This blog is dedicated to the conceptual and empirical development of parasociology, a sub-discipline of sociology studying how societies and paranormal or “psi” phenomena interact.
It looks into phenomena like UFOs, Marian Apparitions, Poltergeists, and Parapsychology.
After receiving a few messages about this series of posts about the various schools of thought found in the UFO study world, I decided to add a short clarification post about all this. This clarification, however, is based on using more technical language about how we think, and how we do research in general.
The fundamental topic behind this three-part post series is ontology, which can be defined as looking more rigorously into how various
collection of assumptions about the nature of reality we use are affecting how we look at reality. For many people this may sound as a silly question, but it is indeed an important question when dealing with topics like UFOs, and the paranormal in general. UFO events cannot be studied at will in a laboratory; such events are spontaneous and unexpected. As well, they do not often leave any physical traces, and when they do such traces are ambiguous at best and can be interpreted in many ways. Hence, we have a phenomenon that exists essentially as reports from witnesses, and as evidence open to interpretation. In such circumstances, where there is no real clarity about what we are dealing with, it is even more important to clarify our own assumptions about how we approach an ambiguous topic like UFOs.
All the UFO schools of
thought that were briefly presented
are in one way or another dualistin their ontologicalassumptions. This means that, implicitly, either we are dealing with something which would be
objective or subjective, but it cannot be both. It is either a "real thing" out there, or it is "all in the head". Hence, the notion of dualism. Anyone familiar with
the Kantian epistemology, and phenomenologyin general, can only be skeptical
about dualism. We can safely state that the world exists independently from us (the objective side), but yet we
can only relate to the world through our subjective mental make-up.
For instance, when someone sees something " weird" in the sky and declare having seen a UFO, it is only a UFO because it considered " weird." Conversely, if what is seen in the sky is considered as something natural, even if odd and exotic, then it is not construed as "weird," and therefore it is not a UFO. In both cases, however, given that what was seen in the sky is transient and not amenable to further direct study, then we are left only with we have made of this observation: for some it is a UFO, for others it is a an odd and exotic natural event. If fact, in this case, the only thing we know for sure is that we do not know what happened, and that people have put forward different interpretations of what happen. Worse, because it is transient, we will actually never know for sure. Something objective happened in the sky, and yet we only noticed subjectively the phenomenon because it was perceived as "weird". If everybody agreed that it was a plane, then it would have been construed as a non-event. To draw a sharp distinction between the objective and the subjective is quite silly in such circumstance because it depends of what we are making of it.
When I say I propose "new relationships" between the main macroscopic variables found in the UFO world (witnesses, society, and the phenomenon), I mean
here new ontological relationships; how our
assumptions about reality are in relationship with reality. My first key point is that the
study of UFO, if it is to be successful in moving forward, cannot be entrenched
in naïve dualist ontological assumptions. One has to accept that all the
variables are interdependent, the subjective
and the objective are mutually influencing each other.
In the example given above, we can make all kinds of inference about what happen, like checking with the airport and finding that there was no plane or helicopter in the sky at the time; or looking for weather patterns that were similar to other occasions when a weird natural phenomena was observed. In all these situations, whatever conclusions we are coming with, these are only reinforced through inferences, but they are no proof. Yet, other explanations that are not dualist are possible. A mundane object like a plane was in the sky, but somehow created a telepathically shared vision of something else. Or, a PK-like apparition occurred, but because of the materialist mental predispositions of the observer, it was constructed as a natural phenomenon. As one can see, a dualist world is very limiting when one tries to research a challenging phenomenon like UFOs.
This bring me to my second key point, which is that if we
add psi and social psi to the ontological perspective, then we need to be ready
for new assumptions that further undermine naïve dualism. Psi implies that the
mind (the subjective) can alter the physical realm (the objective) through PK,
and other people's mind (the enlarged subjective world) through ESP, without
using physical or direct means. If one accepts this assumption about psi, then insisting
on separating the objective and the subjective is not only silly, it is a
serious impediment for understanding of the phenomenon.
UFO events, especially the ones that are construed as " high strangeness", involve usually witnesses in altered state of consciousness. The witnesses' perception of reality is oftentimes mix-up with powerful images and impressions coming from their unconscious mind, and yet it is also in such circumstances that psi events are more likely to occur, whether they are of a PK or ESP nature. What is objective and what is subjective in such circumstances are all mixed-up. The common recurrence of paranormal phenomena found in UFO reports makes psi-related ontological assumptions that more important. Having an open-minded attitude towards an ontology that is not only about avoiding a strong distinction between the objective and subjective, but it is also about accepting a " two-way street" where the subjective can also alter the objective.
