Science and the Unexpected
"If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it; for it’s hard to be sought out and difficult." --Heraclitus (circa 500 B. C.)
Have you ever seen a "ghost?" If so, take my advice and never mention it to anyone. Other witnesses or physical evidence would not make any difference. Your plea for a hearing would soon be drowned out by cries of "nonsense," "absurd," and "ridiculous." If you see a "flying saucer," you had better forget that too. Claim to have seen one and you will get approximately the same results. A good term for these skeptical outbursts would be "linguism," since it is choice of language rather than any question of evidence which causes the reactions.
Today we find certain individuals saying, in essence, "UFOs (flying saucers) are Ships from Venus carrying the Space Brothers on a mission of peace and fellowship to earth." Naturally enough, most scientists throw up their hands in horror upon hearing this. It does not take a scientist to note that the earthly contacts of the Space Brothers are fitting supposed facts into their preconceived ideas about how the universe should be run. Instead of presenting logical arguments based on facts, they are distorting facts and presenting them in a package with their pre-established mystical world order. The resulting "Linguismic" reactions effectively delay a scientific study of the real, serious evidence. Many other scientists are persuaded to avoid the subject which has been condemned by their colleagues. The result is that most scientists do not reserve judgment. Instead of saying of the wild claims they hear, "this is
ridiculous; show me some factual evidence;" they tend to say, "this is ridiculous, therefore the whole idea of UFOs is ridiculous."
There is an old saying that "the wheel that squeaks the loudest is the one that gets the grease." This is true of the Space Brother faction in more ways than one. Those who have made the wildest unfounded claims have always received the most money to pursue their activities, and the most attention from the press and skeptics. When the loudest claimants of an unusual or new phenomena use vague, mystical sounding language in talking about the phenomenon, most scientifically trained people seem to adopt a sort of "either-or-ism." Either all of mysticism is true, or there is nothing to the alleged phenomenon. Once committed to a choice between only these two alternatives, they find no difficulty in rejecting the phenomenon. Instead of being used to examine the evidence for or against the phenomenon, scientific energy is dissipated in the eternal struggle between two antithetical philosophies--Mysticism and Science. As has happened in the case of UFOs, the third party, those who are attempting a factual study of the situation- -are either ignored or mistakenly lumped in with the mystical philosophers. The scientists who react in this way are doing a great disservice to science. Their violent reactions bear little resemblance to the "calm, dispassionate" examination of evidence which, according to the text-books, is the scientific way of doing things.
Part of the reason for these common reactions to claims of mysterious occurrences is probably the psychological desire to conform to current ideas. There is an order (call it metaphysical or whatever) which each of us accepts as a framework of understanding. If some fact seems to attack our order, we must either defend against it, ignore it, or absorb it. As frequently happens, the fact may only seem to attack our order, and a closer examination might show that it is actually entirely compatible; but it is fear that the fact might undermine our order which leads us to react emotionally to it.
Modern science, a small but very important world order today, is theoretically supposed to give way to facts, forming in the process more all-embracing concepts. Unfortunately there are many unscientific scientists who, for emotional reasons, refuse to examine "wild facts, with no stall or pigeon-hole," as William James put it. "Facts," he said, "which threaten to break up the accepted system."
While defending the scientific order, it is perfectly legitimate to question facts and to try to determine how solidly they are established, because the very successful concepts of modern science cannot be discarded lightly on the basis of vague evidence. But to explain away or ignore a fact because it seems to be an enemy is an odd sort of defense--an ultimately self-defeating one in my opinion. It is just as foolish, and possibly as fatal, as ignoring the shadowy figure of a man blocking your exit in a dark and lonely alley. It is more natural, when flight is possible, to run from the unfamiliar than to pretend that it does not exist and to fail to take account of it. Nevertheless, it is the task of science to clarify and explain the unfamiliar, and flight is therefore only an expedient.
Although an observer who has seen something strange may be reporting an actual event in a reasonably objective manner, he will frequently find critics more interested in examining his police record or sanity than in examining any evidence he might have. This will undoubtedly happen should the observer chance to use an "unscientific" word--that is, a word which no scientist would be caught dead using except in tones of ridicule.
