What do we really know about the world around us? Are there significant limits to the knowledge that humanity has worked for centuries to attain, and if so, how might we hope to gain new insights in the future?
Whether or not we should necessarily question every foundation upon which our principle knowledge of the universe rests today, there is without a doubt still room for advancement, as well as improvement on much of what knowledge we already have.
There are many things in nature which may qualify as being deemed “unexplained”, though admittedly, much of what comes to mind when such a label is evoked does constitute, in large part, myth and folklore, urban legends, and at times, pseudoscientific pursuits which are complimented with speculation and served as “possibilities”, whereas in truth, little basis exists for such claims. In equal measure, the scientific pursuit of the unexplained entails such things as exotic states of matter, classification of new species of flora and fauna, and many other very plausible endeavors which are generally the last to come to mind when anyone evokes such titles as “unexplained phenomena”. This does not remove them from the broader quest for understanding, of course; instead, it merely exemplifies the rather polarized attitudes many have about the search for knowledge, and our ongoing wrestling match with the unknown.
As a researcher of the unexplained, I am often asked, particularly by younger, up-and-coming enthusiasts and researchers, what the future may hold for the study of strange phenomenon, and how I think the field can progress beyond the collection of unusual stories that compromises much of the last several decades of research that is recognized in this field.
In one recent instance, Corey, a listener of my Gralien Report Podcast, wrote to me with such a question, pertaining to the study of “Forteana”. This term, which nods to the late researcher Charles Fort, remains surprisingly esoteric even today; on various occasions where I have used it in print, I have been corrected by readers who mistook it for a misspelling of the word fourteen; amusing though the error may be, it illustrates the obscurity of the term in the modern era, which Corey evokes in his question outlined below:
What advice would you give to any young aspiring researcher who wants to get involved into the world of the Fortean?
I think this is a rather important subject, not just because it’s a journey I am starting, but because if we plan on getting more answers we may need to take a different approach to what has already been achieved by many of the veteran researchers in field today.
I am not bashing what has been done up to now, but I think we may need fresh faces and ideas on the job to get new answers.
What do you think?
In response to Corey’s question, there are certainly things that I think budding Forteans can, and should, be doing, and perhaps a bit differently from a number of researchers that have preceded the younger generation of today.
To begin, I truly think that proper study of philosophy and the sciences is paramount. Over the last few decades, there have certainly been many researchers who have had an investigative “wit” about them, and an ability to look for facts, clues, and leads. I addition to this sort of “detective work”, many of these researchers (Jerome Clark comes to mind among them) are also easily functional as historians; they’re very good at combing archives, digging up photos, and discovering obscure bits of important data here and there. This is, perhaps, where some of the very best Fortean research has been accomplished in the last half century.
There have been many also that employ the sciences, ranging from physicists and astronomers, to zoologists and archaeologists who, once of an unabashedly skeptical mind, allowed themselves to at least be open to possibilities which may extend beyond general consensus ideas. The reason why I choose to emphasize science to the modern researcher (particularly biology, astronomy, and physics, although chemistry is of importance here, as well as archaeology, geology, and countless other disciplines) is because a proper understanding of these approaches to the study of our world, combined with knowledge of the scientific method applied to each, may do the very most to help the budding researcher separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff that is idle, uninformed speculation… the latter being a trap that even this author, in his “younger and more vulnerable years” (to quote Fitzgerald), had fallen into more than once. I am not afraid to admit this, and in truth, I feel that it must be said here, for the sake of honesty, and open dialogue; by admitting our mistakes, we are better equipped to move forward.
On the subject of mistakes, often I have observed over the years that many people, in questing to understand the seemingly unexplainable, begin their inquiry with implausible ideas and notions as to what the phenomena they’re seeking to understand may be. For example, often you’ll see people looking at a seemingly inexplicable UFO, and they will begin with the position that, due to the strangeness of what they’re seeing, it must be something “interdimensional”, or perhaps even evidence of an exotic alien technology. For all you or I may know, perhaps such things do exist; but generally, there are simpler explanations that might be given to such observations, which should, in every instance, first be explored before attributing what, at times, purely amounts to being nonsense to the alleged phenomena in question.
