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Sunday, 7 July 2013

Anomalous Progress

I belatedly realized that I missed a significant anniversary earlier this year. I’ve been buying, reading and hoarding Fortean Times for 20 years now. The earliest issue in my collection is FT67 (cover-dated February-March 1993), which was the first issue I ever saw in W. H. Smith (I’d bought a previous issue—FT60 I think—from another shop just over a year earlier, but I hadn’t been impressed enough to hang on to it). It was only after I started reading FT in earnest that I got interested in Forteana in any depth. I’d read various books on the paranormal and “unexplained mysteries” in the 1970s and 80s, but only at the popular mass-market level.

Looking back at those early FTs, it occurs to me that at some point in the last 20 years my attitude to Fortean subjects underwent a distinct change. I don’t mean anything as dramatic as a flip from “believer” to “skeptic” – I’ve never been close to either category. I’ve never seriously believed that UFOs are vehicles piloted by extraterrestrials, or that ghosts embody the surviving consciousness of dead human beings. But I’ve never been a skeptic either, in the sense of dismissing anomalous phenomena from consideration simply because they are anomalous. During the 1990s I became fascinated by a whole range of anomalous phenomena, and I was convinced that with sufficient study they could be fitted into the mainstream paradigm... at which point they would cease to be anomalous.

Some time around 2003 I changed my mind. The rosy-spectacled idea that the anomalous phenomena of today are the mainstream phenomena of tomorrow no longer seemed credible. The reality is that anomalous phenomena are self-perpetuatingly anomalous. This wasn’t because of anything that happened in or around 2003 – it was because I’d been following the subject with close interest for ten years. I wasn’t really aware of the change at the time, but looking back through my old FTs and remembering the way I responded to the various stories at the time, it’s clear that’s what happened.

Thinking about it analytically, there are two sides to the problem: (a) lack of progress in areas where you would reasonably expect to see progress, and (b) ongoing progress (or at any rate change) in areas where you would logically expect to see no change at all. I’ll explain what I mean.

When I first became an avid reader of all things Fortean in the 1990s, I was under the impression (as I suspect many newcomers to the subject are, whatever the time period) that the world was on the brink of a massive paradigm shift that would lead to the mainstream acceptance of many things previously considered paranormal. There were theories of “mind-matter unification” and “macroscopic quantum systems” that promised to explain a whole range of psychic and holistic phenomena. There were tantalizing hints that antigravity systems had been demonstrated in the laboratory. The ideas of Hancock and Bauval were going to revolutionize our understanding of ancient civilizations. And a lot more in the same vein.

The reality, of course, is that none of it ever comes to anything. The world of anomalous phenomena isn’t interested in solving mysteries... it’s interested in perpetuating them. I made the mistake (coming from a scientific background) of assuming the subject had something in common with science. But it doesn’t. Science starts with the evidence and looks for explanations of it. The vast majority of ufologists, ghost hunters and cryptozoologists do just the opposite – they start with an explanation and look for evidence to support it. That’s why the state of progress—as far as any real insight is concerned—is exactly the same as it was 20 years ago.

The only people who aren’t going to be disillusioned by the situation are the Conspiracy Theorists. From their point of view, it’s a no-brainer the Government will stamp on anyone as soon as they come close to revealing the Truth (personally I’ve never really understood this viewpoint – particularly as the Conspiracy Theorists themselves spend their lives expounding the very Truth the Government is supposed to be suppressing).

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a flip side to all this. While there’s been no perceptible progress in understanding anomalous phenomena in the last 20 years, there’s been an ongoing evolution in the phenomena themselves. In some areas, such as the continuing sagas of Roswell and Bigfoot, it’s almost like watching a soap opera. If Roswell was a real flying saucer crash, and if Bigfoot was a real species, you simply wouldn’t expect the underlying data to evolve over the decades in the way they have.

Back in the 1990s, another magazine I read occasionally was Magonia, which promoted the so-called “psycho-social” hypothesis. This is an unfortunate term, because it suggests everything is glibly dismissed as the product of a deranged mind or mass hysteria. But the Magonia people meant something more constructive than that. If I remember correctly, the basic idea was that the whole area of anomalous phenomena—the way they’re described, the context they’re put in, the way they’re investigated and the theories proposed to explain them—are all the product of a (largely unconscious) collective exercise in imagination. The analogy is with a role-playing game, in which the players are so immersed in the game they don’t realize it’s a game.

One of the big things in the early 90s was the “alien abduction” scenario, where the bulk of the evidence took the form of memories retrieved through hypnosis. That’s a perfect medium for the unconscious imagination to work in, particularly if prompted (again unconsciously) by the expectations of the researcher. I don’t think Magonia was accusing anyone of deliberate deception. Instead, the idea was that an apparently mysterious phenomenon could be created and developed spontaneously (possibly around the germ of a real but mundane event) based on current social and cultural expectations. Today, with the rise of the internet and social media, the possibilities for “unconscious collective creativity” are greater than ever before. And you never know what’s going to happen next.

I’m as fascinated by the world of anomalous phenomena today as I was 20 years ago. The only difference is that in those days I thought of it as a sub-branch of science. Now I think of it as a sub-branch of the entertainment industry.


Magonia said...

Thanks Andrew, you have summed up the Magonian situation pretty well here. Good to know that some of the old Magonia readers are still around!

Peni R. Griffin said...

Personally I call it all fairies. There's a fairy phenomenon, which is surprisingly consistent over time, especially if you look at the ways in which it's inconsistent. It's barely possible that we will understand the fairy pheneomenon better when we understand how our brains work better, as a lot of it has to be down to the way our finite brains interact with the infinite universe. But our brains will always be finite and the universe will always be infinite - so our capacity even to pose the right questions is limited.

So relax and roll with the punches and enjoy the freedom of the universe, is what I say!

Andrew May said...

Magonia -- thanks for the feedback, which is reassuring. I hoped I was summarizing your view correctly, but there was a slight worry I was just projecting my own ideas after this lapse of time.

Peni -- I suppose "fairies" is as good a label as any to put on it. And "relax and enjoy" is certainly the right advice!