Friday, July 2, 2010

2 July 1937, 1947 Two Mysteries of Aviation: From Earhart to Roswell--and what they tell us about ourselves

The mystery begins with the dates.  I recently posted a brief piece about the continuing investigation into the disappearance of aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, and hope for new clues as to their fate.

For some reason, though, I rarely stop to think about the fact that it was ten years later to the day that the other great mystery of twentieth-century aviation took place—or did it? It was, according to most traditional (if one can apply that term on this time scale) accounts, on July 2 1947 that a mysterious object appeared in the sky and then crashed near Roswell, New Mexico.  Subsequent versions put the event as early as June 14 or as late as July 3—already a warning sign.  This has become arguably the most celebrated "UFO incident" of all time and an almost universally recognized pop culture reference, but it was not always thus.  Years ago, when I was a school child, I encountered brief mentions of the crash story in popular books and articles on UFOs, usually alongside the first reports of "saucers" at the beginning of the narrative, and that was the extent of it. It was only in the past three decades or so that the episode acquired the iconic status it enjoys today.

Initial reports on the discovery of mysterious wreckage possibly associated with a "flying disc" swelled into a mystery and conspiracy story of grand proportions, with ever-increasing details, numbers of witnesses, and tales of government cover-ups.  At the one end of the scale is the new official version, in which the Air Force finally revealed that the wreckage was part of a top-secret project to monitor Soviet atomic tests with balloon-borne equipment, while at the other is wild speculation extending as far as the assertion that a surviving alien was kept alive into the 1950s, and initiated exchanges of communication with his home planet that continued until 1978. (Was disco—"no intelligent life here!"—finally too much for the disappointed denizens of Zeta Reticuli? that would be my bet.)

The growing number of ever more embellished and often irreconcilable accounts has been explained with regard to not just obvious sloppiness or charlatanry but also the psychological impetus of time compression and false memory. The enduring attraction of the episode as a whole has been most convincingly interpreted as epitomizing a modern myth, with all the characteristic traits of folk tales and evolving oral tradition.

It is somehow fitting that the Earhart and Roswell incidents occurred (presumably) on the same date, for together, they illustrate our deep cultural  and psychological ambivalence toward the mysterious.  On the one hand, a historical mystery cries out to be "solved," and we demand answers. On the other hand, it is like a compelling work of literature, a perplexing detective story, or a page-turner of a thriller that we at once devour and yet cannot bear to see conclude.  We revel in the open-endedness as much as the ending, and on some level are more titillated by the hunt than the kill, the courtship than the consummation.  To the extent that we want or accept answers, many of us demand that they be profound and imbued with meaning.  And, of course, the longer the mystery—whether involving a novel or a historical event—persists (think of the Kennedy assassination), the greater our expectations for the profundity of the answer.

I recently got into a bit of a tiff on the talkback page of a local blog when, in a tangential response to a discussion about 9-11 commemorations, I offhandedly expressed the unexceptionable view that the Troofers' arguments were bogus and said a hell of a lot more about them than about what happened.  Boy, did all the loons come out of their marshy nests in a hurry.

I was simply referring to what the great historian George Mosse taught us, namely: "only idiots believe in conspiracy theories."  By this, he did not mean that conspiracies do not occur.  Rather, he meant that they are rare and thus not part of our standard toolkit of causal explanations.  Conspiracy theories for historians are in some ways like miracles for medieval theologians and scientists: necessarily both possible and exceptional. The thinkers of the Middle Ages believed that God worked primarily through secondary causation, the laws of nature; if he did not, miracles would not be, well, miraculous.

The amateur or enthusiast, by contrast, leaps to explanations that, for the historian or scientist, are matters of last rather than first resort. For an illustration, one need look no further than History Channel's "UFO Hunters," in which lead figure Bill Birne (another  proponent of the most extreme Roswell stories) apparently never met an aerial mystery that did not derive from little green men. It's no wonder that the show quickly ran out of steam and the trio of investigators had to replace its nominal skeptic by the second season.

Ironically, the true believers, in conspiracies and the paranormal—whose mentality is exemplified by the famous poster, reading, "I want to believe," in Fox Mulder's office on "The X-Files"—are great system-builders and believers in systems, but not systematic thinkers.  For them, everything has to fit together—like that nondescript, recalcitrant piece in a jigsaw puzzle—into a grand, unified, picture, imbued with the beauty of meaning.  Historians and scientists, by contrast, have a far greater tolerance for both chance and ambiguity. For the believer and the Troofer, it is simply unacceptable and therefore inconceivable that a socially maladjusted nonentity could have cut down the likes of a John Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., and thereby, changed the course of history.  It "cannot" be possible that a band of Jihadi amateurs, with boxcutters and poor piloting skills, evaded all the security measures of the world's preeminent power, and brought down the World Trade Center towers.  For the historian, by contrast, precisely therein lies the irony, the greatest tragedy, and the most powerful impetus to research and reflection.    Each group manages to integrate the phenomena into a coherent worldview and explanatory model, but these proceed from very different assumptions and reach accordingly different conclusions.

Confronted with crackpot theories, what is the poor historian or scientist to do?  You can go crazy or you can go with the flow.  Although it's easy to get exasperated, it's more profitable to make the encounter into an opportunity.  I, for one, learn a lot more from the useful errors of popular television shows on these topics than from their findings, which invariably turn out to be banal, bogus, or lacking.  As Mosse said, "I once ate curried rats in India. It's all part of being a cultural historian, don't you know." Or, as one of my now retired senior colleagues—citing a great scholar of medieval Jewish mysticism—was fond of saying: "mishegas [craziness] is mishegas—but the study of mishegas: that's scholarship!"

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