Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reading Notes – Parapsychology and the UFO

This post is reviewing a short and self-published book on the similarities between parapsychological phenomena and the UFO experience. It is based on an article submitted to the Journal of Parapsychology in the early 1980s, by the author, Manfred Cassirer. The article, however, was rejected because it was deemed to be of “limited interest to parapsychology”. It is important to note that although Cassirer was not warm to the ETH, his approach remains spiritist (i.e. accepts as valid explanations involving non-human entities (such as ghosts, spirits, etc.)—something that goes against the fundamental assumption of the Journal of Parapsychology that paranormal phenomena are of human-origin). This book provides an interesting overview of phenomena being quite similar to what is observed in psychical research and in ufology. Unfortunately, the very idea of using non-human entities (but non-ETs) at core of any explanation about UFOs remains at the heart of the problem (as such idea is an improvable tautology), and this book is a good illustration of this issue. The full notice is:

Cassirer, Manfred. (1988). Parapsychology and the UFO. London: n.p.

False symmetric analysis

Cassirer wrote his book as a series of short chapters trying to link the resemblances between paranormal phenomena and the UFO experience. It is the first book I found that does this comparative exercise in a direct manner, by someone who appears to know about both fields relatively well. This 62 page book has 29 chapters, covering a number of topics such as “UFO-prone = Psi-prone?”, “Malfunctioning”, “Apparitions”, “Materialization”, “ESP”, “Luminosities”, “ “Teleportation and levitation”, “Poltergeist”, etc. In spite of covering a wide array of phenomena linked to both paranormal activities and UFOs, the comparison remains based on descriptive research that does not seek to look into the deeper dynamics at play (and from that point of view it is suffering from a common “disease”, particularly virulent in the English-speaking world, that of vulgar “Hume-like empiricism”), implying that if something cannot be observed directly by the senses then it is not worth studying. In other words, Cassirer ‘s analysis repeats some of the key problems plaguing psychical research (to be distinguished from parapsychology) and ufology, where witnesses’ description are only used for the data dealing with the phenomenon at plays, ignoring for the most part what is around the phenomenon, who are the witnesses psychologically, and the symbolic dimension of what is happening. Ultimately, the analysis lacks a common unifying theme.

In turn, this Hume-like empiricism leads to Cassirer’s position (shared by many others in paranormal research) of supposedly “scientific neutrality” towards various hypotheses (i.e., UFOs and paranormal events can be produced be either human psi activities or non-human entities, terrestrial or otherwise). As he wrote, “thus we do not advocate commitment to the effect that there is an implicit ‘psychic solution’, whatever such a statement could mean. But putting these subjects into watertight compartments automatically rules out any potentially valuable cross-fertilization.” (p. 55).

It is a very common attitude in the world of paranormal research (but less in ufology) to state that one is “neutral” or “scientific” or “agnostic” (and the sophisticated ones will use the word “symmetry”) when it comes to assess the overall value of various hypotheses. But there is actually nothing “neutral” or “scientific” or “agnostic” about it, they simply surrender their capacity for critical thinking. A true symmetric analysis, as described by a number of sociologists of scientific knowledge like Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar, David Bloor, and Harry Collins, really means that one ought to evaluate various forms of knowledge, but by using the same criteria in the same way (for instance, if one rejects any witness’ statement without having corroboration, then the same rule needs to be applied to the representatives of the government, police, and military). As well, symmetry also requires that the proponents of a theory or approach to live up to their own criteria (for instance, ETH ufologists cannot ask for (physical) “evidence” to proponents of other ufological hypotheses while they themselves cannot provide any).

Someone who is truly symmetric in his/her analysis will do the analysis, and come up with some conclusion; that is using one’s critical thinking capacities. It is the only that we can push forward our knowledge on a given topic, at the risk of discovering that we were wrong later on. But to take a position that says “who knows, it might be ghosts, it might be ETs, it might be intraterrestrials, it might be parapsychological, etc.”, is not being symmetrical; it is actually failing to do anything! Those who do nothing as describe here, oftentimes claim to do a lot of “field research.” But what they do is not scientific and is not actually doing research either, as they do not seek to prove or disprove a hypothesis; they are just fooling around. Whatever they do will not contribute to the advancement of any form of science, because they are not looking for anything in particular (as determined by a proper symmetric analysis). From that point of view, the rejection of Cassirer’s submission to the Journal of Parapsychology was well justified, but not because it was not interesting and not because he was spiritist, but rather because the article was seriously lacking in critical thinking and was hiding behind a false symmetric posture.

Some interesting points

In spite of the problems in Cassirer’s central arguments, he provides a number of interesting points. He is aware of the serious limitations of the ETH, and that the parapsychological hypothesis:

“How ‘real’ are UFO-type apparitions? By comparing accounts by naïve (?) and ‘imaginary’ contactees under hypnosis with those who genuinely claim such experiences, a strange pattern of identity in the description of the craft ‘craft’ and its occupants emerges (Lawson 1980 A). We do not know why; neither should we ignore significant differences. At any rate, the close similarities between ‘true’ and ‘false’ militate against the extra-terrestrial hypothesis, suggesting, on the contrary, links with the paranormal [...]” (p. 16)

He also underlined the deep similarities between the UFO phenomenon and psi in general, and PK in particular. “If it is of the nature of the UFO phenomenon to be ‘elusive and clandestine’ (Hendry 1980 B), so also is it of the nature of psi. [...] The PK-like effects by which cars are stalled and electronic apparatus put temporarily out of action are of the essence of ufology. UFOs are reported as shooting up and disappearing into thin air without so much as a ‘by your leave’: alternatively they simply render themselves invisible. They change their shape or divide into several units, suggesting that they are not manufactured objects but, rather, provisional or temporary structures (Zurcher 1979. 108).” (p. 20).

An important issue that was not missed by Cassirer is the “lights in the sky” is a very ancient phenomenon, and it was only recently that it was ascribed an ET meaning. “Unexplained lights, whether in the sky or indoors (illuminating ‘flying saucers’; haunted houses; séances) are a common feature of both disciplines as well as of mysticism. [...] There is, in fact, a veritable embarras de richesses regarding luminous phenomena, and a considerable volume could be dedicated to that subject alone. Luminosities in the heavens, particularly at night, may present insuperable difficulties to precise interpretation [...]” (p. 27).

Parapsychology and the UFO

Cassirer’s book title is actually misleading, and it should have been “Psychical Research and the UFO”. Descriptive comparisons between paranormal phenomena and the UFO experience are interesting and noteworthy, but it is not the real issue. It is rather the similarities in the physical, biological, psychological and social dynamics of both paranormal and UFO events that can produce strong linkages. Such linkages, in turn, are what can unify research agendas on a variety of phenomenon that appear distinct on the surface. That’s the real issue.

Eric Ouellet © 2009

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