In my book Illuminations, I proposed what I called the Parapsychological Hypothesis. It may constitute a 7th approach, but I think it is more than that. It was not intended to be a declaration of the “Truth” about UFOs, as in the present state of knowledge no one can make such a claim. Rather, it is an attempt to put together a more holistic construct that could integrate the so-called paranormal aspects of the UFO experience, reported by many witnesses over the years.
Another feature of the Parapsychological Hypothesis is that it actually builds on all the previous schools of thought. Like all the other approaches, the Nil hypothesis is integrated in that I am not questioning the issue that many mundane objects and phenomena have been declared unidentified, while in fact they were identifiable. Similarly, I am also supportive of the ETH and sophisticated ETH approaches in that I acknowledge the existence of numerous cases where the phenomenon has a degree of objective reality that cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. As well, I agree that in a number of occasions, UFO observations can lead someone to think that objects appear controlled by some form of intelligence. The real question is whose intelligence? Poltergeist events also appear to be controlled by some form of intelligence, and yet there are every reasons to think that such intelligence is the unconscious one of those involved in the events.
My approach also integrates many elements of the psycho-social hypothesis (PSH). The UFO phenomenon is socially constructed, as the language and the images we use to describe odd events have an impact on our understanding of the phenomenon. Similarly, the psychological conditions of the witnesses will shape their perception (like any of our perceptions about everything else, for that matter). The sophisticated version of the PSH provides interesting additional tools to study UFO events from a psychological perspective, even if the PSH cannot explain any aspects that have a degree of objective reality. Yet, I must also underline that I reject unequivocally and forcefully every aspect of the PSH that builds on condescending assumptions towards the witnesses that they are just ignorant, syndrome suffering or fantasy prone individuals (especially in the simplistic and improved versions of the PSH). This is certainly a major and completely unacceptable flaw of that hypothesis. In the 21st century, no social scientist worth of that name would accept such implicit assumptions based on crude 1950-style scientism.
Yet, there is still more to the Parapsychological Hypothesis, as it is in many ways “plugging the holes” that exist in the study of UFOs; it opens the way to a truly comprehensive approach for studying UFOs. As noted, in the first post of this series, the UFO phenomenon is based on three fundamental elements:
1.Witnesses, or experiencers, who report very odd and strange events;
2.Phenomena that have a degree of external, or objective, reality, as there are physical traces left, multiple witnesses reporting very similar observations at the same time, and a core experience that is relatively invariant across time;
3.Society, and its cultural dynamics and particular relationships of power, that influence how we understand the world, as well as what is being reported and what is being ignored.
A sound study of the UFO phenomenon cannot be done properly unless all those three elements, or variables, are integrated into the analysis. The problem of all six schools of thought presented earlier is that really only integrate 2 of those elements, never all three at same time.
If we represent graphically the entire literature (that tries to explain the UFO phenomenon, which is by the way a small percentage of the UFO literature), it would look like this.
Let me explain.
The arrow showing relationship 1, between the witnesses and the phenomenon, represents the focus of the Nil Hypothesis, namely how the witnesses are projecting their own assumptions into reality.
Relationship 2, is what the simplistic ETH is emphasizing by looking into how the phenomenon is impacting the witnesses who report odd things.
The sophisticated ETH focus also on relationship 2, but implies that there is a relationship 3, where the phenomenon also influences society in subtle ways (notion particularly prevalent in Jacques Vallée’s texts).
The simplistic psycho-social hypothesis (PSH), on the other hand, focusses on the relationship 5, where the narrative about aliens and spaceships is the driving force behind any UFO observation. As well, the supporters of the simplistic PSH take for granted that relationship 1 is directly determined by relationship 5. In other words, witnesses are not important for them.
The improved PSH adds also a focus on relationship 6, where prominent individuals can also influence society’s narrative about aliens and spaceships. Yet, the improved PSH also assumes a relatively direct relationship between 5 and 1, so for them too the witnesses’ experience is not that important.
Finally, the sophisticated PSH still focusses on 5 and 6, but adds a revised version of relationship 1 that is not fully dictated by social narratives about UFOs. In other words, in the sophisticated PSH, what is going on in the life of the witnesses counts, but they still ignore the possibility of a somewhat objective phenomenon.