A casual observer may very well find himself at a loss for words in attempting to describe something which to him is a brand new experience. In order to communicate what he has seen, he will find it necessary to fall back on existing words which affect different people in different ways. Thus an honest person who sees a nebulous human-like figure might, in describing what he has seen, call it a "ghost." This will delight spiritualists, to whom "ghost" means "discarnate spirit," and appall scientists, to whom "ghost" means "superstitious nonsense." Though there may be a perfectly logical and scientific explanation for what he has seen, our honest friend will undoubtedly become a victim of linguism, and a real happening will be ignored by science.
Lest there be a misunderstanding, I am not arguing for the existence of ghosts. Linguism--extreme skepticism about unusual phenomena--can occur equally well when there is nothing unique or important about the reported phenomenon, or when it is actually a case of mistaken identity. If this is so, however, linguism will have been a lucky guess rather than a scientific conclusion. In some cases it may not be a recurring happening which is amenable to scientific investigation.
Chances are, however, that the use of the word "ghost" would automatically satisfy most scientists that nothing important had happened.
The parallel between ghosts and UFOs does not lie in the objective facts of the matter (or lack of them), but in the reactions to the reports. (I disagree completely with the physicist at Cal Tech who once advised me to study ghosts in preference to UFOs, because the evidence for them was of the same type but had a longer history. He was most likely under the spell of linguism and had no knowledge of the evidence for UFOs.) In any case of a verbal report, whether or not there is any supporting evidence, there are four usual reactions by those hearing the report: (1) the observer is lying. (2) the observer is sincere but imagined it. (3) the observer actually saw something but misinterpreted it. (4) the observer saw essentially what he said he saw. The first three of these categories are generally overworked in application to the unexpected or unusual.
A recent example of linguism at work in science was the report, in November, 1958, that a Russian scientist had seen an "eruption" on the moon. The event can be classed as unexpected and unusual because the moon, by current theory, is supposed to be a "dead" body. Without concerning themselves with the evidence, many astronomers immediately called the report "nonsense." One British astronomer said "Don't believe anything they say," the clear implication being that the Russians were lying. Others were ready to admit that "something" was seen, but not an eruption. The general tone of the reactions was that the report had to be wrong because the moon is dead. At least one prominent astronomer rushed out a complex speculative explanation for the "eruption" which would preserve the current theory, but which was not based on any solid evidence. To their credit, several American astronomers acted like scientists and said something of this sort: "Interesting if true, but it will take more evidence to overthrow current ideas about the moon."
Since they are based on the best evidence to date, well-established theories cannot be cast aside at the first sign of a seeming disconfirmation. Again, it may not actually be a disconfirmation, and a fear of being found wrong might cause scientists to overlook an important bit of evidence. It is essential in science that scientists not be so enamored with a theory or hypothesis that they refuse to consider evidence which is prejudicial to it.
It is utterly unscientific to reject a report on the sole grounds that it contradicts a theory; yet, the rules of acceptable evidence are all too often slanted to rule out evidence which would controvert current theory.
Linguism is an attitude, not an explanation. Linguism has historically been the way in which science has handled the unexpected, until the unexpected has by sheer force of numbers become the familiar. Until the unusual has battled its way to acceptance by refusing to believe scientific statements that it is non-existent; by recurring in spite of scientific ridicule. In the 16th century the Church fought the unexpected and alien ideas of Copernicus, who suggested that the earth was not the center of the solar system. In more recent times the table has been turned, and science has in turn fought against ideas which seemed to endanger its system. The fact that Copernicus turned out to be more nearly right than the Church, did not destroy religion. The discovery of the fact that meteorites do fall from the sky, which scientists did not want to accept at first, did not undermine any scientific laws.
Linguism is a symptom of a return to Authority as a means of settling problems. Scientific authority employs a weapon as effective in its way as the Inquisition, namely, ridicule. Once the scientific guns of ridicule and skepticism have been leveled on a subject, few will dare to stand up and be counted in support of that subject. This would not be so bad if scientists were more in the habit of reserving judgment until the facts have been examined.
With many historical precedents to judge by, science should have learned by now that the crackpots and opportunists who attach themselves to all mysteries are irrelevant to the facts of the matter. Linguism only causes unnecessary delay, and compounds the confusion, in providing solutions for unexpected problems. The delay and confusion, in turn, leave an open field for the very enemies that science had intended to defeat. If science would concern itself more with an immediate and honest appraisal of the factual evidence, the truth about new and unexpected happenings would not be so "hard to be sought out and difficult;" for dishonesty and false reasoning cannot flourish when science is functioning as it should.