How to Battle the Professional Skeptics and Win!
A common phrase, often heard in our modern world, is “that’s a bunch of bunk”, or some variation of that phrase. The word “bunk” has become synonymous with nonsense, lies, and myth, and is even tied to the type of criminal known as the con man, also called a Bunko artist. The word has a recent etymology, being a shortened version of the word “bunkum”, which is an alternate spelling of Buncombe. In a February, 1820 session of the U.S. House of Representatives Representative Felix Walker from Buncombe County, North Carolina gave a rambling speech before that body. The speech had little relevance to the concurrent debate in the House, and Walker refused to yield the floor, informing his colleagues that his speech was not intended for Congress, but that he was “speaking for Buncombe.” It became a widely-accepted synonym in Washington for any bombastic political posturing or an oratorical display not accompanied by conviction. To “debunk” now means to expose the sham or falseness of something, thus implying that the debunker is presumed to be unmasking, poking fun at, or exposing an imposter, or something that is pure nonsense.
As a ufologist, an autonomous theologian, and social researcher, I am the target of debunkers from the broadest range of debunkers imaginable. My work reveals the cover-up of UFOs and challenges the common concepts of UFOs, it uncovers the contradictions and misconceptions of mainstream Christian doctrines and beliefs, and calls into question many social, academic, scientific, political, and historical improprieties and misinformation and disingenuousness. Early in my research I had several confrontations with James Oberg, a UFO skeptic, whose style of debunking is almost legendary. His tactics led me into a study of debunking to counter his dismissive and completely illogical points, which were almost baffling in their ability to convince others proof of UFOs was a total sham. I found, through years of experience that his tactics were very similar to those used by almost every UFO skeptic in the field. Anyone armed with the knowledge of how debunkers operate can see common threads in the way they argue their points and counter them.
It almost always starts with a condescending and self-assured attitude, which suggests that the debunker’s points are backed by the full faith and credit of God. Dismissive terms such as ridiculous, absurd, trivial, or even pathetic are used to make the UFO believer seem ignorant and gullible. Science is used as the Holy Grail of reality, which bravely defending common sense against the unruly hordes of quacks and myth-worshiping infidels. Arguments are as abstract and theoretical as possible, but presented in a manner that makes science superior to any actual evidence that might challenge it, making such evidence seem to be completely worthless. They constantly reinforce the popular misconception that anything that challenges the status quo must be inherently unscientific. They deliberately confuse the “process” of science with the “content” of science.
The use of socially accepted authority figures, whether their expertise is in any discipline even related to the UFO field, or not, is common. The degree to which they can stretch the truth is directly proportional to the prestige of authorities they cite. This gives them the latitude of asserting that their statements are “facts”, while those of the UFO believers are only “claims”. They can, therefore, completely avoid examining the actual evidence and say, with impunity, that there is absolutely no evidence to support such ridiculous claims as the existence of UFOs. This technique has withstood the test of time and dates back to before the time of Galileo, when the Church, by simply refusing to look through his telescope, gave the ecclesiastical authorities centuries worth of denial that the world was not the center of the universe. It then becomes possible to dismiss a watertight body of evidence that has survived the most rigorous tests as without substance.
The debunkers use the science as a weapon and accuse UFO believers of viewing science in fuzzy, subjective, or metaphysical terms and downplay the fact that free inquiry, legitimate disagreement and respectful debate are a normal part of science. At every opportunity, they reinforce the notion that what is familiar is necessarily rational. The unfamiliar is, therefore, irrational and, consequently, inadmissible as evidence and, at best, an honest misinterpretation of the conventional. They also maintain that in investigations of unconventional phenomena, a single flaw or misstep invalidates the whole. They assert that if absolute proof is lacking, there is no evidence. Conversely, they claim that if sufficient evidence has been presented to warrant further investigation of an unusual phenomenon, evidence alone proves nothing. This will eliminate the possibility of initiating any meaningful process of investigation, particularly if no criteria of proof have yet been established for the phenomenon in question. And, in a seemingly logical argument, they insist that criteria of proof cannot possibly be established for phenomena that do not exist. No matter the weight of evidence proving the existence of UFOs, they simply claim that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” taking care never to define where the “ordinary” ends and the “extraordinary” begins. This will allow them to manufacture an infinitely receding evidential horizon, which always lies just out of reach.
Another common practice of UFO debunkers is by lumping all phenomena, popularly deemed paranormal, together. In this way they can indiscriminately drag material across disciplinary lines from one case to another to support their views, as needed. If a claim, having some superficial similarity to the one at hand, has been or is assumed to have been exposed as fraudulent, it is cited as if it were an appropriate example. As in real estate where “location, location, location” is the best selling tactic, UFO debunkers use “ridicule, ridicule, ridicule” to hammer at the concept they are attacking As, far and away, the single most effective weapon in the war against discovery and innovation, ridicule has the unique power to make people completely limp, and fails to wither only those few of sufficiently independent thought.
Trivializing the case by trivializing the entire field in question is common with debunkers. Simply characterizing the study of unorthodox phenomena as “bogus” allows the debunker to state emphatically that there is nothing there to study. They accuse investigators of unusual phenomena of believing in invisible forces and extrasensory realities. They also try to discredit the whole story by attempting to discredit part of the story, taking one element of a case completely out of context and finding something prosaic that hypothetically “could” explain it. With one element having been “explained” away, they can then claim that the entire case has been “explained”. They know that most people do not have sufficient time or expertise for careful discrimination, and will tend to reject the whole of a concept, if only part seems to be in question.
