Tuesday, 26 March 2013

On Writing: Publishing, Strangeness, and the Scrutinizing Mind

By Micah Hanks

“You know, we should write a book together!” We’ve all said it so many times, and while there are about three colleagues (no wait, four of them) with whom I really do hope to co-author books on strange phenomena, it seems that the regular conference attenders, lecturers, bloggers, and bibliophiles alike toss the statement around far more often.
Until the advent of the digital age, the book was once the epitome of the serious researcher’s collected findings. It was not uncommon back in the day for really, really good books to sometimes take years to write, while collaborations with other researchers as I outlined above could take close to a decade of combined reports and observations. As evidenced by the correspondences of late Fortean scholars John Keel and Ivan Sanderson, the two had similarly planned to co-author something, though this would-be odd tome of esoterica never made it past the planning stages. We can only imagine what a Keel and Sanderson collaboration might have ended up being like.
But in the modern day, the accessibility and general availability of knowledge via not just the information found on the web, but also the communication pathways it has opened up have begun to change the way research of all kinds is done. Arguably, this is a good thing, as in my own personal experience, it has seemed to help researchers who come from different areas of interest or academic backgrounds to discover common ground more easily. Thus, there is a bridging of several gaps between not just unrelated fields within study of the strange and unusual, but also between skeptics and the more pragmatic Fortean researchers, as well as laymen writers and journalists and academics. But how will this newfound connectivity influence the publication of books and other materials that deal with the unexplained?
My colleague Scott Alan Roberts and I, while sharing mutual interests, come from very different backgrounds when it comes to the research we do; this, in part, is what helped us decide to launch the Paradigm Symposium event, which seeks purposely to draw experts from very different disciplines and bring them all together in one place to share ideas and present their findings. Scotty, for one, hails from a theological background, having attended seminary in twenties, in addition to working professionally as a family counselor. From an early age, he had been fascinated–if not overtly drawn–to the story of the biblical Moses, which led to his introduction to ancient mysteries and studies of humanity’s ancient history. Thus, with his book The Rise and Fall of the Nephilim, Scotty explored the ancient history of humankind as it relates to the suppositions of modern “ancient alien theories,” though in my opinion, in a very much more scholarly fashion than many popular writers who have broached the subject.

“What if the old spiritualities and religions weren’t just legends?” Roberts asks. “What if there was something living and breathing beneath the surface; a tangible interlinking of theology and spirituality, science and myth, inter-dimensionality and cold, hard fact?” For all we know, What Scotty outlines here very well may be the case. We simply don’t know.
My own approach, rather that seeking to understand mysteries such as UFOs through studying ancient history, has more to do with looking at today’s science, and perhaps more importantly, where those trends are headed with regard to science of the future, and filtering the study of people’s alleged sightings of strange unidentified aircraft through the window of technology. Ideally, emerging science of the coming decades, as we continue to advance our understanding of science and the universe around us at an almost greater than exponential rate, will lead to new technological applications within the next two decades, in my mind, that will be instrumental in determining, once and for all, whether there is anything to the ongoing mystery of UFOs.

While our approaches seem fundamentally different (perhaps even opposing, from the perspective of some), Scotty and I find that we have much in common. We’re both open minded, but inherently skeptical thinkers, and people who question everything with a healthy dose of scrutiny. Each of us, coming from religious upbringings, questions his own faith, and the actual physical laws that dictate who we are, and how humankind came to exist in this universe. We are sometimes troubled, like any researcher may be, at what the facts may dictate, and often, as with my book The UFO Singularity and Scotty’s follow up, The Secret History of the Reptilians, neither of us take at face value the notion of an ongoing interaction between humankind and our supposed interstellar alien kindred. With my own book, I look very critically at the alien abduction enigma, while Scotty goes after the obvious flaws in logic presented by the likes of conspiracy theorist David Icke, Zecharia Sitchin, and others.
Hence, when we began discussing the co-authorship of an eventual book, the first idea that came to mind wasn’t a lineage of human-alien interaction, nor any speculative endeavor as to how our Reptilian alien overlords may have harnessed intergalactic travel using post-singularity alien nanotech. Instead, we resolved that our best mutual contribution to the world of Fortean publications would be a book that looks at the great schism, as well as the common ground that exists between open minded believers, and their skeptical “opponents” on the opposite extreme.

