Art Bell with his radio equipment.
Art Bell, founder and original host of the overnight alternative talk radio show Coast to Coast AM, died this past Friday at his Pahrump, Nevada home at the age of 72. No further details are available as of this writing. For a website that often deals with hard science and reasoned thought, it may seem an odd place to pay tribute to a radio host whose show often dealt with the paranormal and other fringe topics.
It is not. Why? Art Bell dared to openly ask the big questions about unusual topics before anyone else did so in such a public forum. It is this, the courage to ask the big questions with no concern about prevailing public perception, that drives knowledge.
If no one dared to ask the 'whys,' challenge prevailing opinion, and do this without fear, we would probably still be living in caves as hunter-gatherers with no idea as to how or why the world works. The ability to ask questions and challenge current ways of thought are at the heart of science, which has built the advanced world we live in today.
In the past, the public was often scandalized by science and the ideas it put forth. In the 1600s, Europe was outraged at the ideas of Copernicus and Galileo. The Earth not at the center of all creation and that it was a planet just like the other 5 then known? Heresy! Both mens' writings were banned in many European nations and Galileo was tried before the Inquisition for teaching, without apology, this idea. Galileo was eventually sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Bad as that was, it was far better than the fate that befell Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for teaching, among other things, that there were other planets orbiting other stars. Now, 400 years later, we know that all of these then-heretical ideas are correct.
The world went through a similar outrage in the 1800s with the rise of geology and biology. The notion that the world is not 6,000 years old and that all current forms of life are the products of evolution by natural selection were scandalous when they were first put forth. Charles Darwin, in particular, was savaged by his contemporaries in publication. At least he didn't have to worry about being burned at the stake. Now, over 150 years after he first published his scandalous, outrageous, insulting to God theory, we know that, with almost complete certainty, that he was correct.
These are just but a few of the great advances in knowledge brought about by brave men who dared to ask controversial questions irregardless of prevailing public opinion. There are countless many more examples throughout history, which brings us back to Art Bell.
Like these great scientists of the past, Art Bell dared to ask the big questions regardless of public opinion. Fortunately, in the enlightened world of today, the worst Bell could get were snickers or people simply changing the radio station. In the Western world, censorship and death for speaking one's mind have rightly been consigned to history.
Yes, many of the topics explored by Bell during his years ruling the overnight airwaves: ghosts, UFOs, alien abduction, demonic possession, prophecy, conspiracies, ESP, life after death, and the like, would not be considered scientific and are avoided like the plague by most career scientists. However, they are legitimate questions about unknown phenomenon and deserve to be asked even if they can't be tested in a lab, at least yet.
A big reason that many scientists don't tread near these topics is peer ridicule. For people devoted to the discovery of knowledge, this is ironic because suppression of uncomfortable ideas and public ridicule of people who express interest in topics that one's colleagues deem 'weird' is not the path to knowledge.
Science should not be about dogma and conformity(leave that for politics and religion) but should be about open-mindedness. Scientists should not be afraid to speculate, but should always be clear to distinguish speculation from fact as no one can know where the next great discovery will come from. Nothing groundbreaking was ever discovered by going with the grain, which is far easier than sticking one's proverbial neck out regardless of risk, whatever that may be.
It is for this, his courage to go against public opinion and ask questions that no one else was willing to ask, that the world owes a debt of gratitude to Art Bell. Who knows when a topic he covered on the radio will shift from speculation to fact? It could happen tomorrow.
RIP Art Bell (1945-2018).