Sunday, August 15, 2010

The key hypotheses in ufology

This post proposes a discussion on the various hypotheses in ufology, to clarify where parasociology stands on the issue. It is motivated by the writings of some people on the web who wrote some time ago that parasociology is a bizarre approach to UFOs. Well, I think these statements are made from a position of ignorance. Such ignorance, in turn, is probably enabled by the fact that most comprehensive overviews of what is going on in the field of UFO research are so misleading than one is likely to remain ignorant. For me, a key contributor to such a lack of clarity is the very unsatisfactory nature of typologies about ufological hypotheses. Most of the existing typologies do not go to the bottom of those ufological hypotheses, and they exclude a number of them. Ultimately, they depict a very warped and incomplete portrait of what is going on in ufology. The typology proposed under the label “Ufology” in Wikipedia is a prominent example of this.

The notions of hypothesis and typology

A hypothesis is essentially a temporary answer to a research question, which one tries to prove or disprove through reasoned investigation. In the case of UFOs, the main research question exists in various forms, but all versions of it are about the nature and origin of the phenomenon, which remain uncertain to this day. Hence, any hypothesis about UFOs is about ontology; to provide a temporary answer about what these things are to guide research and investigation. A typology, on the other hand, is a classification system that is based on the fundamental underpinnings of what is being classified. It is not a serendipity listing of what exists on a particular topic, which would be incomplete by definition as there are always new items to add to the list. Hence, a typology of ufological hypotheses requires looking into the fundamental underpinnings of these hypotheses.

The fundamental underpinnings

All hypotheses about UFOs, (i.e., statements by those who consider that phenomenon remains unexplained) are based on two sets of fundamental underpinnings. The first one is about the objective versus subjective nature of the phenomenon. Are UFOs real objects or are they real only in the mind of people? The second set, which is closely related to first one, is whether the phenomenon is the product of non-human entities or human sources. In this light, the key hypotheses in ufology can be regrouped in 4 generic hypotheses, although they should be seen as being part of spectrum rather than air-tight categories.

Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH)

The first one, the best known and most popular, and yet the one with least amount of evidence to support itself is the Extra-terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH). Put on a spectrum, it is the hypothesis that implies the highest degree of objectivity in the phenomenon (the “nuts and bolt” approach being its most extreme version). Older ETH ufology tends to be at the extreme, where there is little room for anything else but the “nuts and bolt”. Newer ETH authors admit (grudgingly) that there might be something a bit more subjective as the phenomenon might have also a paranormal aspect. Paranormal events being always unclear, fuzzy and on the borderline of normal perception are by definition more subjective than a physical “flying saucer”. Stanton Friedman is a good example of this position. A little bit further away from the extreme is the “ETH at the 2nd degree”, a concept developed by European ufologists who consider that UFOs are still physical spaceship, but the aliens can only connect to us through paranormal means given that there is so much psychological and cultural differences between us and them.

Paranormal Hypothesis (PNH)

Then, moving further away from the objective extreme is the Paranormal Hypothesis (PNH). The PNH implies that UFOs and aliens are paranormal manifestations produced by non-human entities (but not aliens from outer space). Given that UFOs are considered paranormal manifestation by the PNH, and that paranormal perceptions are always mixed up with the psychological and cultural frames of reference of the witnesses, the PNH accepts that the phenomenon requires to be understood also as something subjective. Authors like Jacques Vallée, John Keel, and Mac Tonnies are representative of this approach. The nature of the non-human entities can vary considerably from intra-terrestrial, inter-dimensional, to time-traveller and mythical intelligence.

Parapsychological Hypothesis (PPH)

Then, getting closer to the subjective end of the spectrum by explaining the phenomenon mostly through interactions between psi effects and psycho-social factors is what I call the Parapsychological Hypothesis (PPH). The PPH does not reject the notion that there is a material reality to UFOs, but it hypothesized that it is the product of the human mind, unconsciously using its psi capabilities. In this case, we cross the threshold human/non-human, as the PPH is defined by excluding the notion of non-human entities to explain the phenomenon. This is my approach, and the one of people like Bertrand Méheust, John Spencer and Hilary Evans.

Psycho-social Hypothesis (PSH)

Finally, there is the psycho-social hypothesis (PSH), which implies that there is no objective reality behind the phenomenon, but only subjective psychological and sociological constructions based on misperceptions and make-beliefs. This is the approach used by the more sophisticated debunkers.

Graphically, the typology can be represented as follow:

Typology as a useful tool

Typologies in science are not only created to provide comprehensive descriptions; they are also useful tools to assess research and establish priorities. The selection of the PPH as my approach to the UFO phenomenon is not only a matter of preference; it is actually a reasoned choice, because out of the four primary hypotheses, the PPH is the most promising one.

The ETH is, in theory, a verifiable hypothesis in that if a piece of material or organic tissue is found to be not from this world, then it can be validated. The problem, of course, is that the ETH ufologists have been banging their respective head against a wall of failure for over 60 years. They are literally waiting that the proof “fall from the sky” (or from a brown envelop...). Such attitude is not a scientific one. When a hypothesis fails to deliver after ongoing testing it means that it is not a valid approach and something else needs to be tried. To continue in such circumstances becomes a matter of faith and belief and no more of reasoned investigation.

The PNH is an interesting one, and it has the merit of highlighting the well-documented and central role of the paranormal dimension of the UFO experience, which is mostly ignored by representatives of the ETH, and by the PSH. The fatal flaw of the PNH is that it cannot be tested as it implies the existence of non-human entities that would call all the shots on how, where and when they can be seen. This is not testable from the point of view of the natural sciences, as the object requires a degree control and repeatability, and it cannot be tested from the point of view of the social sciences because we cannot use what we know about humans to understand the intents and motivations of the alleged non-human entities, given that they are not human. A non-testable hypothesis is not a hypothesis, it is speculation.

The PSH highlights important psycho-social dynamics that are clearly part of the overall phenomenon, but its representatives blatantly ignore the well-documented material evidence about UFOs. This fact alone fully undermines the validity of the overall hypothesis. The PSH, very much like the ETH, is closer to a belief system than reasoned investigations.

The PPH, on the other hand, is respectful of both the material and paranormal dimensions of the phenomenon by integrating them into the analysis. Furthermore, the parasociological version of the PPH is also able to integrate the psycho-social dynamics identified by the PSH, yet without ignoring the material reality of the phenomenon. Finally, contrary to the ETH and PNH, the PPH offers the possibility of being testable by using our knowledge of human beings from a variety of disciplines like (parapsychology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, etc.). All in all, the PPH is from rational standpoint the best bet for improving our understanding of UFOs.

In light of a clearer understanding of what is going in UFO research I return the question: who is bizarre here?

Eric Ouellet © 2010


Lynn said...

What category would: not seeing something with your eyes, but feeling something was there, then taking a picture in which a classic ufo shaped object appears on film, be?

Lynn said...
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