The Parapsychological Hypothesis introduces, fundamentally, two innovations. The first innovation is done through the notion of social psi being possibly involved in UFO waves, which adds the relationship 4 to the mix, where collective social psi could actually provide shapes, content and behaviour to the phenomenon. In concrete words, if people were actually seeing airship in the late 19th century, ghost planes and ghost rockets in the early and mid 20th century, and a variety of “spaceships” in the 2nd half of the 20th century, then unless one is considering all the witnesses as inept people, then society is influencing the phenomenon directly. By doing so, the Parapsychological Hypothesis actually completes all the six possible ways of looking at the UFO phenomenon. It patches this hole.
The second innovation, by adding the parapsychological concept of psi in the study of UFOs, is that it actually fully embraces the possibility of the inter-dependency between all three variables. In the case of the relationship between the witnesses and the phenomenon (relationships 1 and 2), if a psi effect occurs, then the witnesses can possibly affect the objective reality of the phenomenon (through ESP and Psychokinesis) while being affected by the same phenomenon (altered state of consciousness, traumatic experience, etc.). There is no need to decide if it is a subjective issue (relationship 1) or an objective phenomenon (relationship 2), as it can actually be both at the same time (new relationship “C” on the chart).
Similarly, the Parapsychological Hypothesis is fully embracing the interdependency between social narratives about UFOs and aliens (relationship 5) and the witnesses’ capacity to influence the same social narrative about UFOs and aliens (relationship 6). Yet, by doing so, the Parapsychological Hypothesis does not ignore the existence of the phenomenon like the supporters of the PSH do (in all its three versions). The witnesses and larger society exchange on ideas, images, narratives, and understanding about what is behind the UFO phenomenon (new relationship “B” on the chart), but such information is not translated directly into the content of the phenomenon. Such transfer of information about shape, content and behaviour of the phenomenon can only be understood by a careful analysis of how witnesses interact with the phenomenon (the personal dimension), and how society interacts directly with the phenomenon (what I called the impersonal aspects of the UFO phenomenon in my book Illuminations).
Lastly, as noted above, there is a possible direct interaction between society and the phenomenon (new relationship “A” on the chart) where collective social psi effects can affect the phenomenon and in turn it can shape new ways in society (like the creation of UFO-related cults).
By adding the possibility of the Parapsychological Hypothesis in the study of UFOs, it certainly makes things much more complicated. It forces the researcher to incorporate all three central variables (witnesses, phenomenon, and society) in the analysis, instead of only two as the other schools of thought on UFO do. As well, by accepting that all six possible interactions between those variables can be relevant, instead of just picking a handful of them that fits one’s worldview, we have an approach that requires multiple levels of analysis. This is harder, but this is also more rigorous and it creates better conditions to elucidate what we are dealing with.
The final question is, then, who in the UFO zoo is seriously willing to take a truly comprehensive approach to study UFOs?
The fourth school of thought is the simplisticPsycho-social Hypothesis.This
approach has a different focus than the older approaches seen so far. It essentially
emerged as a popular idea in the early 1980s. For the supporters of this
approach the UFO phenomenon is essentially a mass phenomenon, made of socially
shared narratives about UFOs, and alien visitations. These narratives are built
on science-fiction literature and cinema, on the thousands of ETH books on UFOs
that are essentially acting as rumour mills about aliens. Those narratives are
influenced by the commercialization of popular culture, as well as by the decline
of traditional religions compensated by belief systems linked to UFOs and
aliens. A crucial difference, here, is that these authors are not interested in
looking into actual individual observations, except to use the ones that
fits their own explanation as illustrations of their theories. For them, the
social narratives about UFOs and aliens is what makes people see UFOs in the
sky and aliens on the ground in the first place. The magazine Magonia has been a well-known source of
publications for this approach. To put it in scientific terms, society (or
social and cultural dynamics) is the independent variable, having an influence
on the observers (dependent variable) by filling their mind with images of
aliens from outer space. As a second order of effect, mundane objects becomes interpreted
as aliens from outer space, and by doing so integrates also the Nil Hypothesis
into its framework.
For instance, in the April 1984 issue of the magazine Magonia, Peter Rogerson wrote that “It
must be further emphasised that the UFO experience is not ‘all in the mind’ in
the sense of being the product of the imagination of isolated individuals. It
is a social and cultural phenomenon much more than a psychological one. The
whole problem of the content of the kind of experiences I have been discussing
is wholly unresolved. Why, for example, should hypnogogic imagery involve
‘faces in the dark’? What are the reasons behind the transcultural stereotyping
in UFO experiences? In recent years the interests of the Editors of this
magazine have been increasingly concentrated, not on individual anomalous
experiences, but on the social context within which such experiences take
place, and which generates them. The experiences both condition, and are
conditioned by, the beliefs of society by a process of mutual feedback. Within
a social context many apparently ‘absurd’ beliefs and experiences have depth
and meaning” (Magonia, http://magonia.haaan.com/2009/mind/).
