Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reading Notes – Gifts of the Gods?

This post is reviewing a book that provides several interesting ideas, which are quite similar to the ones developed for parasociology so far. John Spencer’s Gifts of the Gods? was published in 1994, at a time where the Roswell/Majestic hysteria was at its peak. From that point of view, it should be considered as a beacon of light in the middle of darkness, but unfortunately it appears that it remained largely noticed. Spencer was the head of the British UFO Research association (BUFORA) and was clearly fighting an uphill battle against the dominant and uncritical ETH ufology emerging mostly from the United States. The full bibliographical notice is:

Spencer, John. (1994). Gifts of the Gods? Are UFOs alien visitors or psychic phenomena? London: Virgin Books.

Mythmaking and psychosocial dynamics

Spencer introduced several sociological ideas in his book without referring to them directly by their scholarly names. One of them is that the extraterrestrial interpretation of UFO events is socially constructed. To demonstrate that, Spencer does what we would call an archaeology of a particular form of knowledge (to use a concept for which the philosopher Michel Foucault is famous). It is interesting to note that the press, in the very first newspaper articles about Ken Arnold sightings in 1947, was already speculating about the extraterrestrial nature of his sighting. The tone was set from day one and the popular press, as Spencer explains, always had a vested interest in presenting UFOs as alien spacecrafts in order to boost readership and sales. As well, “odd balls” like Adamski who claim to have had many contacts with ETs (so it not just seeing UFOs in the sky) are also by definition good stories for the popular press because they are fundamentally entertaining. In such a context, it is predictable that UFO and alien stories not only are the ones retained by the popular press, but also over time the story needed to be “spiced up” to keep the readership interested.

So, the progression from the gentile aliens of the contactees era to the ever complex abduction scenarios on one hand, and the sighting of flying saucers to a worldwide governmental conspiracy on the other hand, was built on natural slippery slope. All this occurred, of course, in a context where no one is able to offer a single piece of positive evidence open to objective analysis. In fact, it is the lack of evidence that allowed the story to evolve, because it was fundamentally communicated through the popular press: the UFO story was framed as an ongoing entertainment issue, not as a scientific research one. With the advent of the Internet, as one can notice by a simple search, a single UFO story can be echoed by thousands of web sites, but in the end there is only one source (usually unverified) for each story. So, the UFO ETH web dynamics remains essentially the same as the one found in the tabloid construct. Any substantial and verifiable empirical anchor into reality would simply kill the story. Ironically, it is in the vested interest of ETH ufologists to not find any positive evidence open to objective analysis, as it may very likely show that there speculations were completely wrong.

In this regard, Spencer proposes another interesting sociological analysis, comparing the Watergate scandal to the UFO conspiracy. The Watergate is the single most important conspiracy and scandal in recent US history. It was uncovered in two years by two journalists after what appeared to be a simple burglary in the Watergate building got their attention, leading ultimately to the resignation of President Nixon. How come hundreds of ufologists over several decades could not find any serious tangible evidence of a governmental UFO conspiracy? As Spencer notes, people talk and can provide serious tangible evidence, and any good journalist knows how to make that happen. In the case of UFO conspiracy, this would have involved many more people than the Watergate and a burning secret even more difficult to keep. Yet, nothing of substance can be found. As Spencer wrote, “The UFO conspiracy was knitted long before the ‘evidence’ ever surfaced it to support it. Real conspiracies work the other way around.” (p. 72). Once again, the narrative structure surrounding the UFO conspiracy story can only exist if it is actively maintained through the production of inconclusive evidence. Indeed, the UFO conspiracy is a business that can only survive by continuously embellishing a myth.

Spencer also proposed, like Méheust, that the emergence of science fiction as a popular genre was also a key factor in easing the almost automatic sliding from UFOs to alien spacecrafts. However, he does not mention Méheust, and he mostly focussed on post WWII sci fi. I think that what Méheust found was the basic collective unconscious conditions allowing the emergence of UFO-as-spaceships construct, while Spencer’s analysis explain how more recent sci fi maintained and reinforced such collective unconscious conditions.

Socialization and perception

One of the ideas defended by Spencer, based on presenting a number of cases he personally researched, is that people who have UFO close encounter experience have in fact a paranormal experience. What happen is that people interpret their own experience as an alien-and-spaceship one because of (a) their prior socialization from childhood through sci fi and other means, and (b) they were lead to such interpretation by ETH ufologists who collected their story. Beyond the pervasive influence of sci fi through mass media, Spencer provides a good description of what psychology and sociology say about how our perception of reality is very much influenced by what we know and what we believe, be it consciously or unconsciously. Similarly, Spencer explains quite well how repressed “memories” are actually very easy to lead towards one particular way after the fact. They do not constitute memories as much but as attempts to make sense of a particular event. From that point of view, hypnotic regression is much more useful to uncover how people make sense of very unusual events rather than as a method of finding factual reality.

