deny contact. It is not the visitors who hold back, it is us who make the process impossible."

Whitely Strieber

Rupert Sheldrake out of the hospital.

I thought you might like to know that Rupert Sheldrake is recovering well from his wound and is currently out of the hospital.

Pamela Smart, a fellow researcher and collaborator of Sheldrake, sent me this via e-mail:

Rupert is recovering really well and is now out of hospital. It didn’t take him long to walk with a stick and he has no pain. The doctors are astonished at his speedy recovery. Many people have been sending him healing and saying prayers for his speedy recovery, which appears to have been very successful indeed. He is very cheery and said he’s enjoyed his time in hospital where he’s received many messages of love and warmth giving him lots of strength. He will be fulfilling his commitments in Tucson at the next conference this week.

I really think this is great news; and I also suspect that Rupert might later want to undergo a study on the effects of prayer and good wishes in the recovery of patients, don't you think? :-)

News Briefs 09-04-2008

I have a plethora of book reviews and interviews lined up, so if you'd like to see me post these instead of news briefs for a while let us know. Otherwise, business as usual:

Thanks Greg and Kat.

Quote of the Day:

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

J.B.S. Haldane

Recent Synchronicities

Couple of odd synchronicities happened to me this past week, which I thought might be worth posting. I'm currently editing an old 'classic' alternative-topic book for reprinting via Daily Grail Publishing, and had spent the night reading through a chapter about David Lewis-Williams and his theories connecting rock art and shamanism. Upon finishing the chapter, I left my office area and went to switch on the television for a bit of 'chill-out' time. As the TV came on, I was presented by a man discussing rock art..."nice synchronicity", I thought to myself. Then he started talking about shamanism connected to this rock art. Then the narrator points out that the guy talking is David Lewis-Williams. I was pretty much able to narrate the rest of the documentary, as it was almost a carbon copy of the chapter I had just edited!

A couple of days later, I watched (not for the first time) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Upon switching off the DVD after the movie finished, the TV was on a music channel and playing "Lucas with the Lid Off". The interesting part is that this video clip was directed by Michel Gondry, who directed Eternal Sunshine.

Granted, the latter isn't as impressive as the former, but both made me sit up and pay attention. And while both are well within the bounds of chance happenings, it's worth noting that I had never seen David Lewis Williams on television before.

Update: One more TV synchronicity!

News Briefs 08-04-08

I hope there isn't a woman actually called April Fool. I worried about her all week.

Quote of the Day:

ERUTAN DNOCES SI TIBAH.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Skeptics in the Space-Time Continuum

A space-time vortex has been created, with news that Richard Dawkins will guest-star as himself in an episode of the new Dr Who series. The revelation was made in The Independent, in an exclusive interview with writer/producer Russell T. Davies:

"People were falling at his feet," says Davies, creator of the BBC's flagship show. "We've had Kylie Minogue on that set, but it was Dawkins people were worshipping."

As writer and executive producer of Doctor Who, Davies often plays with religious imagery (from a cross-shaped space station to robot angels with halos), but he's a fervent believer in Dawkins. "He has brought atheism proudly out of the closet!"

The afore-mentioned vortex comes into play because of the fact that Richard Dawkins is married to actress Lalla Ward, who played Romana in the (halycon) Tom Baker days. His good friend, the late Douglas Adams, also wrote for the program for a short time. (Points go to this Slashdot commenter for some funny lines).

If the Big D on TV isn't enough for you, there's also news of a pilot for a new series titled "Skeptologists" (ugh, ugly name!). This reality TV show brings together an all-star 'Skeptic' line-up (Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, 'Bad Astronomer' Phil Plait, and others) to debunk the woo-woo and bring clear thinking rationalism to the desert of supernatural bunkum that is modern TV. Or something like that. So, be happy, your intellectual salvation is at hand. If this gets picked up, I expect to see none of you here by this time next year...

Cracking the Maya Code

The wonderful PBS series Nova has created another excellent historical feature, which airs tonight: "Cracking the Maya Code":

The ancient Maya civilization of Central America left behind an intricate and mysterious hieroglyphic script, carved on monuments, painted on pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books. For centuries, scholars considered it too complex ever to understand—until recently, when an ingenious series of breakthroughs finally cracked the code and unleashed a torrent of new insights into the Mayas' turbulent past. For the first time, NOVA presents the epic inside story of how the decoding was done—traveling to the remote jungles of southern Mexico and Central America to investigate how the code was broken and what Maya writings now reveal.

As usual, the Nova website offers numerous interactive features which let you get right inside the topic, as well as a short preview video. Make sure you take a look at the show if it airs in your location. But if you can't, head back to the website after April 9th and you can watch it all online! (h/t Cosmic Log)