As noted by Rogerson, the linkages between the individual experiences and the
greater social context is not easy to make, and the simplistic version of the
psychosocial hypothesis has been criticized on this ground, leading to more
sophisticated approaches within the realm of the psychosocial perspective.
The fifth school of thought is in many ways an improved
version over the somewhat condescending attitude towards observers that is implied
in the simplistic psychosocial hypothesis. Because of that, I would call it the
Psycho-social Hypothesis. This approach, contrary to all the previous
ones, originates mostly from academia and emerged in the 1990s. One well-known
authors from this school of thought is the British folklorist David Clark. It
is definitely more sophisticated than the simplistic version of the
psychosocial hypothesis in that it brings back the experiencer in the analysis,
even if its main tenets are similar to the simplistic version of the
psychosocial hypothesis. The experiencers are now considered as being candid in
reporting their experiences and thus are active agents in creating unwittingly the
UFO myth. Similarly, experiencers’ reactions in face of zealous defence
officials or scientists trying quell the UFO rumours at all costs are perfectly
understandable in taking their own experience even more seriously, and thus in
turn reinforcing even more the UFO myth. Clark’s website provides ample
evidence of this much more generous attitude towards experiencers (https://drdavidclarke.co.uk/). In
scientific terms, both the observers and society are inter-dependent variables, as they
influence each other, but in the end, like in the simplistic Psycho-social
Hypothesis, there is a second order of effect, where mundane objects become interpreted
as aliens from outer space by observers, and by doing so integrates also the
Nil Hypothesis into its framework.
In Clark’s book How
UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth he wrote that he
does not “seek to disparage the UFO syndrome as a false belief held by deluded
people.On the contrary, the PSH
[Psycho-Social Hypothesis] sees all aspects of ufology … as interesting and
worthy of serious study.It seeks to
understand the whole syndrome both as modern folklore and as a myth in the
making.” Later he adds “accounts of UFO experience form the core of the
syndrome, but the stories do not constitute ‘evidence’. They are folklore. […]
Culture—not experience—creates the UFO interpretation but some experiences are
independent of culture”. In other words, the actual experience of people is
still fundamentally irrelevant, and there are no phenomena to talk about except
the myth-making process about UFOs. Clark is often accused of ignoring both the
observers’ own experience and that there is a physical substrata linked to the
UFO phenomenon and that his approach cannot account for many difficult cases.
The sixth school of thought can be seen as further
refinement of the psychosocial hypothesis by bringing back the subject own
reality into the phenomenon, and by doing so trying to close the difficult gap
between the “psycho” (individual) part and the social (or collective) part of
the hypothesis. In this sense, it can be called the sophisticated Psycho-social
Hypothesis. It emerged somewhere in the early 2000s. The main tenets of
this approach is that UFOs exist both as social reality that influences the
inner worlds of observers and social representations of the outer world, but
the individual’s inner world is also an important variable that it is not
necessarily a “sample” of larger social narratives about UFOs. Hence, according to
this approach individual UFO events deserved to be studied in full, including
developing a good understanding of the witnesses as people. To put in
scientific terms, society is an independent variable, and to a lesser extent the
inner world of the observers is also an independent variable, both of which have only a
degree of interdependency.
The research conducted by religion scholar David Halperin is
a good example of this perspective. In this case, although social dynamics and
narratives do play an important role in shaping UFO experiences, the individual
observers’ own reality is not dismissed nor ignored. Like in the case of the improved
psycho-social hypothesis, influential individuals can indeed shape societal
perspectives on UFOs, and therefore what sociologists call human agency is
recognized. One can think of George Adamski as an example of someone who
created a new genre (the contactees) soon to be copied by many others. This
approach is also much less deterministic (and much less condescending) than the
simplistic Psycho-social hypothesis, given that it fully recognizes the need to
investigate also the inner world of the observers to make a sound analysis of a
UFO event. Each UFO event is seen as unique because they are experienced by
unique individuals having a unique life history.
For instance, Halperin on his excellent blog Journal of a UFO Investigator, takes
great care to look into the information available about the personal life of
UFO witnesses: what kind of symbolism would be specifically meaningful to them,
what kind of difficulties and tensions they were facing at the time, etc.