It is in this context that he introduced the work done by Ken Philips and Alex Keul on the anamnesis project that focuses on better knowing the witnesses, while putting less emphasis on the actual details of the sightings. The key here is that by knowing better the witnesses it is easier to understand how they interpreted the very unusual event they lived. This was clearly a step in the right direction of removing the ETH noise out of close encounter reports. Unfortunately, because Alex Keul had to return to work in Austria, and Ken Philips passed away a few years later, the anamnesis project was never resurrected. The key findings were: “(1) Close-encounter witnesses have a high rate of self-reported ESP. (2) Close-encounter witnesses also have a high rate of self-reported UFO and ‘flying’ dreams. (3) Close-encounter witnesses tend to be status-inconsistent [i.e. consider themselves to be in a position at work or in life below their real potential]” (p. 167).

The issue of leading ufologists is a well known one. Not only they have a vested interest, consciously or not, to get a good alien story, but the very fact that a witness called an ufologist in the first place to share his/her story means that it was already interpreted within the context of the ETH. This pattern is common to all reporting of paranormal events. For instance, the children in Fatima reported seeing a lady, not the Virgin Mary. It was only after believers and Church investigator got involved that it became a Marian apparition, as noted by Fernandes and D’Armada (2005). It should be noted also that Michael Carroll (1985) found the exact same pattern with the Marian apparitions in LaSalette (in 1846) and Lourdes (in 1858). The dynamics found in people are calling “ghost hunters” and psychics for help are also illustrations of this pattern involving a pre-interpretation of highly unusual events.

But let’s be clear here. For Spencer (and myself), the fact that very unusual events are given a particular interpretation based on both psychological factors specific to the individual witnesses and sociological ones specific to the witnesses’ own culture and society does not mean that nothing happened. Instead, it means that people have incomprehensible experiences, and like any normal human beings they try to make sense of it with the frames of reference available to them.

Is there a need for ufology?

Spencer thinks that ufological and paranormal events are the outcome of a natural force or energy that we do not understand yet. He does not use the word psi, but he could have used it as well. Many paranormal experiences not interpreted as an aliens-in-spaceship narrative share many characteristics of with those that were interpreted within the ETH construct. Among them, there are increased in sexual assertiveness (p. 130), which can be linked to Herbert Marcuse’s concept of orthon energy. Heath (2005) also saw a possible connection between sexual assertiveness and PK. A general change in life outlook towards a more spiritual attitude is also noted (p. 134). An increase of other types of paranormal experiences such as out-of-body experiences, telepathy, premonition, as well as a number of unexplainable synchronistic events (for instance see Fowler 2004) are reported (pp. 142 and ff.). Finally, an increase in artistic and creative drive is noted (p. 230). These findings are certainly consistent with the notion that through a PEMIE event, the mystical part of the witnesses’ unconscious mind has been made more accessible, and thus leading to further psi events, creative drive, and overall more spiritual attitudes.

In this context, if the UFO experience is essentially a particular idiosyncratic version of a more general class of psychic events, then it begs the question as to why should there be a distinct approach or discipline called ufology? Spencer did not discuss this difficult question, probably because he was the head of BUFORA, an ufological organization, at the time of writing his book. But such implicit conclusion certainly reinforces the original position took for parasociology.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet


Glenda said...

Hello again Eric, I have just skimmemed this article for the second time.... What I am still confused about my own sighting as a young child when sci fi was limited to me. I think the show Lost in space and Star track were aired during that time frame. What is still puzzeling me is that I did not see the treckey version or a three or four legged saucer... What I did see was something that was extremeley rare for the time frame invoved.Yes simular sightings of large triangular things in the sky have been reported quite a few years later and yes there have been variations that differ to mine. Heck my mothers recolection of the account varies from what I remember... All I know I was young and it scared the crap out of me.... and I am still driven to try to find an explaination to what I saw... I know good luck right! oh well if my comments help your studies i will continue to do so.... Glenda...

Eric Ouellet said...

Thank you Glenda for your comments.

Parasociology is obviously not in the world of the exact sciences, and it is still in its infancy. I think what is to be kept in mind is that in many sightings people make the assumption that they are dealing with "aliens" and "spaceships" while the witnesses have no evidence for it. it is only an interpretation. They tend to make such an assumption because they ask: what else could it be but aliens in spaceship? Well, it could be many other things. But to be able to make such an assumption, this very idea that we could, in theory, be visited by extra-terrestrial needs to exist in the first place. That's why people who saw airships in 1897-98 assumed these were man-made ballons. In any event, I think it is the core message that Spencer wanted to send.