Monday, September 27, 2010

The Edge-ucator

Several months ago, we mentioned that famed science writer (the late) Walter Sullivan, who generally took a firmly skeptical stance about UFOs, opened up a bit years ago and actually wrote something positive about the subject in his New York Times column, when incredible, yet reliable, UFO reports suddenly emerged in great quantity (type his name in the search engine above to access that blog entry). One wonders what stuffy NYT editors thought about this, since the Times has a history of negativity about UFOs, but Sullivan's rare UFO gem sparkled.

The history of UFO research is permeated with professionals at all levels, ardent skeptics who actually take the time to examine the evidence and subsequently experience an intellectual rebirth regarding the issue. Sometimes, the change takes years.

During the late 1970s and early eighties, retired educator Dr. Max Rafferty (deceased in 1982 at age 65, when his car plunged over a dam) wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column dealing primarily with social and political issues, and of course he focused upon educational triumphs and shortcomings. In the sixties, Rafferty was superintendent of schools for all of California, and the experience obviously left him wiser and ready to take on the country's problems -- or, at least, to write about them. Generally conservative in his views, Rafferty often decried the state of public education and government policy. His papers and recorded media were donated to the University of Iowa before his death.

Okay, so I admit it, I didn't read his column regularly, but frequently viewed its headlines in the morning newspaper. But one day in 1979, during the last week of March, I double-took at the words before me in the newspaper's editorial section: RUSSIANS FINALLY SEE OWN UFOS, announced Rafferty's headline. The UFO reference alone wouldn't have bothered me, because this was a time when UFO sightings were getting publicity around the globe, and just weeks previously a news crew from New Zealand filmed a fuzzy light from an airplane, causing international "UFO mania."

However, for Rafferty to tackle this subject, well. . .he had been paying attention.

"Ever since the 'flying saucer' sightings began in the late '40s," he began, "I've been wondering bemusedly why the alleged visitors from outer space never seem to breach the Iron Curtain." Rafferty, like most Americans, hadn't realized or considered the UFO phenomenon's international reach. UFO organizations, especially the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO) and its founders Jim and Coral Lorenzen, knew almost instinctively since APRO's inception in 1952 that all nations reported UFOs, and the reports were often disturbingly similar.

After relating familiar and historic boundaries of censorship and secrecy in the (former) Soviet Union, Rafferty noted the Soviets had finally been disclosing information about some 300 UFO reports, including an incident where numerous automobiles stalled just 28 miles west of Moscow.
Rafferty's intrigue centers particularly upon the 1908 explosion of something over Siberia which flattened trees for some 1250 square miles, and comments by Moscow Aviation Institute scientist Felix Zigel to the effect that the precipitant may have been an "extraterrestrial probe" heightened his interest.

Of course, current thinking about the 1908 event brings a comet, meteorites and other theories into the mix, but for Rafferty in 1979 a slight crack in Soviet secrecy leading to commentary about their own UFOs was quite the thing. In this column, Dr. Rafferty closes with a fair question, cloaked in a bantering tone: "Wouldn't you think the Russkies would have admitted the problem long ago -- the way the rest of us did -- and have joined hands and brains with us to come up with an answer? Not the way those birds operate. Sssh! Hush! Huggermugger! Jackassery. . ."

I found the attention focused by Dr. Rafferty, in a gradual manner, upon things out of the ordinary rather interesting, and even wrote him a letter expressing my appreciation that he was at least interested in mentioning the UFO issue. I was a bit surprised to receive a postcard back from him upon which he had written a line or two of gratitude.

Four months later, in July, Rafferty produced another curious column, entitled "Absolute Heresy." This time, he took great care to list things he did not believe. For instance, he did not believe that President Roosevelt "had any more to do with ending the Great Depression than the Tooth Fairy," nor "that the world is running out of oil (Cheap oil, yes, oil as oil, no)." Taking a jab at education, apparently a favorite venture for Dr. Rafferty, he denied that "today's English teachers have mastered English grammar (Oh, some have. But most of them under the age of 40 don't know the difference between a split infinitive and a dangling participle.)."

However, among 16 topics of personal non-belief, number 14 turned to UFOs: "(I don't believe) that flying saucers come from other planets (not in our solar system, that's for sure. And any others are several lifetimes away, at any conceivable speed.)." Yet, I wondered, do "believe" or don't "believe," Dr. Rafferty, but what's the ongoing fascination with the UFO topic by a man perhaps conflicted by a too-educated-to-know-better attitude?

And it got better. Nearly a year and a half later, during the month of November, 1980, Dr. Max Rafferty dared raise questions about psychics in a column entitled, "What Education Fails to Solve." Time and again, the educator had taken the American education system to task, but now he was about to partake of a mystery soup whose contents would shock and horrify teachers everywhere who preferred a nice-and-easy-and-safe educational format.