The tactic of labeling any phenomenon as occult, paranormal, metaphysical, mystical, or supernatural will turn off most mainstream scientists or people with religious or conservative leanings immediately, on purely emotional grounds. Asking unanswerable questions based on arbitrary criteria of proof is popular, as well. For instance, why hasn’t religion or science addressed this, or if UFOs were real why aren’t there clear pictures or videos? And, of course, as a last resort, why haven’t they landed on the White House lawn? Another effective strategy used, with a long history of success, if the media reports UFO sightings, is to claim that it is for the shock or comedy value alone. Pointing out that the area where the sighting has occurred is using it for profit, (selling T shirts, etc.), or that those reporting the sightings are only looking for that elusive “15 seconds of fame” gives it an air of pure “hype”. If an unusual or inexplicable event is reported in a sensationalized manner, they hold this as proof that the event itself must have been without substance or worth. When a witness states something in a manner that is scientifically imperfect, they instantly treat this statement as if it were not scientific, at all. If the claimant is not a credentialed scientist, they argue that his or her claims cannot possibly be scientifically correct. And, the assertion that only scientists, particularly astronomers, are “trained observers” immediately dismisses police officers, pilots, air controllers, or virtually anybody else reporting a sighting as totally unqualified to verify anything they see.
If they are unable to attack the facts of the case, they attack the participants or the journalists who reported the case. Ad hominem arguments, or personality attacks, are among the most powerful ways of swaying the public and avoiding the issue. If an investigator or chronicler of the unorthodox has profited financially from activities connected with their research, this is positive proof that they are only in it for the money. If their research, publishing, or speaking tours constitute their normal line of work or sole means of support, that is used as conclusive proof that they are only profiteers of sensationalism. If they have labored to achieve public recognition of their work, they characterize them as publicity seekers. The tactic of “shooting the messenger” to ignore the message is common, and even extends to the ridiculous practice of claiming that if someone just investigating the incident is blemished, the whole incident is questionable. If experts in related fields are involved, debunkers focus on the most minor details of their credentials, again pointing out the erroneous assertion that only astronomers are experts on the UFO question, with the necessary knowledge to speak on such issue. This, even though, course credit in ufology has never been a prerequisite for a degree in astronomy. If all else fails, they fabricate entire research projects, by declaring that such claims have been thoroughly discredited by the “top experts in the field”, whether or not such experts have ever actually studied the claims, or, for that matter, even exist.
Finally, the tactic of choice is to debunk UFOs by debunking the concept of extraterrestrials. Debunkers declare that there is no proof that life can exist in outer space. They argue that all reports of extraterrestrials must be bogus because the evolution of life on Earth is the result of an infinite number of accidents in a genetically isolated environment. They completely avoid addressing the logical proposition that if interstellar visitations have occurred, Earth cannot be considered genetically isolated in the first place. They use nature’s laws as proof that interstellar travel by extraterrestrials is impossible, because it would, obviously, violate nature’s laws. They base their notions of logic on how terrestrials would, or wouldn’t, behave on how “they” determine such behavior should be. Since terrestrials can behave in all kinds of ways, they can theorize whatever kind of behavior they want extraterrestrials to exhibit, to suit their arguments. They, of course, point out that the government-sponsored SETI program assumes, in advance, that extraterrestrial intelligence can only exist light-years away from Earth and, thus, this invalidates all terrestrial reports of ET contact.
There are, of course, many other tactics used by UFO debunkers and this writing covers only the most common tactics used. The important thing to consider is that debunkers are probably guiltier of practicing the very tactics they claim UFO believers are guilty of using. Being aware of the tactics debunkers use is important, but using logic in answering them, and not being intimidated by their self-assured and dismissive attitudes, is essential. They prey on weakness, thrive on ignorance, and survive, only on their ability to baffle the believer with the power of ridicule. While the attacked is defending against the attack, the debunker is constantly and rapidly shifting the argument in several different directions and changing the strategy of attack. They answer questions with questions, challenges with dismissal, and logic with unsupported facts. They must be nailed down and not allowed to bob and weave around the issue. Insisting that they back their assertions, answer questions and challenges, and engage in the debate, instead of skirting every issue with a constant attack on the credibility of any issue they confront, will change the outcome. They do not deal in honest discourse; they only know how to use the tactics they have learned, and any diversion from those tactics will turn the tide against them.
Hindsight is 20/20, and there is seldom a better time to realize how the debunker has won the argument or “seemed” to have, then by reviewing the encounter after the fact. In the heat of battle the obvious flaws in the debunker’s methods are blurry, but in reviewing the encounter those methods become blatantly obvious. Having appeared on many talk shows, several times with veteran debunkers, I have learned this, all too well. The best way to counter debunkers is to listen to their rhetoric, learn their methods, and how to counter them. This takes study and careful attention to the subtle details of the debunker’s methods. They are as weak as their baseless arguments and can be easily defeated, with patience and determination. They will always be with us, but they will always use the same time-worn and easily countered tactics. With minds filled with swamp gas and eyes that can only see Venus, they are easy to defeat.