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'The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained' -- book review

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‘The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained’ — book review

Looking not at the reality of these things, but what belief in them says about us.

The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained (2020), by Colin Dickey, walks its readers through a familiar litany of paranormal beliefs and figures: Atlantis and Lemuria, Madame Blavatsky and Charles Fort, sea serpents and the Jersey Devil, Kenneth Arnold and Richard Shaver, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, Roswell and Area 51. they’re

If these terms mean nothing to you, consider Unidentified your passport to a whole new world of weirdness. However if such a list induces feelings of déjà vu, then chances are you’re not going to find much here you don’t already know, as Dickey’s research into these topics is fairly superficial.

unidentified book cover

Unidentified is the follow-up to Dickey’s critically acclaimed Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016). There, the PhD in comparative literature wrote that he wanted to set aside the question of whether or not ghosts exist and instead focus on broader sociological issues, by asking what the belief in ghosts can tell us about being human. With The Unidentified, Dickey takes a look at the other spaces and places which comprise America’s paranormal topography.

But while Dickey was lauded for his critical-yet-compassionate treatment of ghost-believers, The Unidentified proves to embody the polar opposite approach. Either Dickey finds the belief in monsters and extraterrestrials far less charming than that of phantoms and poltergeists, or the last four years of “alternative facts” or QAnon conspiracies has made the author far less tolerant of people who believe weird things.

From the very beginning of The Unidentified, Dickey makes it clear that he does not believe in Bigfoot and UFOs, and that the people who claim to are either fools or grifters. As in Ghostland, he notes that Unidentified isn’t a book dedicated to debunking claims of the paranormal, not because he’s interested in bigger questions, but because there’s no point in arguing with people willing to believe in such nonsense. Instead, Unidentified is a genealogy of American irrationalism, from the quirky to the dangerously delusional.

Dickey’s research into these topics is somewhat slim, at least judging from the book’s endnotes. The Unidentified lacks a bibliography, with some chapters based on only a single book (or two). The entirety of what’s included on the Loch Ness Monster, for example, comes from Gareth Williams’s A Monstrous Commotion (2015), while most of his information on the history of UFOs is derived from Curtis Peebles’s classic, Watch the Skies (1994). Dickey merely declares that the Patterson–Gimlin Sasquatch film and the Maury Island UFO incident are obvious hoaxes. He offers no evidence for these claims and, while he may very well be right, the assertions carry no real weight without an argument.

And while The Unidentified presents itself as having the same framing device as Ghostland — a road trip across the United States to visit weird places and speak to fascinating characters — it doesn’t actually deliver. Of the book’s 29 chapters, only eight are field reports, most of which involve Dickey dropping in at a notable tourist spot (like the Little A’Le’Inn café or the International Cryptozoology Museum) and grabbing a meal, before making small talk with the locals. Interviews with notable cryptozoologists or ufologists are surprisingly absent here.

Unidentified also relies heavily on the work of sociologist of religion Max Weber, specifically his idea of “disenchantment.” Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, Weber predicted that as science continued to advance, religion would become increasingly devalued and belief in the supernatural would eventually disappear. This set of assumptions influenced many scholars of religion, but as early as 1969 it was becoming apparent that the facts on the ground were not lining up with Weber’s hypotheses.

Not only did religion continue to be a force, but seemingly new forms of supernatural belief – in Sasquatches and cattle mutilating extraterrestrials – were likewise starting to appear. Wedded to the idea of “disenchantment,” some scholars argued that this growing belief in the paranormal didn’t indicate Weber had been wrong, but rather that the advancing tide of scientific empiricism had met with a backlash.

Cryptozoologists and ufologists, they argued, were a lot like religious fundamentalists — the vanguard of a segment of society that was angry at science for disenchanting their world, who were determined to “reenchant” it. This is the same narrative Dickey offers his readers, continually hammering home the idea that proponents of the paranormal are anti-science, their increasingly paranoid belief in cryptids and aliens no different than the faith of zealots.

'The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained' -- book review

Max Weber

But there are some serious problems with this contention, beginning with the fact that scholars of religion stopped taking Weber’s ideas about disenchantment as gospel in the 1990s. Additionally, in more recent years, historian of religion Jason Josephson-Storm’s book The Myth of Disenchantment (2017) has seriously challenged Weber’s entire premise, by showing that the dividing line between science and the supernatural is much blurrier than one might initially assume, and that belief in the paranormal has actually remained fairly constant over the last several centuries, rather than spiking in the mid-20th.

Given the current times, it’s easy to understand why Dickey might have become annoyed with self-styled experts spouting pseudoscience about monsters, Martians, and undiscovered continents, but those ideas aren’t new and likely represent a feature, rather than a flaw, of how our human minds operate. Any attempt to address such ideas must be the result of rigorous research and compassionate conversation, since condescension and contempt are unlikely to get very far.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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