On November 4, The Telegraph reported that the field of ufology, at least as it’s viewed and practiced in Britain, may be dead or dying:
For decades, they have been scanning the skies for signs of alien activity. But having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that the truth might not be out there after all. Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of “flying saucer” sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all and could mean the end of “Ufology” — the study of UFOs — within the next decade.
— Jasper Copping, “UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2012
This assessment comes from several expert sources, including Britain’s well-regarded Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue:
Dozens of groups interested in the flying saucers and other unidentified craft have already closed because of lack of interest and next week one of the country’s foremost organisations involved in UFO research is holding a conference to discuss whether the subject has any future. Dave Wood, chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (Assap), said the meeting had been called to address the crisis in the subject and see if UFOs were a thing of the past. “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he added. “We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 per cent of sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.” He said that far from leading to an increase in UFO sightings and research, the advent of the internet had coincided with a decline … The issue is to be debated at a summit at the University of Worcester on November 17 and the conclusions reported in the next edition of the association’s journal, Anomaly.
These developments are in turn linked to the recent closing of the UK’s official investigations into UFO phenomena:
The summit follows the emergence earlier this year of the news that the Ministry of Defence was no longer investigating UFO sightings after ruling there is “no evidence” they pose a threat to the UK. David Clark, a Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO adviser to the National Archives, said: “The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential.”
Obviously, this is all quite interesting. But more than that, it’s highly significant, and not just for people who are directly interested in UFOs. Despite the fact that the Telegraph article perpetuates the perennial rhetorical and philosophical foolishness of dividing the UFO-interested community into “believers” and “skeptics” (and also uses the word “enthusiasts” to maddening effect), it’s a very valuable piece of work, because it points to a deeply meaningful cultural moment for the study of anomalous phenomena, and also, more broadly, for our collective understanding of the relative meanings and statuses of anomalies, paranormal events, and material science. Read the rest of this entry
Maybe it’s the rise of “positive psychology,” “happiness studies,” “happiness economics,” and other attempts to quantify human happiness and gain a “scientific understanding” of it that has gotten under my skin. Maybe it’s the veritable tsunami of poll results and policy recommendations flooding through the collective consciousness during the current American presidential campaign season, all with the purported purpose of telling us what we think and how we should vote. Whatever the provocation, the following passages are hitting me really hard right now, and I commend them to your reflective reading.
From Neil Postman,Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992):
Technopoly wants to solve, once and for all, the dilemma of subjectivity. In a culture in which the machine, with its impersonal and endlessly repeatable operations, is a controlling metaphor and considered to be the instrument of progress, subjectivity becomes profoundly unacceptable. Diversity, complexity, and ambiguity of human judgment are enemies of technique. They mock statistics and polls and standardized tests and bureaucracies…It becomes necessary, then, to transform psychology, sociology, and anthropology into “sciences,” in which humanity itself becomes an object, much like plants, planets, or ice cubes. That is why the commonplaces that people fear death and that children who come from stable families valuing scholarship will do well in school must be announced as “discoveries” of scientific enterprise. In this way, social researchers can see themselves, and can be seen, as scientists, researchers without bias or values, unburdened by mere opinion. In this way, social policies can be claimed to rest on objectively determined facts.
[…] Unlike science, social research never discovers anything. It only rediscovers what people once were told and need to be told again. If, indeed, the price of civilization is repressed sexuality, it was not Sigmund Freud who discovered it. If the consciousness of people is formed by their material circumstances, it was not Marx who discovered it. If the medium is the message, it was not McLuhan who discovered it. They have merely retold ancient stories in modern style.
[…] [Scientism] is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “What is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel?”…To ask of science, or expect of science, or accept unchallenged from science the answers to such questions is Scientism. And it is Technopoly’s grand illusion.
From Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society (1972):
Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines…that love is rather important to healthy growth…that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance…that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like stastical ciphers or mere objects…that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about…how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now much prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”
I’m tempted to exclaim, “Take that, medical-industrial complex! ” On the heels of a recent Atlantic article about the growing mainstream acceptance of “New Age” or alternative medical treatments comes one from The Wall Street Journal about the verifiable benefits of meditation, cognitive therapy, and other psychological interventions for chronic pain. The establishment, naturally, is quaking in its boots, especially since this trend is both arising from and contributing to the underscoring and highlighting of its fundamentally flawed (and evil) system that financially incentivizes “productivity” at the expense of authentic patient care.
Of course, my thoughts and feelings are strongly impacted by the many years I’ve spent in deep personal involvement with somebody who suffers from chronic health problems, including chronic pain, and who has been helped more by alternative treatment methods and modalities than mainstream ones. These methods and modalities are generally branded “quackery” by the mainstream medical mindset — even though several years of intensive treatments of the mainstream variety not only utterly failed to help but actively exacerbated the problems.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the dawning new age of American medicine is part and parcel of the gathering cultural-philosophical-scientific tide that promises to deal a death blow to physicalism, materialism, and scientism. Bob Dylan was right. The times, they are a-changin’.
“The Triumph of New Age Medicine” — David H. Freedman, The Atlantic, July/August 2011
Medicine has long decried acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like as dangerous nonsense that preys on the gullible. Again and again, carefully controlled studies have shown alternative medicine to work no better than a placebo. But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well, and at a much lower cost, than mainstream care — and they’re trying to learn from it.
[…] Every single physician I spoke with agreed: the current system makes it nearly impossible for most doctors to have the sort of relationship with patients that would best promote health. The biggest culprit, they say, is the way doctors are reimbursed. “Doctors are paid for providing treatments, not for spending time talking to patients,” says Victor Montori, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. A medical system that successfully guided patients toward healthier lifestyles would almost certainly see its cash flow diminish dramatically. “Last year, 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion the U.S. spent on health care was for treating chronic diseases that, to a large degree, can be prevented or reversed through lifestyle change,” says Dean Ornish of UCSF. Who (besides patients) has an incentive to make changes that would remove that money from the system?
[…] [A] more open-minded consideration of alternative-medicine practices has become par for the course at medical schools. In recent years, the American Medical Student Association has co-sponsored an annual International Integrative Medicine Day, which, according to this year’s press release, “will increase awareness and availability of integrative medicine, promote inter-professional collaboration, encourage self-care, foster cultural awareness and enhance patient-physician communication” (an “infiltration of quackademic medicine,” blogged David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Wayne State University and one of the more prickly anti-alternative-medicine warriors, in despair).
“Thinking Away the Pain” — Jonah Lehrer, The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011
Despite the increasing prevalence of chronic pain — nearly one in three Americans suffers from it — medical progress has been slow and halting. This is an epidemic we don’t know how to treat. For the most part, doctors still rely on over-the-counter medications and opioid drugs, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. While opioids can provide effective relief, they’re also prone to abuse, which is why overdoses from prescription painkillers are now a leading cause of accidental death.
But there are glimmers of progress in the war against pain. New therapeutic approaches don’t target body parts or nerves close to the source of the problem. They don’t involve highly technical surgeries or expensive new drugs. Instead, they focus on the mind, on altering the ways in which we perceive the pain itself.
[…]A brain scanner showed how the intervention worked. Learning to meditate altered brain activity in the very same regions, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are targeted by next-generation pain medications. It’s as if the subjects were administering their own painkillers.
[…]But meditation isn’t the only mind-based approach that has gotten impressive results. Researchers at Duke University recently looked at a wide variety of psychological interventions for chronic lower back pain, including cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback and hypnosis. In almost every case, these treatments proved effective, leading to improved health outcomes at a fraction of the cost of conventional medical approaches.
The larger lesson is that, for far too long, we’ve been treating pain as a purely physical problem, a sensation rooted in the breakdown of the flesh. As a result, we’ve invested in costly and often ineffective surgeries, such as spinal fusion, that attempt to fix the mechanical failure.
But this approach oversimplifies an extremely complex condition. It’s now clear that pain is best understood as a mental state concerning the body, an objective sensation terribly twisted by the brain. And that’s why these psychological interventions sometimes work better than scalpels: They help us to untwist our thoughts.
Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons