YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsRhetoric

Jack Smith

Speaking plane English, college professor shoots down skepticism in a frying missive

May 01, 1985|JACK SMITH

The other day I recalled that some time ago, after mentioning my skepticism about flying saucers, I had received "a hostile letter from a college professor whose avocation was tracking UFOs, and who believed in visitors from other planets."

I recalled that "he was just then embarking on a year's sabbatical from his class in English rhetoric, which he intended to spend, he said, in the pursuit of UFOs."

I recalled also that I had written this professor advising him that, for the sake of his students, he spend the year brushing up on English rhetoric; but I doubted that he had.

Now he has written me again, charging that my "inaccurate implication" has caused him some embarrassment, and asking for an apology.

He encloses a copy of his original letter of Dec. 1, 1977, and I see that I did indeed misrepresent him as believing in visitors from other planets. He was then, as he is now, interested in the entire phenomenon of UFOs. He then operated the UFO Report Center of Orange County, a 24-hour hot line, and he was taking his sabbatical to put together a text for his course "UFO Literature: The Rhetoric of the Unknown."

He had written to chide me for a column about UFOs in which I had quoted a spoof my doctor had written for a medical journal theorizing that UFOs were simply "spots in your eyes," known medically as muscae volitantes.

He said it was laden with false analogy, fallacious logic, misuse of language and distortion and confusion, and he implied that it might serve as a text for his class. For example, I wrote that "the evidence so far (for extraterrestrial visitors) is about as good as the evidence for witches in Salem back in 1692," and the professor observed: "False analogy: No evidence that UFO's are supernatural, or that witches leave landing marks or radar returns."

I also wrote: "Perhaps my doubts are so strong because I used to see unidentified flying objects (spots in my eyes) every day, many times a day, and my witness became part of the evidence on which one of the classic explanations of UFOs was based. (An ironic reference to my doctor's spoof.)

"Careless definition," the professor said. "Spots is spots, not objects, and they don't fly. . . ."

Since I did not use this professor's name in the first place, perhaps I should not use it in apologizing, since then whatever damage I have done his reputation would be limited to the inner circle of students and peers who might have recognized him from that brief, anonymous description.

However, Prof. Alvin H. Lawson, of the English Department of Cal State Long Beach, asks for no such protection, and seems to wish for the public vindication to which he is entitled.

"You apparently don't realize," he says, "that most UFO proponents despise me and detest my theories; I was nearly lynched at a 1981 Chicago conference where I first proposed my ideas." (In rhetoric, that is called hyperbole.)

"If I am biased," he says, "it is toward open-mindedness on a scientifically unfashionable (and un-grantable) subject. My UFO hot line provided a research base for my class, and does not imply a belief in Little Green Men. Are professionals who provide rape hot lines necessarily potential rapists?" (False analogy?)

"If I am open to the possibility of extraterrestrial life--not zapping around in UFOs--well, so are many esteemed scientists, including Carl Sagan." (And me. Only, as I said in that first column, I can't swallow the cosmic coincidence that travelers from space, with a billion years to work in, have come looking for us just precisely at the moment--the exact tick of time--when we are setting out to look for them.)

He notes, by the way, that he never received a letter from me. Evidently it was one of those that I write in heat and never send.

For the past several years Prof. Lawson has been engaged in research from which he has concluded that all or most Close Encounters of the Third Kind (abductions of Earthlings by extraterrestrial visitors) are mental in origin--"rare but psychologically valid events."

He encloses a paper he wrote on "Perinatal Imagery in UFO Abduction Reports" (The Journal of Psycho-history, Fall 1984), in which he describes research into such "abductions" by himself and Dr. W. C. McCall of Anaheim.

Based on the examination of a good many people who really believed that they had been abducted, Lawson and his colleague have found that these experiences are almost always birth memories, with the womb, the birth canal, the sudden light, the severing of the umbilical cord and other birth phenomena always taken for some aspect of their close encounters. The aliens themselves quite often resemble human fetuses, with spindly legs and enlarged heads and eyes.

Lawson also encloses a letter from Carl Sagan that thanks him for the paper, but notes a couple of troublesome questions:

"I can understand regressions to or recollections of the moment of birth; but how does it come about that we recall our fetal form? We surely never have seen it. Why would we attribute to extraterrestrials our recollections of our prenatal selves, which we have never seen? . . . There are many other questions that come to mind."

I want to make it clear that I am apologizing to Prof. Lawson for suggesting that he believes in ETs. Also, I respect his research into birth fantasies and his continued fascination with the unknown.

I just think it's English that English students need help with, not UFOs.

Los Angeles Times Articles