When I participated in a panel discussion of UFOs last week under the auspices of the onstage comedy series The Wrong Take, I assumed my old skeptical role. Forgive me if at various points in the past I’ve argued against everything you believe in or love, but I think someone has to, even if only to keep us all alert. Still, the world remains stubbornly, irreducibly strange even if there are no aliens in it.
There’s something sad about the fact that, as I said on the panel, the least-weird explanation for the silent, small, spinning, prismatic disc I once saw over a Manhattan street is probably that it was a very expensive experimental surveillance drone. The consumer kind, by contrast, tend to be noisy.
What sort of world are we living in when New York’s constant surveillance tech experiments—drones over Labor Day barbeques according to recent headlines, covert recording microphones on city buses according to old comments made with pride by then-Mayor Bloomberg—are the reassuring, rational explanation?
Showing in select theaters, the film Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose, featuring Simon Pegg, Minnie Driver, and Christopher Lloyd—plus comic book writer (and child of Scientologists) Neil Gaiman as the voice seemingly belonging to the mongoose—captures with surprising intelligence the bittersweet quality of longing for clear answers on hopelessly weird subjects, and for emotional resolution to big personal questions. Real investigator Fodor was left wondering 90 years ago whether a talking mongoose named Gef—sometimes scary, sometimes absurd—was as real as the Isle of Man locals fervently believed or just one girl’s ventriloquism trick.
The film manages to take this seemingly most ridiculous of questions seriously without resorting either to ridicule or ahistorical supernatural pyrotechnics.
The ability to say the three magic words “I don’t know” and continue discussing a topic—scientific, political, moral—is rare but needed. I think the sheer volume of weird claims online, often the cause of consternation or outright censorship efforts from the keepers of orthodoxy, has made dialogue between believers and non-believers on many topics more common than it used to be. Despite the frequent lamentations in recent years about how much “misinformation” is out there, this beats the situation in my youth, a few decades ago, when the skeptics movement barely spoke to the communities of hardcore believers it derided, and vice versa.
If all sides have gotten a little more agnostic lately, that’s for the best, even if there’s more arguing going on.
I’d hate to see people leap to conclusions about what’s going on right now in Peru, where villagers are panicked over what they say have been mildly-violent late-night attacks by flying, seven-foot, glowing, insectoid aliens, of which they’ve captured some indistinct footage and at which they’ve fired some gunshots.
A local prosecutor thinks he has the rational explanation, but as with the surveillance drones noted above, it’s not really an explanation that should lull everyone back into a complacent sleep. He thinks a marauding criminal mining company, like something out of a Scooby-Doo episode, is using costumes and jet packs to frighten locals away from valuable mineral deposits.
What a fantastic, albeit unfortunate, opportunity to draw attention to the plight of indigenous peoples everywhere, you might think (not so unlike those Maui natives wondering whether government misconduct verging on conspiracy contributed to the loss of hundreds of lives in an uncontrolled fire there recently). But the locals are protesting that it’s the prosecutor who’s leaping to conclusions, with the mining company scapegoated for ongoing attacks much stranger than any earthly land-grab, attacks from which the locals still seek relief, with the help of the military if necessary.
I don’t know if the Peruvian villagers are beset by aliens, capitalists gone wrong, baseless panic, or something else, but I wouldn’t presume to judge based on armchair philosophical speculations alone merely to keep my skeptical (or for that matter capitalist) sensibilities from being ruffled. As with an as-yet-undiagnosed but life-threatening illness, we ought to say of the Peru situation that while we don’t yet know what’s going on, we should certainly look into it further. The frightening prospect that we’ll be confused or alarmed by whatever we learn shouldn’t stop us. Not if we really love science and truth.
Whether someone tries to tell you the status quo in this world was created by capitalists, government, madness, hoaxers, demons, malevolent aliens, or some combination of them all, you probably ought to eschew readymade narratives and keep looking. Accepting the undeniable fact that the answer is going to be strange regardless can be liberating. You can’t tamp down all the bizarre, clashing ideas on YouTube and shouldn’t try, and you can never restore the imaginary world of your youth in which you thought no machinery at all was watching you from the sky. Best to look up and face it, and then start figuring out what to do about it.