Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.
[Outlaw Star Narration to be inserted later]
In my time on the internet, I’ve become aware of two very different attitudes towards mystery. One of them commonly serves a role in fiction. I’ve heard it called “The Boba Fett Effect,” though the use of that term has likely undergone some change since the release of the prequel trilogy. Many people found Boba Fett to be a fascinating character in the original trilogy because very little was revealed about him in the movies. He never took off his mask while on camera. He rarely spoke. People tried to formulate hypotheses based on the limited information available on him: When Darth Vader instructed the bounty hunters to capture the heroes alive, he firmly added, “no disintegrations” while gesturing and looking directly at Boba Fett. This led some fans to speculate that Fett had a reputation for disintegrating his targets. The unknown intrigues the viewer more than the known. The unknown leaves room for many possibilities.
Since the prequels, the phrase has probably come closer to “The Christmas Present Effect,” where the discovery of what’s in your presents is a letdown from the high and often vague hopes of what they might be. Similarly, the fans I know were disappointed when Boba Fett’s origins were revealed in Episode 2. I suspect many believers in the paranormal expect a letdown if a mystery is genuinely investigated. The paranormal documentaries I’ve watched often preferred to raise questions and toss out speculation while avoiding any sort of verification or firm conclusions. If there’s any sort of tests, they will be deemed inconclusive. Pretending that a mystery is unsolved or even unsolvable makes marketing sense, since it leaves it available to be eternally reexamined or potentially linked to other mysteries.
I’ve gotten the impression from many internet arguments that some believers treat mysteries like a collection of baubles to show off to each other. Being aware of more mysteries is treated like a status measure. The more obscure the mystery, the more credibility that person has among the paranormal community. Visits to the sites of these mysteries are treated like pilgrimages instead of investigations. Many of these mysteries are treated as inherently unsolvable, beyond the ken of mere mortals, especially in the case of religious beliefs. There’s even a possessive attitude toward mysteries, as if only certain leader figures can be allowed to solve them, instead of being open to the public.
That attitude towards mystery often collides with the attitude of genuinely curious people. To scientists and skeptics, mysteries need to be solved and the solutions often give us new benefits in life. We crave knowledge and intellectual challenge. An unsolved mystery is like a jumbled mess of unconnected pieces. Hypotheses are the methods we use to solve a particular puzzle. If a piece doesn’t fit where the hypothesis says it should, we change or abandon that hypothesis and move on to the next attempt at a solution. We get joy out of figuring out a mystery. We’re pleasantly surprised by the unexpected because it means a fun new mystery to solve. Opposite that, we get bored and irritable if we’re asked to solve the same puzzle over and over again. We get angry if someone objects to us innocently working on a favorite puzzle.
Quite often, that’s how it feels when I face off against a paranormal believer. In ignorance, many believers point out supposed anomalies that have already have known explanations. In fairness, ignorance isn’t a failing in itself, but I often encounter a willful ignorance when some believers refuse to listen to opposing arguments or evidence. Sometimes believers assert a mystery can’t be solved and berate skeptics and scientists for simply trying. I’ve received tongue-lashings when I “explain away” a supposed mystery with a simple, well-tested answer a believer doesn’t like, as if there were no down-to-earth solutions to the unknown. It’s also irritating to be told something I find routine and expected is actually exotic, and then be told in the same breath that I deny the existence of the well-understood phenomenon because I’m threatened by change. My motivation is often much simpler: I’d prefer people to seek out new mysteries instead of fixate on old, boring, solved ones. It’s stagnation that I find threatening.
Another part of this is that I don’t understand what’s so disappointing about the answers we do have. In many cases, I find scientific discovery to work counter to The Christmas Present Effect: Quite often, the answer is even cooler, more elegant, or stranger than I expect, because the universe isn’t restricted to the confines of idle, comforting speculation and often requires straining the limits of our collective imagination to figure out. I find paranormal explanations to be rather boring as they’re commonly presented. They’re what I like to call “brick wall” answers because they’re often used to shut down inquiry, rather than extend it. In science, new answers tend to raise new questions, and with them, new mysteries. I don’t think we’re going to be running out of them anytime soon, so don’t get attached to the old ones.