Woo-woo fest comes to Wits

alien

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Did you know that “millions of people in SA have had their own personal experience with ETs and UFOs”? If you didn’t, Michael Tillinger has arranged a conference just for you, this November in the Linder Auditorium at the University of the Witwatersrand. It must be true, seeing as one of South Africa’s most prestigious universities is hosting the conference.

Well, that, or Wits is simply taking the money without much thought to potential consequences for their credibility and reputation. After all, it’s not like they are the first to embrace pseudoscience and woo – the University of Johannesburg offers a degree in homeopathy.

In their defence, UJ might have been in somewhat of a bind here, as this degree ran the risk of being orphaned at the time of the merger with Wits technicon. But if South Africa were to colonise Zimbabwe, would it really be appropriate to give Mad Bob the job of Foreign Affairs Minister? I’d think not, and while I’m aware that my analogy is somewhat dodgy, homeopathy has as little place in a university curriculum as Bob does in anyone’s government, including his own.

So maybe Wits know what they are doing, and this conference actually has some intellectual credibility. Merely looking at the press release makes one suspicious, though: If millions of us have had such experiences, how would Tillinger know this, seeing as he also claims “most people have in the past been too nervous to raise the subject, afraid of ridicule”?

The answer must have something to with “ancient wisdom”, something else you can learn about at the conference, alongside topics such as alchemy and the formation of money-less societies. There’s also room for “numeric science” – clearly more respectable than straightforward “numerology”, obviously, because it’s got the word “science” in its name.

Tellinger had a successful career as a musician and actor, but has for the past three decades immersed himself in the writings of Zecharia Sitchin – a crackpot so impressive that even other crackpots have dismissed his work as outlandish speculation. Sitchin himself is most notable for having translated various ancient Sumerian clay tablets, influencing Raëlism, and inspiring quite a number of the Mayan 2012 doomsday-prophecy nutters.

Others who have an interest in ancient wisdom, such as professors of anthropology and linguistics, aren’t much impressed with Sitchin’s work either. Roger Westcott (then at Drew University) was moved to remark that “Sitchin’s linguistics seems at least as amateurish as his anthropology, biology, and astronomy”.

Westcott died in 2000, so he’ll sadly not have the opportunity to hear how much our knowledge of ancient wisdom has evolved since Tellinger found those 350 000 year-old ruins in Mpumalanga, with inscriptions indicating the creation of a humanoid race by the Annunkai, who arrived from planet Nibiru about 400,000 years ago. In case you’re sceptical, David Icke’s website also mentions these ruins, so it must be true.

You can hear about other, equally fascinating things at this conference (at only R400 per day, what have you got to lose?). David Hudson will be there to talk about what the Bible calls “MANNA from heaven or the white powder of gold – sought by gods and men since the beginning of time”.

The great granddaughter of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, Laura Eisenhower, will “share her insider information about life in the universe, the secret bases on Mars and the treaties signed by our governments and ETs.” And crucially, Bob Dean will be there to speak about the extra-terrestrials that currently live among us.

Towards the end of Tellinger’s press release, he informs us that “while there are still many who smirk in disbelief at the concept of alien presence in the universe and even more so here on Earth, those in the know are rapidly moving well beyond trying to justify their knowledge to the uninitiated”.

I’m glad to hear they are moving beyond trying to justify their knowledge, but if that’s true it’s unclear what the point of the conference is. Surely all those who might be interested in attending the conference would already know about it either via their implants, or because they’ve already been initiated into the secrets of this ancient wisdom? The press releases and advertisements explaining the value of such a conference seem unnecessary, unless they actually are attempts to get us less enlightened folk to come and listen to their justifications.

But if they do follow through and stop trying to justify their knowledge, we can perhaps hope for a re-deployment of their creative talents to other areas. Tellinger is credited with releasing South Africa’s first rap album, so we know there’s (arguably, of course, depending on your views on rap) something useful lurking in there. District 9 has been done – perhaps the gathered woo-meisters could get to work on the South African version of Harry Potter?

In the meanwhile, Wits have some explaining to do. In the twenty or so years that I’ve been in the Higher Education system, a fair amount of woo-woo has intruded on what should be the business of evidence-based research and teaching. While we had tarot reading at UCT wellness festivals in the early 90’s, the only recent presence of pseudoscience I’m aware of there is the homeopathic “overdose” some colleagues and I participated in last year, and hopefully that’s about as seriously as homeopathy is ever likely to be taken on that campus.

For a university to offer a (5 year) degree in homeopathy is quite another thing, and certainly a worse thing than hosting a conference on aliens – somehow, though, it doesn’t seem quite as absurd.