Crazy Talk and Critical Thinking

Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford. Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. Prometheus, 2003.

In many ways this is an interesting collection of articles on the psychosocial aspects of a wide range of anomalous experiences, covering the whole range of the sort of subject matters covered by Magonia 'contemporary visions and beliefs'. Though much of this material has appeared in earlier books by Bartholomew, for those who have not read the earlier volumes this makes a useful compilation. Magonia readers will find the chapter by David Clarke on the phantom helicopter of 1973 particularly interesting (needless to say the then Merseyside UFO Bulletin took a keen interest in this, and published one of the first round ups of the reports). This was a social panic generated in a period of exceptional social strain within Britain, with a background of class war, Irish terrorism, fears of illegal immigration, rumours of impending military coups and so on, in which the sort of ambiguous lights in the sky which were conventionally attributed to "flying saucers" now became associated with more terrestrial fears and paranoias.

In the chapters on the birth of the flying saucer, the 1909 airship scare in the United States and the 1896-7 airship stories, we see the various ways in which these ambiguous stimuli are interpreted in terms of current beliefs. For example in 1947, the 'flying saucer' wave was generated by fears of Soviet secret weapons, and the ETH didn't figure until several years later. Other social panics include the phantom gasser of Mattoon and Indian stories of the monkey men.

The boundaries between social panic and ritual form the basis of Bartholomew and associates studies of latah, dancing manias, fears of disappearing genitals and jumping responses, which have been rnedicalised into 'culture specific syndromes'. Bartholornew uses these to challenge the rnedicalisaion of a whole range of behaviours in the western world. He sees the various social rumours discussed in the book as falling into several categories; 'immediate community threat' (e.g. the Swedish ghost rocket scare), flight panics (e.g. the great Martian panic of 1938), 'symbolic threats' (e.g. the Satanic abuse scares), and wish fulfilling 'signs of transcendence' (e.g. visions of the Virgin Mal)' or ET's).

If this is in many ways an interesting book, it is not without its problems. The presence of 'review questions' indicates that this is a textbook, and as with many such books, the 'correct' answers to the questions are the ones which fit the author's own beliefs and values. There is also an annoyingly patronizing tone about its call for logical thinking to replace emotion. If Bartholomew and Radford had argued more the need to critically evaluate evidence this wouldn't have grated so much. As it is there is a hint of the CSlCOP idea that if only the proles could think more like well-educated college professors then all would be well, The problem with this is that just as many horrors have been perpetrated by 'rationality' as by blind emotion.

The witchcraft persecutions were supported by the finest minds of the time, arguing quite rationally within the confines of their cultural beliefs and values. The German doctors who established the euthanasia programme did so for perfectly logical and rational reasons, and were only too willing to discard 'irrational emotional responses' such as pity for the weak. Imagine that you have captured a terrorist whom you know has planted a 50 megaton under some city, but not which. Nothing you do to him will break him, but the psychologists tell you that if you torture his five year old child in front of him, then there's a good chance he will break down and tell you where the bomb is and thus save many millions of lives. Reason and logic tell you that you have to torture the child to save millions of lives, yet is there not some set of values beyond all reason and logic which say that it is never right to torture a child? -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 85, July 2004

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