GeekOut

Believers vs. skeptics: A great geek divide?

I was surprised, leading up to this weekend's top grossing movie, "Men in Black 3," that paranormal phenomena such as UFOs, the Roswell Incident and, yes, the mysterious Men in Black themselves  were conspicuously missing from the zeitgeist.

When the popular sci-fi franchise launched 15 years ago, it was all anyone could talk about. The first "MIB," along with "Independence Day," "The X Files" and "Roswell," brought aliens and government cover-ups their biggest pop culture moment in a generation.

While my geeky friends were rabid science fiction fans, excited about the proliferation of these movies and television shows, they scoffed at the idea that any of the aliens or UFOs we saw on screen had any basis in reality.

When we got hold of a video of purported UFO sightings around the time the first "Men in Black" movie came out, my friends proceeded to take apart the grainy footage methodically, claiming "hoax!" or easily identifying the flying object.

So, I wondered, how is it that some nerds can be so interested in science fiction involving alien life forms but can't believe that anything remotely paranormal is actually happening?

The divide between some science fiction fans and paranormal believers is very real and hard to bridge, according to Timothy Green Beckley, author of "Mystery of the Men in Black: The UFO Silencers."

"Science fiction and UFO people as a rule do not mix," he said. "With very few exceptions, UFO buffs and sci-fi fans seem to have little in common. To a lot of UFO buffs, 'they' have already landed. To sci-fi fans, it's all in the imagination until they are informed otherwise by their Spocks and Mulders. UFO buffs would never go to a sci-fi convention and a good majority of sci-fi fans would walk across the street if there was a flying saucer convention going on," he said. "Me? I like it all."

Alien conspiracy theorists such as "MIBeliever" BugEyes (who is portrayed as a nerd in a series of viral videos to promote "Men in Black") certainly exist, but are they considered pariahs even in parts of the nerd community? Where do they fit in as fellow geeks?

Skeptics pride themselves on being people of science, so the connection to the nerd community, which is largely respectful of scientific disciplines, is clear. But where does that leave "believers"?

My Geek Out! colleague Aaron Sagers spends a lot of his time researching paranormal fandom. He's almost more interested in the aspects of the community of the paranormal believers than the alleged events themselves. He was the first person I approached about this strange disconnect within the nerd community.

"Although there is sometimes a crossover in beliefs between science fiction fans and diehard alien encounter/UFO/'MIB' nerds, the two don't really move in the same group," Sagers said.

"The former may acknowledge the existence of life on other planets, but is largely concerned with 'what if?' fictional scenarios. The latter group, meanwhile, is stating that alien activity is happening right now on this planet. But the UFO/'MIB' group is a nerd subsection, nonetheless. They trade in facts and minutia, and speak a highly precise language when together."

Sagers believes that these nerds don't quite fall into the category of nerd that has been celebrated in pop culture in recent years.

"If they were to openly discuss theories on UFOs and 'MIB,' they'd be considered outside the norm and ostracized, so the tactic is to find like-minded individuals and geek out with them."

Ben Hansen, a former FBI agent who hosts "Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files," cops to "devouring" books about UFOs when he was growing up: "At the time, however, I was self-conscious in allowing my friends to know my interest in the subject. No one told me UFOs and aliens were nerdy, I just intuitively knew my friends might mock my knowledge of the topic and so I hid my books when they would come to visit."

But now that Hansen has overcome his reticence surrounding the subject and hosts a television show about paranormal events, he's become a beacon. Other believers come to him with stories about the unexplained, he said.

Dave Schrader, the host of paranormal-focused "Darkness Radio," says the nature of science fiction could lead fans to be more accepting of belief in the paranormal. In fact, the two don't have to be at odds.

"I think one of the main lessons of most good sci-fi is that it preaches tolerance and almost always has people seeking wisdom of some kind. I think as fans of sci-fi and UFOlogy, we can respect each others willingness to explore possibilities," Schrader said.