Furthermore, this approach does not judge the projection of one’s inner world
into the outer world as some sort pathology or as the behavior some naïve or
ignorant people. We all do this in one form or another, it is not just about
UFOs. In a way, this approach resembles quite a bit the writings of Jung on UFOs.
Like with the simplistic Psycho-Social Hypothesis and the improved
approach, there is no recognition that an anomalistic phenomenon occurred in
any case. This is a significant problem when physical traces can actually be
pointed out or very odd anomalies occur, as those approaches do not have any explanation
to offer for them.
In the next post, I will discuss the place and role of what
I have called the Parapsychological Hypothesis.
When people use the expression “UFO”, whether it be in a
book, a documentary, a newspaper article, on a website, or on YouTube, there is an implicit
assumption that the meaning is actually understood, and that everyone agrees on
such meaning. The fact is that it is not the case. “UFO” has many implicit
meanings. How people define UFOs, in turn, tells us a lot about the various ways of
thinking about the topic, and more particularly helps identifying clusters of authors
thinking along the same lines. In other words, this helps figuring out the
various “school of thought” on UFOs. Although some of those schools of thought are well-known, some important variations are often under estimated.
The first obvious misunderstanding comes out of thinking
that “UFO” necessarily means a spaceship from another world. Many people using
the term “UFO” are actually conveying a meaning that stays close to the
actual origins of the acronym to mean “Unidentified Flying Object’, namely
something that is not identified and therefore they do not jump to the
conclusion that it is a spaceship of some sort. The second common misunderstanding
comes from that many people use the work “UFO” out of convention, or for
simplicity’s sake, because UFO is the best known term on the topic, but they
actually mean “UAP” (for Unexplained Aerial Phenomena), as they do not even
think that it is necessarily an “object”, and let alone a “spaceship”. I am
certainly guilty of that.
The misunderstanding becomes even greater when one is
reading the specialized literature on the topic. Depending on the writer’s
starting assumptions, the actual detailed meaning of what are UFOs will vary
greatly from one author to the next. In spite of individual variations among
writers on the topic of UFOs, it is possible however to group them in loosely
arranged “schools of thought”, by using their core assumptions about what they
mean when the use the word UFO, and what degree of reality they do assign to the phenomenon (ontological assumptions). To complicate matters a bit more, some of those
“schools of thought” have evolved over time, and older assumptions are now
rarely used without much caveats and nuances. Hence, distinctions across time
are crucial to understand who is who in the UFO zoo.
By using the core assumptions of the main writers on the
topic of UFOs, it is possible to identify 6 different schools of thought that
have emerged over time. This post intends to present a brief overview of each.
But more fundamentally, this overview of the various schools of thought on UFO
leads to a key observation: UFOs are made of weird phenomena, people observing
them, and a social context for people to make sense of the weirdness. Those
three dimensions of the UFO phenomena are all necessary for UFO to exist, and
when must take of all into consideration to try understanding the phenomenon.
Six Schools of
The first one is often called the Nil Hypothesis. This approach
to UFO emerged in parallel to the ETH (Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis – see below)
in the late 1940s. Its main focus is a negative one and it is deeply
intertwined with the ETH, in the sense that it tries to proof that none of the
UFOs are spaceships, but rather mundane objects. This approach is rather
simplistic because it is built on a binary assumption of real or not real
object, implying that the “alieness” of a UFO is only in the head of the
observer. The inner world (beliefs, ignorance, wishful thinking, etc.) of the
observer is what “creates” the UFO phenomenon and it is projected on a mundane
object or natural event. To put it in scientific terms, the inner world of the
observer is the independent variable; the parts that calls the shot. The
phenomenon is the dependent variable, the one that is transformed by the
The illustrative authors of this school of thought regarding
UFOs are Donald H. Menzel and Lyle G. Boyd in their book The World of Flying Saucers (1963). They wrote in the preface that
“he [Menzel] soon concluded (with a slight feeling of disappointment!) that the
flying saucers were not vehicles from other worlds but were only mundane
objects and events of various kinds, some of them commonplace, some familiar
chiefly to meteorologists, physicists, and astronomers” (p. xiii). According to
this perspective, an abnormal aerial phenomenon is only abnormal due to the
ignorance of common people who reports those objects. In other words, they are projecting
their ill-informed beliefs into an event they misinterpret. This approach takes
into consideration “fads” and “panics” about UFOs, which relates to the social
realm, but the central argument is one of a physical object or natural
phenomenon being misconstrued. This approach is now less accepted among
sceptics given its simplistic nature, and at times the quite condescending tone used towards observers, as they are complex psychological and sociological
factors that require being included in the analysis, as well as very exotic
natural phenomena poorly understood by the scientists themselves.
