In June of 2009, philosopher of biology Michael Ruse took a group of grad students to the Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky (and also some mainstream institutions) as part of a course on how museums present science. In a critical description of his visit, Ruse reflected upon “the extent to which the Creationist museum uses modern science to its own ends, melding it in seamlessly with its own Creationist message.” Continental drift, the Big Bang, and even natural selection are all presented as evidence in support of Young Earth cosmology and flood geology.
While immersing himself in the museum’s pitch, Ruse wrote,
Just for one moment about half way through the exhibit…I got that Kuhnian flash that it could all be true — it was only a flash (rather like thinking that Freudianism is true or that the Republicans are right on anything whatsoever) but it was interesting nevertheless to get a sense of how much sense this whole display and paradigm can make to people.
This comment was severely criticized, but it’s profoundly relevant to skepticism. Continuing from the theme of my previous post (on “The Reasonableness of Weird Things”) I’d like to argue that the experience Ruse describes — the fleeting sense of “Could it be true?” vertigo — is one of the most important experiences skeptics can have.
Michael Ruse’s disappearing-down-the-rabbit-hole feeling may seem surprising. After all, he’s been down in the trenches fighting Answers in Genesis-style Young Earth creationism for a very long time. For example, Ruse was a key witness in the pivotal 1981 case of McLean v. Arkansas. Nicknamed “Scopes II,” McLean v. Arkansas challenged and overturned an Arkansas law that required “balanced treatment for creation science and evolution science.” Judge Overton’s ruling effectively crippled the legal strategy of demanding “equal time” for so-called “scientific creationism.” (The final blow came in 1987, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard that it is unconstitutional to teach creationism in public schools.)
But Ruse’s moment of vertigo is not as surprising as it may appear. Indeed, he put effort into achieving this immersion: “I am atypical, I took about three hours to go through [the creation museum] but judging from my students most people don’t read the material as obsessively as I and take about an hour.” Why make this meticulous effort, when he could have dismissed creationism’s well-known scientific problems from the parking lot, or from his easy chair at home?
According to Ruse, the vertiginous “what if?” feeling has a practical value. After all, it’s easy to find problems with a pseudoscientific belief; what’s harder is understanding how and why other people believe. “It is silly just to dismiss this stuff as false,” Ruse argues (although it is false, and although Ruse has fought against “this stuff” for decades). “A lot of people believe Creationism so we on the other side need to get a feeling not just for the ideas but for the psychology too.”
The Goblin Universe
I agree with this sentiment, and I would take it a step further. Ruse is describing an access point, a matter of practical utility: when we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes, we are better able to find ways to communicate. This is no doubt true, but the feeling of vertigo also tells us some important things about ourselves.
The Junior Skeptic format (each issue being a detailed primer on a single topic) calls for the sort of intense, full-immersion research that can lead to this off-balance feeling. A given topic may require me to read a dozen or more pro-paranormal books, one after another — each of them designed to persuade readers that a mysterious phenomenon is real. Sometimes, this immersion triggers a hall-of-mirrors feeling, a feeling of double-exposure, and I find myself standing (ever so briefly) in what John Napier called “the Goblin Universe.”
In his classic book Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality, Napier (then Director of Primate Biology at the Smithsonian) wrote that the sheer myth-laden wooliness of paranormal topics make it
intellectually necessary from time to time to abandon the real world and, like Persephone, enter the dark regions of another world which I like to call the Goblin Universe. It is simple enough to apply reason to what is reasonable, but it is much more difficult to argue logically about the illogical. … If you see me disappearing down a mental rabbit hole from time to time you will know where I am headed. I will be traveling unwillingly into the Goblin Universe.
Napier got lost in his Goblin Universe, concluding on poor evidence that sasquatches are real. But he was right to stress the value of trying to see these myths from the inside. Riffing on Napier’s notion, anthropologist Margerie Halpin wrote,
Most of us, however, have not personally experienced Sasquatch, the Loch Ness monster, U.F.O. beings, God, or the Devil, and we accept reigning social consensus that they do not exist…. How different are we, we wonder, from most of the other human beings on the planet, whom we have reason to believe still accept the Goblin Universe as real?
Why This Matters
The skeptic’s task is not to score rhetorical points, but to seek genuine understanding of fringe claims. We want to learn what is true, what is fake, what the difference between these may be — and (if I may borrow a phrase) learn why people believe weird things.
Late at night, hands cramping from note-taking, eyes bleary with research, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of the Goblin Universe: “Holy shit, what if there really is a Bigfoot? What if ghosts actually do exist? What if 9/11 was an inside job? What if….”
Sometimes this feeling is uncomfortable, sometimes it is thrilling — but always it comes to me as something of a relief. Here’s why:
- If it doesn’t even occur to us that the claim we’re examining could just possibly be true, we’re not honest investigators;
- If we can’t feel the persuasiveness of a claim, we don’t really understand it.
To my mind, this is where the rubber meets the road: are we really willing to look fairly at weird claims? And, is understanding something we’re psychologically capable of achieving?
Now, I hasten to clarify what I’m not saying. I’m not suggesting that all claims have an equal chance of being true (they don’t) or that we can’t find out which claims are true and which aren’t (usually we can, and with great confidence). Science-based thinking gives considerable weight to the prior plausibility of claims, which is the basis of the maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” As Steven Novella has observed, “The principle is based upon two premises: that we know stuff and that not all evidence is created equal.”
Evolution by natural selection, for example, is both intrinsically logical and confirmed in practice by 150 years of scientific research. The “who knows what’s true, let’s teach the controversy” posturing by Intelligent Design proponents is pure sleight of hand. (“Presto! The burden of proof has vanished!”) In fact, creationists would have to offer stupendous amounts of jaw-droppingly extraordinary evidence to even begin to balance the mass and power of the evidence for evolution — which they don’t have. I know that (I wrote a book about evolution), and veteran evolution defender Michael Ruse was an expert back when I was flipping hockey cards against the back wall of my elementary school.
What I’m talking about is an internal exercise, a way of testing our own understanding and fairness. This is the exercise of asking ourselves, “Seriously — what if they’re on to something? Do I really know that they’re not?”
In some cases it’s not too difficult to see a paranormal belief from the inside. I can say with informed confidence that the case for Bigfoot is horrible, but the universe wouldn’t have to be altered very much for the Bigfoot hypothesis to be true — and, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. I find it relatively easy to watch the Patterson-Gimlin film and see some part of what Bigfoot proponents see.
Other chasms are harder to cross. I was a theist in my early life, so I find it natural enough to imagine myself in theistic shoes. And yet, not even as a Christian did Young Earth creationism seem remotely plausible to me. It’s just too at odds with the natural world we see every day. I don’t know how to go down that rabbit hole, but I admire Michael Ruse for finding a way — if only for an instant.