Friday, November 21, 2008

Reading Notes on Budden’s Electric UFOs

As discussed in a previous post, I planned to read Albert Budden’s Electric UFOs: Fireballs, electromagnetics and abnormal states (London: Blandford, 1998), and I just finished it. It is an interesting read, but the author does not deliver what he promises. He promises a unified theory that explains not only UFO sightings, but also alien sightings, ESPs, poltergeists and pretty much any other paranormal phenomena. In a nut shell, for Budden UFOs are various types highly magnetized balls of lights. Sightings of aliens, ghosts, and the like are magnetically induced hallucinations. ESPs are weak electrical signals that only the brain can capture, and poltergeists are brain-induced electro-magnetic effects. Given the grandiose tone of Budden’s book, a few remarks are needed before looking into what he can bring to the study of UFOs.

No unified theory and a lot of reductionism

Some of the fundamental assumptions of this book are, in my opinion, quite problematic. The author tries to situate his work within the greater context of UFO studies. He rejects the ETH, as there is no physical evidence to support it. Because the ETH is essentially a materialistic hypothesis, and its failure to deliver any physical evidence about extra-terrestrial presence disqualifies it. So far so good. He also rejects the so-called psychosocial hypothesis (PSH) that he defines as an:

“... approach which maintains that there are no physical stimuli behind unidentified flying objects (UFOs), alien-abduction experiences, hauntings, poltergeists, etc., but that such phenomena are created and maintained by belief systems, urban myth, rumour, group cohesion and other social constructs.” (p. 15)

He further states that: “I read sociology at university and am aware that, while these unusual consciousness effects generate sociological implications, because they involve human groups, they are not sociological in themselves, but bioelectromagnetic in nature” (p.16).

Lastly, he also mentions at a later point that he rejects approaches that are reductionist.

If I agree with him about his criticism of the PSH, because it does not take into consideration physical evidences, I must say that he is completely wrong in rejecting the existence of social constructs. As von Lucadou has shown through empirical research on RSPKs, the social environment is critical to understand what is happening. Another criticism that can be leveraged against Budden is his incapacity to explain how several individuals exposed to same electromagnetically event would have the same hallucination. In this regard, it is interesting to note that all the examples he gives in the annexes of his book are ones of single individual experiences.

As each individual has its own unique life story, images and fantasies, a high intensity electromagnetic field (EMF) would cause as many different forms of hallucinations. Without calling to his rescue some elements of psychosocial dynamics, it is impossible for Budden to stop his analysis at the physical level. Following Jacques Vallée’s work of UFO sightings, we know that the content of sightings/hallucination is culturally and era specific (e.g., the gray abduction scenario was particular to North America for quite a while; dwarfs and elves were seen in the past, aliens are seen nowadays, etc). His rejection of reductionism is very ironic, as his own approach is essentially reductionist!

No mention of parapsychology, psi or Einstein’s physics

Another problem is his statement that his approach is interdisciplinary (pp. 29-30), and that the epistemological gaps between disciplines must be bridged if one wants to understand the UFO phenomenon. In fact, the only sciences he really cares about are the physical and medical ones. Yet, his book is also about hallucinations and altered states of consciousness, which are neither in the domain of physics and biological/medical sciences. His research object requires that he bridges the real epistemological gap in science: the one dividing the natural and human sciences without reducing one to the other. Thus, in spite of putting a lot of emphasis on consciousness, he completely ignores psychology, and noetic sciences.

His failure to be truly interdisciplinary is even greater, as he claims to be able to explain all paranormal phenomena without mentioning a single word about research in parapsychology. Budden writes about psychic research and of “other ghost hunters” in a very critical way. But he does not seem to know that psychic research and parapsychology are quite different and that they are built on different assumptions. Scientific parapsychology actually tries to bridge the gap between physical and human sciences, and involves the work of people who understand how human consciousness works (psychological training of parapsychologists).

As well, his ignorance of the research in parapsychology brings him to a second failure when it is time to deal with the content of hallucinations. Psychosocial dynamics certainly provides the basic material for people to have similar hallucinations, but it cannot explain how people can have the same hallucination. A third component needs to be introduced, and this is the notion of psi, understood as correlating information non-locally. If he is not aware of their work, then his research skill should be questioned. If he purposefully ignored parapsychology, then his work should be considered as extremely biased.

