Saturday, May 21, 2011

Area 51, Roswell, Doomsday, and FUD

This week has been a good one for laughs. Between the Judgment Day on May 21 business and a new book titled Area 51, which claims that the Roswell incident was really a remotely-controlled Soviet craft filled with genetic mutants that was deliberately crashed in order to breed mass panic in the vain of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast, there has been a lot to talk about in fringe circles, all of which plays on people's fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).

So, after an overdose of nonsense, how about some reason?

Let's tackle Doomsday first.

Ever since the beginning of time, people have been trying to predict the end of the world. Needless to say, all attempts have failed. So, with such a poor track record, the real question should be not one over when the world will end, but why people continue to believe such claims in the first place.

As for why people continue to believe, there are three reasons: religion, ambiguity, and science (sad, but true on #3).

In America, the Bible, which is full of tales of doomsday and final judgment, is the favored religious text for the vast majority of people (Christians and Jews).Just a few chapters into Genesis, according to the story, God destroys the world and all on it, save Noah, his family, and the animals in his ark by way of a worldwide flood. Later, the Old Testament books of 'prophecy' often deal with one or both themes, too. In the New Testament, doomsday and final judgment comes up again in the ministry of Jesu and the theme continues through the New Testament, culminating in the frightening visions described in Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible. In the nearly 2,000 years since the start of the Christian faith, many doomsday predictions have come and gone without anything taking place. For anyone who appreciates irony, there is a lot of humor in this continued drive to forecast the end of the world as, in the Gospels themselves, Jesus states that only God can know the exact time the world will end.

Taking on ambiguity, many people have been 'predicting' things by way of being so unclear that their words can be interpreted to mean just about anything. The most famous of these 'prophets,' the French poet Nostradamus, whose murky 4-line poems have been interpreted in all sorts of ways since since pen was put to paper over 4 centuries ago. Problem: these verses, like the future events foretold by many others, are so ambiguous that they can mean anything and, surprise, the 'predictions' are only revealed after an event takes place that can be made to fit the centuries-old words. Obviously, the very idea of prophecy revolves around the belief that certain individuals are given the gift to see into the future, not the idea that current events should be skewed in such a way as to fit vague 'predictions' made decades or even centuries before.

Last but not least, science itself contributes much to doomsday predictions, a sad irony in that a tool for logical thought should be so corrupted by the ignorant and superstitious in order to scare the uninformed masses. The problem here: any modern prophet of doom citing science automatically brings more weight to his/her words for many people because science is normally associated with fact or, at the very least, high standards of peer scrutiny. Unfortunately, science can easily be corrupted in order to scare people. Examples: in the 1990s, some were predicting a global epidemic of the Ebola virus as the gruesome, deadly, communicable disease caused a lot of panic in the medical fiekd when it was first encountered. 15 years later, no pandemic. Another common, science-related doomsday scenario is a take-over by robots. Yes, machines are getting smarter but when has one intentionally turned on its human master? Never.

In the end, prophets of doom, past and present, have always played on FUD in order to scare people. To me, the real scary part about doomsday predictions is not the horrors they foretell, but how so many people in this age of science and reason can still continue to believe such baloney. Yes, the world will not endure forever as the Sun will swell to a red giant in a few billion years time and turn Earth into a giant, charred cinder at best. In the intervening time, an asteroid could wipe us out, a worldwide epidemic could kill off our species, or environmental pollution could make our pale blue dot uninhabitable. However, while our continued existence in the vast vacuum of interstellar space is tenuous at best, we should not give into fear and believe predictions of the end made without the slightest bit of evidence and/or with the influence of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Now, onto Area 51.

There was a time when books were considered to be unquestionable tomes of truth. Today, this is anything but the case, a fact exemplified by the Area 51 title.

In science as in law, to be considered fact, there must not only be strong evidence in favor of a particular argument, but this evidence must be subjected to the most rigorous of scrutiny before being accepted as fact. Where doubt of any sort lingers, when no unassailable proof can be provided, arguments are just that, arguments. In Area 51, author Annie Jacobsen make a lot of claims, but provides no hard evidence as backup.

To summarize, the thesis of the book is that the Roswell incident of July 1947 was a Soviet plot designed to throw the United States into social and political chaos by way of a crash that would, if all went well, be interpreted as the crash of a ship piloted by space aliens. The man behind the idea: Joseph Stalin. His hope that it would work: the panic over the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast. As for the origins of the 'aliens' themselves: they were genetic mutants created by the Nazi 'Angel of Death' Josef Mengele.

Evidence, please?

Well, to put it plainly, no hard evidence is forthcoming. Instead, Jacobsen operates on the principle of 'well, no evidence doesn't mean that it can't be true, either.' Hardly sound reasoning to put it mildly. Unfortunately, many people are quick to follow this line of thought without even the slightest reservations, seizing upon the tiniest shred of doubt in established fact in order to spin the most fantastic theories that operate on the rock-solid argument of 'well, it could be true.'

Following this argument, I could write a book about how aliens land in my backyard every other Sunday and how bigfoot just happens to live behind the shed, too. Evidence? Well, there's always my story, which has to have some merit as why else would I be telling it? Now, as anyone can see, these 2 stories, Area 51 and my alien/bigfoot nonsense would carry about the same weight to a serious, dispassionate investigator, mine just happen to seem silly because they are not published in a book hundreds of pages long.

So, why would any company publish something without any solid backing behind it? Answer: money.

All one has to go to see this fact for him/herself is go into any bookstore and browse around. Sooner or later, one will come to a section with speculative, fringe works dealing with aliens, prophecy, magic, ghosts, ghouls, near death experiences, conspiracies, and the like. While the topics in such an area are widely varied, they all have one thing in common: scientifically speaking, none of them have a very strong basis is fact and all play on the 'well, it could be true' strategy in the absence of hard evidence in their support. However, at the same time, these books are obviously big sellers and they do provoke thought. Unfortunately, while such books can be fun reads, for people not familiar with the subject being addressed and the other side of the argument, they can be dangerous in that if they are a person's first exposure to a subject, they can lead the reader down the path of ignorance and away from truth.

In conclusion, this week has brought two major events that have lit up the Internet, Judgment Day and the end of the world, neither of which have any basis whatsoever in provable fact. For the critical thinkers, the many flaws in these two arguments are obvious. Unfortunately, by looking at just how viral these topics were, a lot of people lack the sense to sniff out obvious baloney.

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