Queue the “X-Files” music.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been interested in – heck, obsessed with – the paranormal. I can remember being six or seven years old and my dad pulling up Bigfoot-related websites for me on our old, clunky Gateway 2000 computer. I’d spend hours looking at fuzzy, out-of-focus pictures of the elusive beast and listening to audio files featuring alleged Sasquatch vocalizations.
Don’t get me started on aliens and UFOs, by far my favorite slice of the paranormal pie. My head is home to an encyclopedic treasure trove of everything extraterrestrial – a vast, detailed, and dare I say, shameful level of knowledge on everything from UFO crash landings to alien abductions, from Roswell to Allagash. As you can see in this week’s featured image, I recently 3D-printed a flying saucer (that also serves as a nifty storage device) to go with the grey alien I printed off a few weeks ago! (Credit to muzz64 on Thingiverse on this one.)
Of course, there are ghosts and conspiracies and psychic powers and all those toppings on the paranormal sundae. I love them all. In other words, my YouTube history is really weird. Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in any of this stuff.
I’ve always found it fascinating to imagine the world as being fundamentally different from what we are all used to. It’s exciting to think that reality could be hiding things that completely diverge from what our intuition tells us. It’s entertaining. It’s thrilling. On the other hand, evidence matters, and we can’t just throw our sense of good judgment and skepticism to the wind. We should care about having good arguments for the things which we invest our beliefs in. Now, could some of these paranormal peculiarities be real? Sure, it’s possible. But as far as I can tell, the evidence in their favor is very, very flaky.
To me, the value of these paranormal subjects extends beyond mere entertainment. I think the late, great Carl Sagan (one of my personal heroes) best explains what I’m getting at in the following quotes:
“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”
“We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.”
In other words, imagination is like the air that lifts the wings of science and exploration. It inspires us. It motivates us. It drives us to learn more about the universe around us. While it’s true that imagination and speculation are certainly not how we should judge things to be true or real, they still play an important part in our understanding of the world. Imagination is the spark that sets us out on the quest for truth and skepticism is the tool we use to, as Sagan once put it, “sift the wheat from the chaff.”
In a very real way, I have these “out there” subjects to thank for where I am today. My fascination with the paranormal as a kid stirred my imagination and sparked a deep sense of wonder and exploration in me at an early age – the very same qualities that are so important and integral in the STEM fields. My early interest in aliens and UFOs was definitely a driver for my pursuing an education in physics and astronomy later in life. One of the people I must thank most for getting me through grad school is another late great: Art Bell, former host of Coast to Coast AM, a radio show dedicated to exploring the paranormal and all the stranger things in life. After a long day of crunching through pages and pages of quantum field theory, it was nice to unwind and reset my brain by listening to Art talk to a lady who believes Bigfoot lives in her backyard. So do these less-than-reputable paranormal subjects have a place in STEM education? I certainly think so, just as long as we maintain a healthy sense of skepticism along the way.
– Dr. Jake Roark