In many instances, Scotty and I have often wondered why “the great debate” really still exists the way it does. After all, in our experience, there seems to be far more common ground between the two sides, at times, than either would care to admit. In other words, in a world where argument and hotly debated facts and opinions riddle our prime-time television networks, there are indeed ”moderates” out there, comprised of academic scientists and laymen, dreamers and doubters, open-minded wonderers and skeptical thinkers, and so forth, who are willing to be open to possibilities, but nonetheless questioning in their approach.
One fine instance of this that has come along in recent weeks is a Media Guide to Skepticism my colleague Sharon Hill of Doubtful News has taken the time to compile and author. Her purpose, as stated at her website, is to “provide a clear, easy-to-read guide about the “Skeptical” viewpoint as subscribed to by many who might call themselves Skeptics or critical thinkers; to distinguish practical Skepticism from the popular use of the phrase “I’m skeptical,” and from those who claim to be “skeptics” regarding some well-established conclusion (such as climate change).”
Immediately, I know there are many out there whose tongues want to race to the back of their mouths and choke themselves merely after seeing the words “skeptic” written at a popular paranormal blog… though I ask you to keep in mind that this is being written by a popular paranormal writer, and one who, upon reading Sharon’s thesis on reasonable, moderate and logic-oriented skepticism, found that he agreed with her on nearly every point she expresses.
Within the context of Sharon’s guide, in addition to talking about what her brand of skepticism actually is, she also takes time to outline, in precise terms, what it isn’t just as well. ”
True skeptics, she writes, aren’t cynics, nor are they simply “disbelievers.” Nor is every skeptic an atheist, an attitude worn more like a badge by many in popular circles that call themselves skeptics. And a skeptic, while questioning the facts, won’t dismiss science or other information that is less convenient to their own ideals or beliefs (which we would call a “denialist” here). Sharon writes:
“The ‘Skeptic’ is often seen as the ‘debunker,’ the ‘downer’, or the ‘balloon buster’. It may appear that way for those who are very attached to certain concepts to which Skepticism is being applied, such as existence of ghosts, Bigfoot or UFOs. Skeptics aren’t skeptical of everything, either. In classical Greek Skepticism, the individual did not commit to stating ‘knowledge’; everything was doubted, there was no certainty. That is not a popular stance today. When we speak of modern Skepticism, we are talking about those who seek the conclusion best supported by current evidence and reason.”
Returning again to my own work, when I spoke this year at the 2013 International UFO Congress, I was very surprised at how warmly I was welcomed by the crowd, despite being perhaps the only speaker all weekend who stood up before the crowd and said, “I have seen no proof, to date, that UFOs represent alien spacecraft from other worlds.” There was one gentleman who, later in the weekend, approached me to say my presentation (and my book, which he admitted to having only thumbed through) lacked content altogether, and that there was “simply no reason to speak about the subject outside the context of extraterrestrials before an audience like this.” I must admit to being a bit amazed at a statement like this; while we certainly have some compelling evidence that some UFO phenomenon could be extraterrestrial technology, I must again state that there is a big difference between “evidence” and “proof.” As Sharon states above, a good researcher has to look at the evidence, and attempt to draw conclusions that are best supported by this evidence, as well as a discerning ability to reason. To me UFOs could thus be a lot of different things, and maybe there’s room for ETs in there someplace just as well. But I can’t prove that… no matter how badly my heart wants it to be true

With regard to the discussion with the gentleman I discussed above, I finally agreed to send him copies of my books, free of charge, so that he could at least take my positions more thoroughly into consideration… while he (respectfully, no less) advised that I simply hadn’t drawn the same extraterrestrial component from the equation because I “haven’t been at it as long” as he. To each his own, but we left the discussion as new friends, rather than a pair of ideologues merely intent on clashing.
So what does all this mean, and what does it have to do with modern publishing regarding unexplained phenomenon and fringe topics? Quite simply, it is this: while blogs and online media have fought their way into the exchange of ideas, books will still remain (for some time, at least) perhaps the chief way of expressing the totality of one’s viewpoints, or the collected summation of a few. And while some view it as an ongoing argument, what I’m beginning to see out there is, at least in appearance, a greater number of “believers” and “skeptics” who are willing to work together, share ideas, and allow their work to influence one another.

Yes, at times there is (and I would maintain that there must be) a place for reasonable speculation–even in the absence of facts–because only in this way, at times, can theories and hypotheses be formulated, tests and experiments be designed, and final, scientific truths be discerned about various phenomenon. On the other extreme, paranormal researchers might do well to take a few steps back, and look at the bigger picture of what the call their worldview, and ask how much of it is truly substantiated by facts; perhaps one reason we’ve seen so little of this over the last few decades is because, sadly, much of what I discuss about publishing and books also influences people’s reasons for selling them: a controversial subject will sell much better than a bold (and even, at times, a boring) truth. And hence, albeit not maliciously, some researchers may quite easily delude themselves into believing certain things they’ve dedicated years and years of their lives to. It’s hard to step off the block once you’re so high up, and yes, it might hurt your book sales.

But in the coming years, I’ll be eager to see what kinds of books will begin to appear in the Fortean markets that deal less with conventional approaches to the unexplained, and have more to do instead with new, innovative approaches to studying strange phenomenon; perhaps in a less biased way that in years past, and while a bit more skeptical, this approach could at once lend itself to opening even more exciting possibilities than ever before.
In fact, this sounds so exciting, I may just have to write a book about it.