This time, he revisited a column written several years prior, regarding New Jersey psychic Dorothy Allison. Portraying Allison as a typical housewife and a normal as anybody in person, Rafferty marveled over her accomplishments in assisting NJ law enforcement officers in locating murdered children and adults through her special mental abilities. As Rafferty wrote that column, he claimed Allison had a success rate to date of helping police solve 13 murders and locating more than 50 missing children, all for no monetary gain.

"She doesn't know any other psychics and doesn't particularly want to," Rafferty explained. "She's a perfectly normal housewife. She tells no fortunes. She gazes into no crystal balls. She goes into no trances.

"And yet," puzzles the Ph.D. whose harsh wit consistently held little love for the decline of education in the U.S., "there is the 'power'? How to explain it? As an educator, I'm used to breaking down problems of the mind into component parts. . .Almost always, a pattern begins to form. . .the problem is solved and a remedy emerges. But not in the Strange Case of Dorothy Allison."

Harkening back through peculiarities of human history , Max Rafferty confesses: "Having said all of this, I'm back to square one. The accepted tools of psychology and psychiatry are useless when faced with a Something which ignores all the laws of time and space.

"Can it be, I wonder, that those 'laws' aren't laws at all? Can it be, finally, that we have been arrogantly cocksure about a lot of things of which instead we should have been humbly uncertain? Could darned well be." If only he had lived long enough to see science admit that just maybeeeeee dogs have sorta psychic-like abilities to detect when their owners have left the office and are on the way home.

Eagerly, I anticipated those rare occasions when Rafferty would open up about such things. What a self-contradiction his writing betrayed. The Soviet UFO reports fascinated him, yet he eventually found it necessary to tell his readers he didn't believe UFOs could have an extraterrestrial origin. But now -- psychics? And more self-interrogation regarding "things" about which we may have become "arrogantly cocksure?"

Not a month had passed when Dr. Max ripped another cog off the wheel. A few days before Christmas, 1980 a column entitled, "Science Moving Toward Religion," was born, and the retired educator went on at length about multiple "phenomena." He related the "Big Bang" theory to the Book of Genesis, applauded scientists for assuming an active role in investigations of the Shroud or Turin, took a thoughtful interest in research into "clinically dead persons" who report visions of light and an afterlife, and found it important that evolution was being questioned by a number of scientists who, likewise, were taking another look at creationism.

Obviously, having evolved himself to a perspective not shared by a majority of his fellows, Rafferty suggests that a growing relationship between science and religion might mean that "most if not all of our educational subject matter and basic premises will have to be drastically revised.

"The whole thing is mind-boggling. I repeat: I never thought I'd live to see the day."

Six months later, as the first week of June, 1981 crept in, Rafferty took extreme delight in writing a newspaper piece entitled, "Psychiatrists Are Apt to be Nuttier than the Patients" -- this, from a columnist who previously questioned a substantial portion of psychiatry. Discussing his obligation as education superintendent in California to help rid the system of "nutty" teachers whose diagnoses were confirmed by psychiatrists, Rafferty then goes on to emphasize a new five-year study of U.S. physician deaths conducted by a professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California.

A focus upon psychiatrists indicated that "psychiatrists are three times more likely to go crazy than you and I are. . .they're twice as apt to commit suicide. . .one out of three shrinks suffers from depression or from other emotional disorders," states Rafferty. Dr. Ferris N. Pitts, a psychiatrist who conducted the project, states, "There's something about the field of psychiatry that attracts many mentally ill doctors."

Apparently, University of California at San Diego professor Charles Rich seconds that (e)motion, taking it a step further: "Psychiatrists who give the argument that it's the job that causes their high suicide and depression rates are making an excuse." That is to say, if we may articulate even more, they were bonkers long before entering the profession.

"I'm intrigued," confesses Rafferty, evidently taking great joy in every word he writes on that day almost 30 years ago. "I was wondering about these birds almost 20 years ago, but I didn't have any research findings to bulwark my hunch back then. . .If those who sit in judgment upon our mental balance are themselves unbalanced, where does that leave us?"

Rafferty continues on to suggest that the causes of mental illness may be far different than suspected, and that it's possible that "Psychiatrists will occupy the same slot in history as phrenologists and witch doctors." Ouch. "I wonder," he concludes, "could we possibly have been so howlingly wrong for so long? Could be."

As September ended, three months later, Max Rafferty was concerning himself with presumed anomalies in photos of Saturn taken by Voyagers I and II, but his main point was that "experts" sometimes tend to avoid that which they can't explain.

A few months later, Max Rafferty would be dead -- as we noted earlier, according to online sources, a drowning victim whose car went over a dam. A highly educated man, who somehow managed to overcome what his cherished degrees and profound experiences told him he should be, instead discovered that we don't know as much as we think. Took him a few years to leap higher and higher , but, by George, he did it, he reached out, way out. Yet, I wonder. What was he thinking about that day, that day destined to be his last?