The second school of thought is certainly the best known one
and it is usually referred to as the ETH(Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis). As noted above, this approach
emerged also in the late 1940s, when weird aerial phenomena started to attract
greater attention by the general public and were increasingly accredited to
alien visitors from outer space. This approach integrates the criticism from
the Nil Hypothesis in that it accepts that many reported UFOs are indeed
misconstrued conventional objects or exotic natural phenomena. Its authors
often refer to the Blue Book Project statistics that about 5% of all UFO
observations are true ‘unknown”, namely well documented and yet unexplainable.
For them, UFO means this residual group of unexplainable reports. Many will use
implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the logical fallacy that “what else could it be but alien
from another world”, invoking the apparent “intelligent” behavior of
the phenomenon. And then, from the “what else could it be” they usually take
the last step to declare that those UFOs are indeed aliens from another world. This
approach grants full autonomy to the phenomenon by ascribing it to powerful
extra-terrestrial visitors, makes the observer essentially a passive bystander,
and relegate the problem of identifying those observations to governmental
authorities. In scientific terms, the phenomenon is seen as the independent
variable, while the observers are the dependent variable (they will see only
what aliens want us to see).
The list of authors illustrative of this approach is long,
and each of them have their own little variation and interpretation of the
phenomenon. However, just to take one example, Coral Lorenzen wrote in Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of
the invasion from outer space (1962) that “there are no definite
indications of hostility on the part of our visitors; but equally important
there is no indication of friendliness either. […] To fail to educate the
public concerning the facts at hand, however, is to court danger of a
particularly insidious nature. The existence of a species of superior beings in
the universe could cause the civilization of earth to topple” (p. 278). In same
breath she calls for governmental authorities to be both more transparent and
proactive against the implied threat. In spite of having absolutely not physical proof that UFOs are spaceships from another world, this approach still has many followers
today, particularly in the movement of the so-called “exopolitics”.
The third school of thought has been oftentimes labeled as
Hypothesis, but at closer look it would be more accurate to call it the
ETH. This approach builds on the last two approaches. It incorporates
the criticism of the Nil Hypothesis that many observations have indeed nothing
anomalistic about them. Yet, this approach also criticizes the ETH on a number
of grounds, but mostly about the completely illogical behaviour of the alleged
aliens visitations and the complete lack of physical evidence of any ET visitations. However,
it does not ignore the strangeness and physical reality of many UFO-related
events. Instead, it implies that some intelligent forces that we may not ever
be able to understand are behind the unexplainable events, and they affect
individual observers and societies as whole. To put in scientific terms, the
phenomenon is the independent variable, while both the observers and society
are the dependent variables.
The main authors who have sponsored this approach are
Jacques Vallée and John Keel, emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their
approach is very much an extension of the ETH however, but it removes some of
the most problematic elements of the ETH, namely the persistent absence of
physical proof of extra-terrestrial visitations. The phenomenon is still
considered as somewhat independent of the observer, even if the experience can
be very personal and unique to each observer. UFO events are oftentimes construed as being physical
in some ways, but resisting conventional explanations. At times, Keel described them as something similar to hauntings or demonic manifestations. Hence, it is attributed to
undefined forces that influence in complex ways both individuals and societies,
for better or for worse. This approach still advocates for greater transparency and
involvement of the authorities, but in the name of science rather than in the
name of handling visitors with dubious intentions. The conclusion of Vallée and
Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky (2009)
covers most those ideas in a succinct manner. It is deemed the “paranormal”
hypothesis because it implies some form of non-human intelligence being behind
the phenomenon, but such intelligence is not necessarily extra-terrestrial or
embodied in the usual ways of using those terms. This approach has been criticized
by the both the supporters of the ETH for its lack of capacity to explain how such ethereal visitors could exist in the first place, and by the supporters of the more sophisticated version of
the nil hypothesis whereas disembodied entities and object are simply projections of our own unconscious unto our perception of reality (to be discussed in the next post).