On the other hand, I am not one who believes that the senses are so completely fallible that pilots, scientists, and otherwise sane and sober individuals are always wrong when they observe unusual things (as some of the most skeptical among us would maintain). To the contrary, I think many people are good observers, often very accurately reporting things that they have seen. However, the interpretation of those things may still be in error, and hence, someone who has seen something unusual may come to a completely mistaken determination about what they have observed, despite accurately describing it when recounting it to others later on.
Here’s an example we might consider to help illustrate the idea. Let’s say we have a nuclear physicist, who has worked for years with a number of leading engineering and propulsion companies. His task has been to try and develop nuclear methods of propulsion, but having been retired for nearly a decade, he may not be entirely up to speed on the latest developments in his field. One night, while driving along with his wife, he observes an unusual aircraft that is brightly illuminated, and moving at incredible speeds as it passes over he and his wife’s car. The sight of the object startles him as it moves so quickly, and he literally swerves off the road, leaps out of the car, and watches in amazement as (what now appears to be little more than a bright light in the distance) zooms off toward the horizon.
He has never seen anything like this before, and despite the fact that the aircraft he observed actually is a new U.S. government drone, he’s convinced that what he has seen is unlike any technology he has ever dealt with, and thus, he assumes that it is no kind of existent human technology. He you later appears on a television program and describes what he has seen, retelling his amazing story of a seemingly otherworldly aircraft, which he is firm in stating behaves and maneuvers in ways no existent aircraft could have done, implying that this may have been some form of “exotic” technology.
Meanwhile, a prominent skeptic in the viewing audience listens to his testimony, and finds the entire situation being described to be absurd (again, this is a technology that is unknown to the general public that we’re describing… a public which our skeptic expert is certainly a part of). The skeptic chalks the entire thing up to being some prosaic phenomenon — a star perhaps, or maybe a meteor — which simply caught the observer off guard as a result of observing it mostly while moving in his car, and at night, when visible conditions aren’t optimal. He couldn’t really have seen what he described could he? After all, what the observer described seems to defy any and all known technologies, and perhaps the majority of the physical laws that such aircraft must adhere to. It seems unlikely, and therefore, the skeptic rules it as being impossible.
Now, from our “omniscient” viewpoint in this thought experiment, we of course know that what is being discussed was, in fact, an actual series of events, and that the observer had indeed witnessed something unusual, at least according to his frame of reference. Furthermore, what the witness observed was indeed an object of technological origin, and under intelligent control. He was actually correct in his assessment of what he and his wife had seen on many counts, but his final interpretation that it had been something “otherworldly” was flawed. Because of this interpretation, his retelling of the story is cast in further doubt by many skeptics that hear it, and thus it is treated almost unconditionally as either the ravings of some poor, delusional man, or worse, perhaps the fabrications of a liar out to get attention.
With hope, this example illustrates a fundamental point that I often hope to address with my own research, in addition to the advice I give to others: there is room for both skepticism, and open mindedness, in any reasonable examination of such intellectual pursuits, whether they involve history, the sciences, politics, society and culture, or yes, even the unexplained. However, I think that too much of either can be, if not dangerous, at least very limiting in terms of the body of knowledge potentially at our disposal as researchers.
With our study of the unexplained, we are afforded the opportunity to unravel a plethora of new ideas and discoveries, with great potential for the future of humanity. It is our common goal of bettering ourselves, and the world around us, that drives this quest. Along the way, the proverbial red herring may appear here and there, but the older and wiser we become, it is with hope that we may also become better at discerning what phenomena is most worthy of our curiosity and attention; in committing to the study of such things, it is also with hope that informed, but reasonably-open inquiry may lead us.