I have a friend. She's a lovely girl, but as credulous as hell.
She grew up in a small country town about two or three hours drive out of Melbourne, and she pretty much accepts anything that is shovelled her way, no matter how much it beggars belief.
Not long ago, she was round at our place and she told us something that really caught my interest: Her mother, along with most of the rest of the country town she grew up in, saw a UFO.
This really interested me, because, for the first time, I thought that we had an example of that most elusive of UFO sightings: One that had been independently verified.
Sadly, after finding out the year in which it took place, a quick search of the web failed to yield any record of this event which was apparently witnessed by a town of about 1,000 people.
I had bitten my tongue throughout, but it eventually became all too much and I said, "Are you sure your mother was 100% certain that what she saw was a spacecraft of extra-terrestrial origin?"
Her first response was: "Are you calling my mother a liar?"
This is a somewhat telling response for a variety of reasons. And for the purposes of my story, we'll go with the definition of "lie" as being that where someone wilfully intends to mislead.
I didn't take it further, but I really wanted to ask her this:
1. The most obvious conclusion that anyone, including myself, can come to is that her mother, and the residents of this country town were mistaken. That is, they saw (or thought they saw) something completely different.
Science has discovered a large number of naturally occurring phenomena that could quite easily explain this "sighting". Ball lightning, low flying aircraft, mass hallucinations, mass hysteria - these are but the tip of the iceberg, there's plenty of others.
Why would I be suggesting, then, that her mother took the less likely tack of deliberately telling an untruth?
2. The definition of "liar" last time I looked, was someone who lies. Did my friend remember this?
3. Which begs the question, given that the definition of "liar" is not one who "lied" - was my friend aware of anything else that her mother had told her that would lead us to accuse her mother of having told more than one fib?
4. Given the above, could my friend shed some light on the accusation that I was calling her mother a liar, given that it is clearly not even the most likely conclusion that I could come to?
I probably like to say that there's a distinct whiff of a guilty conscience here, however, I could also put my friend's defensiveness down to the fact that she has encountered skepticism on this very subject before, and like most daughters, will not countenance any possibility that her mother is any less than honest on the subject.
But I won't. Which brings me on to my main point.
Woo consumers often try this exact same tack, and will not accept anything other than full and willing acceptance of their claims, and will be only too ready to accuse anyone of calling them liars if the slightest ounce of skepticism is shown. Despite the fact that their testimony may be suspect.
In the case of UFOs, it is suspicious that after years of sightings and close encounters, not once has there been an independently verified sighting. Suggest that a claim should be more closely investigated, and your average woo disciple will scream that their honour is being impugned.
It's not just UFOs. For years, homeopathy has been allowed to operate, despite the extreme lack of evidence showing it to be even remotely effective. Criticise the testimonial evidence of a woo practitioner, and you may stand accused of calling them liars.
A lot of this stuff has been practised for years, even centuries, yet if you suggest that someone gathers evidence showing it to be effective before claiming that it works, you get nowhere.
Bronze Dog recently blogged that after all the promises claimed by the world of woo, there is still nothing to show for it. Does acupuncture really cure colds? Does chiropractic really fix headaches? Can John Edward really talk to the dead? Why would UFO crews deliberately pick out hillbillies to try out their anal probes?
Alan Hopgood is a playwright of note in the city where I live. At a dinner I was at where he gave a speech, he told of a time when he was at Uni and a few friends of his chose to perpetrate a hoax.
A few of them got together and plotted a line out over the suburbs, calculated speeds and worked out times. Then a couple of them went and stood on a street corner in the CBD and at the allotted time, looked up, pointed and made a lot of noise about having seen something going very fast across the sky in a south-easterly direction.
This was repeated in various suburbs out towards the south east by various accomplices.
Somehow, one of the news services calculated a rough velocity based on sighting times, and a UFO legend was born. The hoax was exposed soon after. Hopgood swears that to this day, he runs into people unconnected with the hoax who swear that they actually saw the "UFO" in question on that day.
It's just too easy sometimes. But unlike Hopgood and his friends, not everyone is motivated by good intentions. Hopgood and co rode a wave of credulity and gullibility for a laugh.
It stands to reason that some will ride this wave for financial gain. And this is why, after all these years of nothing, woo merchants cannot be trusted.
Here's a wonderful hoax that was carried by some news services recently. Enjoy.