My last post was raising the question as whether the
content of UFO-related conspiracies is actually possible. This question was not
asked based on whether extra-terrestrial life is possible, nor if it is
possible to produce technological devices to travel the vastness of
interstellar space. The actual veracity of UFO conspiracy has never been proven
(i.e. what is allegedly hidden), so this is not an issue that can be addressed
in any meaningful way. Similarly, the question was not about how human can
invent such narrative about conspiracies and get such narrative spreading
throughout popular culture. Social scientists have already studied this issue
in great detail. No, my question is in many ways much more sociological in
nature, and it is about whether humans can actually enact such conspiracies?
There are many variations of the UFO-related conspiracies,
and it would completely unrealistic trying to assess them all. So, I intend to
focus on the main characteristics rather than specific elements that might be
unique to one version or another. The narratives linked to UFO conspiracies are
not a new, and pre-dated very much the Roswell story that emerged in the late
1970s. Very early in the 1950s, the issue as to whether the American government
was not truthful about its knowledge of UFOs was raised by a number of authors. Just
as an example, in 1953 Donald Keyhoe wrote that “the secret intelligence
analysis should be made public, with all the evidence which led to the final
conclusion. […] their massed evidence that the saucers are interplanetary […]”
. The same story is repeated a dozen years later by Coral Lorenzen, as she
states that the layman “[…] is faced with the fact that official opinions often
contradict the available evidence. He concludes that a ‘conspiracy of official
silence exists’ concerning ‘true facts’ ".
These two examples illustrate the basic, or original,
conspiracy about UFOs. Summarily, it can be described as “the government”
(whatever that means) knowing the true nature of UFOs, which is that they are
spaceships from another world and are driven by aliens visiting the Earth. The
intents of the aliens are not clear, but “the government” knows what it is, and
it may be an accomplice in having done some sort of deal with the aliens. For
reasons unclear, “the government” refuses to disclose such knowledge publicly.
There is a more sophisticated version of the conspiracy story surrounding UFOs. It
is less dramatic but also much less popular, and it is based on the notion that
there are real anomalies linked to the UFO phenomenon, and people in “the
government” know about it, but they do not really know what to make of it. They may have some small secret programmes to keep track of them, but these are not terribly successful. Yet, there
is a fear that governmental ignorance might be seen as problematic by the population, and therefore “the
government” prefers hiding the little it actually knows, and suppresses those
who want to discuss it. This is actually a reasonable statement, and there is enough evidence to show that it was more or less true some time ago. Yet, “the government” also hides secret research programmes
behind stage fake UFO events to confuse people, distract attention, and
potentially trying to influence populations for purposes that are quite unclear.
This is also a reasonable statement, as there is evidence to support it, but it dies not seem to be as extensive as one might imagine. Finally, the phenomenon being itself quite elusive, seems to be engaged in its
own cover-up, independent from the one of “the government”. This last secret can be explained by the elusiveness of psi, and does not require a non-human intelligence to be. Jacques Vallée is a
well-known representative of this view on UFO-related conspiracies. In his book
Dimensions: A casebook of alien contact
(1988), he has an entire chapter on this issue entitled the “Triple Cover-up".
Some people might say that people or artefacts actually came
forward with the “real deal”. Yet, those stories appear to be make-belief events, as many analysts noted about Philip
Corso, Bob Lazar, several of the Roswell “witnesses” and the quasi-totality of
the Majestic papers, which after much verifications leave us rather empty handed.
So, what should we make of all of this?
As noted in the previous post, the first characteristic to
keep in mind is that secrecy is a normal social dynamics found in every walk of
life. To find secrets surrounding UFOs is actually normal. A complete lack of
secrecy would be actually suspicious. The fact that many governments of the
world have surrendered most of their UFO files over the years (as noted in my book Illuminations), but have kept a few away from the public eye is
actually a good sign. We are dealing with a “normal” secrecy situation. The
next question should be: are there secrets worth trying to keep to maintain
social relationships? Obviously, the military and the defense establishment have
relationships with their parent state, which they are charged to defend.
Secrets involving the protection of the state are therefore to be expected. As UFO-related
documents are being declassified over time, every single UFO files that
remained classified for a longer time had a component that, if revealed at the
time of the first disclosure, would have endangered the relationship (e.g. individuals named in
documents, sensitive detection system still operational, sensitive military
activities, etc.). There are no big alien invasion stories, ever. There is only attempts to protect relationships of trust between various parts of the government. Furthermore, those declassified files illustrate that the direct
or indirect admittance of governmental ignorance about UFOs was finally acknowledged. The cover-up about
governmental ignorance is no more, because no one inside or outside government seems able to crack the UFO
mystery in any meaningful way; there is nothing to be ashamed of anymore.
Then, there are relationships with industries involving at
times massive amounts of money, which demand secrecy (to keep the technological
edge of both the supplier and the client). New technologies are constantly developed
and new military applications are routinely classified. This is perfectly normal. This
illustrates that only something valuable need to be keep secret, the second
characteristics of secrecy. Yet, once again, when a secret loses its value, the
secrets goes away. A good example of it is about balloons and UFOs. The US Air Force
historical service published in 1958 Contributions
to Balloon Operations to Research and Development, an unclassified
document. In there, (pp. 72-74) it states clearly that balloons were often
mistaken for UFOs and they knew about it, and the chief scientist Gildenberg even wrote in the
unclassified Holloman base newspaper about this issue. By 1958, balloon-based
research had lost its edge, and there was no need to keep the secret about it.
Gildenburg testified at the U.S. Air Force official investigation on Roswell in
the mid-1990s, saying the same thing he wrote in 1950s…. Once again, no
sinister secrets about alien invasion. Once the need to camouflage
technological research into UFO stories is gone, people are quite open about it.
Another example can be found in the Project
Beta (2005), written by Greg Bishop, where he describes an elaborate UFO-related scheme
that was put in place for distracting a ufologist to figure out the latest research
on ground to satellite communications. Bishop, years later once that technology was no more a big deal, was able to uncover
the whole story without major difficulties, people readily admitting what they did.
This leads us to the third characteristics, which is about
that it is hard to keep secrets. People will talk, especially if they have an
issue with those who keep them out of the secret. The UFO literature is filled
with stories of people who were told to shut up, and one of the latest incarnations of
these stories can be found in the various testimonies of the Disclosure Project Briefing Document
(2001), produced by Steven M. Greer. Yet, a closer look at those testimonies
shows that there were attempts to put a lid on UFO stories, not that their
actual alien-related content was true or proven… A critical distinction. The document attempts to show that there was a conspiracy about the "conspiracy". From a sociological perspective, this needs to be interpreted in a sound perspective. Those who are kicked out of
the secret tend to talk, especially if it is done in a hurtful way. That does not mean the had a good understanding of the secret, especially if they stumbled on the secret by accident. Yet, even more importantly, many
other people who were “in”, once they leave in good terms, actually do speak as well! All
those military people and officials who came forward telling their story about
the “no big deal” are also participating in spilling the secret. Their voice cannot be ignored just because it is inconvenient. There stories are also quite
clear that those UFO-related secrets were not about aliens from other space or
bizarre and complicated social experiments conducted for nebulous reasons. The secret is consistently described as much pragmatic and down-to-earth in nature and quite localized in scope.
Finally, the last characteristics is about the ethical
nature of secrets. The less ethical and the more people involved the harder it
is to keep it secret. The vast majority of people in the military and defense
establishments are actually very ethical people. Once they get engaged in
something unethical, the secret is bound to come out, even if it takes some
time to occur. One can think about the MK-Ultra experiment or the secret
military operations in Cambodia during the Vietnam War or the Abu Ghraib
scandal; people’s conscience will eventually act out. If the governments of the
world would have a sinister grand deal with aliens going back all the way to the
1940s, it would have been out long time ago. Similarly, if grand scale weird, complicated,
and risky techno-social experiment would have been conducted in various areas of the world, this would have come out
too. Unethical conspiracies to be enacted by normally ethical people do not remain
secret for long.
Does any proponent of UFO-related conspiracies
actually try to make sense of them sociologically? After all, conspiracies are
human-made and are therefore explainable by tools of social and human sciences!
But of course, these proponents do not feel any need to meet such requirement.
Why would they? It makes their stories a lot more interesting and captivating. It allows their
stories to remain consistent with the original UFO narrative. In the end, it helps
selling books of a particular genre. In other cases, it is partially unconscious,
as some of those authors come to believe their own stories in spite of the blatant lack of evidence, and their complete inability to explain why such grand and risky conspiracies would be put in place. This explains why
such dynamics can go on forever.
In fact, if there is a conspiracy it is the one put forward
by the numerous UFO-related authors going back all the way to the 1950s and
their unscrupulous publishers (and now audio-visual producers)who are maintaining alive the narrative about
conspiracies. Like in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum we have a conspiracy about imagined
conspiracies. But let's face it: this little dirty secret has been out for quite a while. It is seriously time to move on.
 Keyhoe, Donald. (1953). Flying Saucers From Outer Space. New York: Permabooks, p. 217.
 Lorenzen, Coral. (1966). Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of the invasion from space.
New York: Signet, p. 278.