My last criticism is about the very Newtonian approach he takes when discussing electromagnetism. Physicists and parapsychologists have shown that to understand psi effects, one really needs Einstein physics, and not so much Newton’s. Budden never envisions the possibility that some of his analyses would benefit from being reframed into a relativistic and quantum physics framework. As Budden claims that ESP are simply electrical signals received by people who are sensitive to EMF, he does not explain how the signal is coded and then decoded. The use of EMF to send signal by radio, TV, and other communication devices is only the physical support for the signal, but it is not its content. As well, as parapsychologists have found, psi does not seem to respect time barriers (observed by people acquiring knowledge of the future and of the past), and it does not respect distance (like in the case of remote viewing). An electrical signal, like any field in Newtonian physics, exists in a linear timeline and decreases by the square of the distance (e.g., a field with 16 units energy at distance of 2, will only have only 4 units of energy at a distance of 4). In Budden’s theory, premonition is impossible and long distance telepathy would be very unlikely. Yet, empirical research shows otherwise. The concept of non-locality, once more, explains much better paranormal phenomena than speculating about a weak electrical signal that would be captured by the human brain. Again, if he had read scientific parapsychology, he would know better.

In the end, one has to understand Budden’s approach as being materialistic and reductionist, in way similar to the work done by people involved in the ETH. However, I think Budden has still touched upon a number interesting point.

Useful and Interesting Points

Budden considers that UFOs and other paranormal phenomena are caused by either natural or man-made electromagnetic effects. With respect to UFOs, it is certainly coherent with what is known about the physical reality of UFOs. As well, with the work of researchers like Michael Persinger it is known that electromagnetic fields (EMF) can induce hallucinations. What Budden adds is that some people are more sensitive to EMF than others, and that they are more susceptible to have paranormal experiences. He also contributes to the discussion by identifying that some people become more sensitive to EMF by being exposed to EMF for prolonged periods (e.g., living nearby power lines, telecom towers, radio amateurs stations, etc).

Budden goes a bit further and states that people who have dissociative personalities plus sensitivity to EMF are the most likely to have paranormal experiences. Here I would add an important nuance to avoid espousing not only a reductionist approach, but also stereotyping people. Research in parapsychology tends to show it is rather people who have a lower threshold to connect with their unconscious mind that are more susceptible to experience psi effect. This includes people with dissociative personalities (which is considered as being a pathology), but also artistic, creative, and intuitive people who have no pathology at all. As well, it includes people who follow spiritual paths that can be described as “mystical” (e.g., Sufism, Shamanism, cloistered contemplative Catholic nuns, etc.).

This is an interesting idea, and this offers criteria to look into individuals who have UFO/alien experiences, but it is not sufficient to study UFO waves. Given the extended nature of some UFO waves and the wide array of people involved, it is unlikely that such criteria would provide useful explanations about waves. However, it may be useful to explain why some people would have more intense experiences than others during a wave.

The greatest contribution from Budden remains where his assumptions lies: the physical dimension of UFOs. Budden provides a detailed chapter on how balls of light and earth lights are created, whether naturally and through what he calls electromagnetic pollution. He uses the work of several authors, including the work done by the Hessdalen Project in Norway. He provides a technical analysis as to how these balls of plasma are created and concludes that three conditions are necessary to create fireballs: “1. Generate a lot of carbon or vaporized metal particles in a small region of space; 2. Create large electric fields in the same vicinity; 3. Rapidly elevate the temperature of the particles.”(p. 184).

These balls of light have different properties depending on the quantity of matter or energy involved during their creation (some will be short lived, a few seconds, others can last for hours; some will be very hot while others will be less hot; some will be highly charged electromagnetically while others will be less, etc.). The source of energy producing the EMF can be natural (e.g., geological fault) or man-made when different radio frequencies intersect at the same point. Lastly, these balls of light can be created in laboratory, and he quotes abundantly the Canadian John Hutchison. This offers some criteria to evaluate if such conditions exist in a sustained way so that it can produce a UFO wave.

Another potential contribution, but it remains implicit in his book, is a new explanation for the 90 degree turns observed in several UFO sightings, which on the surface appears to violate the laws of physics. But if UFOs are highly magnetically charged balls of plasma, and that they are created in part by radio waves at different frequencies but intersecting at the same point, then may be radio emissions can serve as temporary “rail road” for the UFOs. Some of the most common radio emissions are called square waves, very useful to send the binary signal at the heart of digital encoding. Hence, maybe those 90 degree turns are to be understood as some sort of short-lived and grand scale spectrometer “display.”

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet

No comments: