Facts make weird shit less strange

In more than 40 years of investigating stories too weird for most journos to bother with, I’ve heard and seen more than my fair share of strange shit.

I’ve had my spoon bent by Uri Geller, I’ve attended a séance with a medium who believed he was channeling William Shakespeare, I’ve spoken to a woman who burst into flames while she was driving down Pacific Coast Highway and I’ve attended a convention of some 30 or so distinguished American scientists, philosophers and academics, all of whom say they have been abducted by aliens.

I’m not an awful lot wiser now than I was when I started out, but I have noticed one very peculiar thing that is common to many such events. When you first encounter them, they seem so weird, so unaccountable, so out of this world that it is almost impossible to believe them or to think of any explanation other than some paranormal cause. Yet the more you dig into them, the more you find out, the more facts you discover and collect, the less weird and the more ordinary they become, until – ultimately – they come to seem almost banal.

When the people involved remain unknown to you, the places they inhabit are remote, and you have to imagine the phenomena they claim have to seen rather than experience it at first hand, their claims seem impossible to accept. But when you find the people to be ordinary, friendly, intelligent, and you can see for yourself whatever it is they claim, it often takes on a different perspective.

Here’s an example of what I mean. One night about 20 years ago, I switched on the television just in time to see a man being interviewed on some chat show. He was a quietly spoken and soberly dressed American about 50 or so. He claimed that he was able to tell what music was on a long-playing vinyl record merely by looking at the grooves.

My immediate reaction to this claim was that it must be phony because he was obviously claiming to have some paranormal or supernormal ability – rather like the mutant humans in “X-Men”. This is a reaction I realized I had experienced many times before and one I had also observed in others.

Intrigued, I found out more about the mystery man.  His name is Arthur Lintgen. He was born in 1942, and is a physician who lives in Philadelphia. His “gift” came about because he noticed that on the LPs of his favourite orchestral music, such as Mozart and Beethoven, the grooves were organized into recurring recognisable patterns because the musical phrases they represented were repetitive. This is especially true with a well-known piece such as Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Lintgen has been tested by skeptics, including James Randi and pronounced genuine. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Lintgen

There are limits to Lintgen’s ability. First the record has to be of a piece of music that he knows – typically classical orchestral pieces. And the music must have an organized structure – he cannot recognize rock music, which he says appears disorganized.

It appears that Lintgen has either learned or inherited a skill at observing tiny differences in physical patterns.  There is some evidence this may be genetic. Other individuals have a heightened sense of taste (so-called “supertasters”) and again this is probably genetic. More generally, there is a wide spectrum of sensitivity or acuity not just for seeing and taste but for all senses: some people are at one extreme of those spectra and so appear gifted to the rest of us.

Once you know all this, the ability to identify music from the grooves on the record ceases to look like some amazing psychic power from Professor Xavier’s academy and seems instead disappointingly ordinary.

Here’s another example. You might think that the world had been sufficiently well explored that there are no more large mammals to discover. Yet in 1996, wildlife photographer Karl Ammann was exploring a remote part of the jungle in the former Belgian Congo when he discovered a mysterious skull that seemed to have some of the characteristics of a chimpanzee but also some of a much larger primate like a gorilla. Many zoologists were skeptical that there could any large undiscovered primates, doubts that were reinforced when two later expeditions to the area failed to find any traces of such an animal.

The whole thing sounded very reminiscent of tales of Bigfoot and the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman.

However, in 2003, primatologist Shelly Williams visited the area and came face to face with four of the human-sized creatures. She wrote, “We could hear them in the trees, about 10 metres away, and four suddenly came rushing through the brush towards me. If this had been a mock charge they would have been screaming to intimidate us. These guys were quiet, and they were huge. They were coming in for the kill – but as soon as they saw my face they stopped and disappeared.”

It still sounded weird and some still scoffed at Williams’s claim. But today the Bili apes have been studied, photographed by National Geographic and classified as a new species. Again, what started out as something like a scary campfire tale has become commonplace through discovery and more information.

Sometimes, the shock (or more accurately, the cognitive dissonance) of being told about something completely new is so great that it can provoke an almost hysterical reaction.

This happened to psychologist J.B. Rhine of Duke University who was the first academic to conduct serious experiments into Extra Sensory Perception or telepathy from the 1920s to the 1950s. His papers so outraged Dr George Price  of the Department of Medicine at University of Minnesota that in 1955 Price wrote an article for Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, denouncing Rhine and a British researcher Dr R.G. Soal.  Price wrote that ESP was scientifically impossible and so Rhine and Soal must be fraudulent researchers.  Nearly two decades later, in 1972, Price wrote another article for Science magazine apologizing to Rhine and Soal and withdrawing allegations of fraud. Price admitted that he had made them without attempting to find any evidence and that he had been under the mistaken assumption that Rhine was trying to promote some kind of religious belief.

This whole process is a little like seeing a distant object on the beach through a telescope image that is blurred and indistinct. At first the image could be anything from a unicorn to a mermaid. As it comes gradually into focus it is seen to be nothing more than a rock, oddly shaped by wind and tide.

The same is true for some conspiracy theories. One example is the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists in 2000. Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of conspiracy websites will tell you that the collapse of the twin towers in the manner claimed was impossible. Steel does not melt, they say, until temperatures of 1,800 degrees C, and aviation fuel burns at only half that temperature. The collapse witnessed was “unprecedented” can “only have been caused by controlled demolition”.

One five-minute conversation with a metallurgist was enough to elicit the information that steel undergoes a series of changes as it is heated, resulting in progressively losing its tensile strength in the process of annealing. Steel also expands when heated – the beams in the WTC would have expanded by almost 12 inches, distorting their mountings and causing them to lose further their structural integrity.  Progressive collapse of modular or system-built high rise buildings is today a well-studied and well-understood phenomenon. Buildings such as Britain’s Ronan Point suffered progressive collapse when a single floor was blown out by a gas explosion in 1968 – five years before the Trade Center opened.

These dull, dry facts do not make the collapse any less tragic, but they demystify the seemingly impossible and confirm the view of Arthur C. Clarke about new discoveries. Clarke says new discoveries go through four phases:-

1. It’s not true
2. It’s true but it’s not important
3. I’ve always said it was important
4. I thought of it first.



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