We have created the kind of aliens we think there ought
The UFO movementís strength is not in its evidence,
but in its overall narrative, its theme. It has an elaborate eschatology, a host
of apostles, and a recurring theme of salvation versus doom. It is not the
evidence of extraterrestrial creatures but, rather, the idea of the Alien that
makes ufology such a powerful faith. The skeptics can dismiss the purported
tales of aliens and show the logical flaws in the story, but it will never make
any difference. If an idea is sufficiently wonderful, if it springs from deep
yearnings, it can easily beat back the yappings of logicians and skeptics and
disbelievers. It can overcome a persistent absence of facts.
It can endure forever.
The passage above is from Joel Achenbachís wonderful book Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe (Simon and Schuster 1999), and it haunts me. Not just these words, but also pretty much the whole book. Large portions of it are devoted to careful scrutiny of groups that are convinced something exists though there is no real evidence that itís there. Achenbach demonstrates the correlation between our longing for ďtruthĒ and our willingness to ignore or rationalize evidence to the contrary. When this is combined with our appreciation for a good story, objectivity takes a hike.
I canít stop thinking about this book, and I suppose this is because I see in it so much of my own professionís problems with credibility and effectiveness. This is not a very popular subject, but itís what this essay is about.
Think about the vast array of stories that the mystery of outer space has generated. Largely unseen and poorly understood, we have imagined it populated by, well, all kinds of stuff. Thereís even a branch of science devoted to the study of life out there. Theyíre called exobiologists. Unfortunately, they donít actually have any subjects to study. Theyíre great at speculation though, and interpreting the slightest alteration in the random pattern of cosmic rays toward their own ends is their main job.
The inner space of the body has generated quite a bit of speculation and questionable interpretation of its measurable activity. Consider the number of stories that people have made up in order to explain the presence of pain that has no perfectly obvious origin. Physical Therapy invented a story about the relation between strength and posture long ago that is not evidently true. But donít try to tell the people who believe the story that. For years, itís been my experience that no matter what you say, they offer no opposition; they donít suggest that I look at supporting research, and they donít consider alternate explanations for postural variance. It makes you wonder.
In the McKenzie community there is the insistence that the universe of spinal pain is populated primarily by various categories of disc derangement. While there is evidence that disc disruption could account for many complaints, the consideration of other tissues or bodily processes known to produce similar complaints is pretty much ignored. Itís like trying to get some people to understand that a local trickster, and not Venusians might produce crop circles. The major problem that I see with this philosophy of care is the tendency to ignore the vast number of false positive findings of disc derangement that are known to exist. If disc disruption is so significant a factor by itself, why is it so commonly asymptomatic? This is another thing I canít get the true believers to discuss. They retreat to the gospel of their founder, and he didnít evidently think that anything else should be considered before the connective tissue was ruled out.
Finally, there is the community of therapists involved in a variety of ďalternativeĒ methods. For the most part, this includes a theoretical basis for care that defines energy as a thing of some sort that can be manipulated in a variety of ways. Many of these methods evoke esoteric and obscure literature of dubious validity to justify their techniques, and the application of scientific principles to the study of their methods is selectively applied, to put it kindly.
I wonder sometimes how often we succumb to the temptations of pure speculation that are characteristic of those who are fascinated with outer space. As Achenbach points out, ď The scientific method has given us an amazing, weird, disconcerting, humbling vision of the universe.Ē The same could be said for what science has revealed about the inner space of the body, and we must take care not to ignore evidence that is contrary to our latest belief about why it behaves as it does. In the end, we must be careful not to let our own stories overwhelm us, no matter how much comfort they might offer.