One of the books in my collection is Patrick Moore’s Do You Speak Venusian? It’s a hilarious take on ‘alternative thinkers’ in the 1950s and 1960s – and on their theories about everything from the Earth being flat to the Aetherius Society.
Moore, it seems, went to a meeting of the Aetherius Society, fronted by a gentleman who was human in form but, he informed the crowd, actually from Venus. He knew all Earthly languages. Moore tested that by asking him a question in French, which Aetherius didn’t understand. Moore then followed with another in Norwegian, with the same result. Scientifically, Moore concluded, this experiment showed that Aetherius spoke all Earthly languages except French and Norwegian.
There was quite a bit more like this – all funny stuff, in a Jerome K Jerome kind of a way.
The way these ‘alternative thinkers’ put their world together has long puzzled and fascinated me. To outside observers there is a complete disconnect between what is cited as ‘the evidence’ and the conclusions that follow. But to the ‘alternative thinker’ is is not only obvious – anybody who doubts it must be deliberately trying to hide ‘the truth’. For example:
- The evidence. The island of Elephantine, in the Nile, is so-called because it is elephant shaped.
- The evidence. This is only visible from the air.
Apparently this evidence is self-evident, leading to the obvious truth:
- Therefore ancient Egyptians were taken on rides in spacecraft by aliens who then bred with them to produce modern humans and so created modern civilisation, but the Truth has been hidden from us by Archaeologists.
Never mind the fact that Elephantine isn’t elephant shaped – and the origin of the name is moot.
The terms ‘evidence’ and ‘truth’ are emotionally loaded and bear little resemblance to what they mean even to philosophers. All feature in ‘alternative thought’, sooner or later – and all betray ways of asserting a complete world view that in effect replaces the one we are usually brought up with. This is why there is no point trying to argue with ‘alternative thinkers’ over the assertions they make about what constitutes ‘fact’.
The more interesting issue is why people think this way in the first place. Common features of the ‘alternative world view’ is its completeness, its simplicity and its certainties. That, to me, betrays a deeper issue.
A friend of mine has suggested that some people have to understand the world fully – they have to fit it inside their heads. A pity, he tells me, so many people have very small heads. I think he’s right. Some people validate themselves by their sense of place, and one way to obtain that place is through certainty. The real world is filled with questions, grey areas and doubts.
Another common thread – and further explanation for the phenomenon – is the way almost all ‘alternative thinking’ identifies ‘the Authorities’ as having a ‘party line’, as if knowledge and understanding was a monolithic bloc that can be controlled.
Again, this seems to me to have a good deal to do with the way ‘alternative thought’ is a whole-world-view issue. When their version of reality clashes with that of everybody else, it’s the fault of everybody else.
All of this is a very human thing. We have an unerring capacity to make what we imagine seem real – to intellectualise, rationalise and construct worlds for ourselves that feel comfortable. And some of us, it seems, prefer to beat quirky drums.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016