Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lessons from the pioneers – The Straight-Line Mystery

This post continues with having a second look at older thoughts and approaches that might be useful to the development of parasociology. Today, I am looking into Aimé Michel’s book on the French UFO wave of 1954. Michel was a “non-fiction” mystery writer, and was among the firsts in Europe to have a serious look at the UFO phenomenon. His first book, The Truth about Flying Saucers (published in English translation in 1954), was meant to be a wake-up call about the reality of UFOs. His second book about the Straight-Line Mystery was written in 1957 and published in English translation in 1958. Michel passed away in 1992. Michel is often mentioned in the works of another Frenchman, Jacques Vallée, and the two were good friends and were members of the so-called Invisible College. According to Vallée, Michel was one of the few in the early days of ufology to keep a cool but open-minded approach towards the phenomenon; an attitude that Vallée wanted to emulate. The full notice is:

Michel, Aimé. (1958). Flying Saucers and the Straight-Line Mystery. New York: Criterion Books.

It is all about the attitude

If one goes back in the 1950s, without the Internet, personal computers, or even without cheap long-distance plans, Michel did outstanding work, and Vallée’s admiration towards Michel is easily comprehensible. But, it is really for the attitude he brought to the study of UFOs that Michel should be remembered. His book is prefaced by a French Air Force General, (General L. M. Chassin) who was occupying a senior position in NATO HQ at the time (before France withdrew from the NATO unified command, and now has reintegrated). Clearly, people in government and the military are not the enemy; they were as baffled by the phenomenon as civilian researchers.

The most interesting part of his book is in the introduction, as he explains his approach and method. It is fascinating to read, more than 50 years later comments he made about what is going on in ufology that could apply very well today. No wonder there has been much progress since. Michel wrote: “Hitherto the only ‘study’ of saucers that has been possible has been the analysis of the reports of witnesses after sightings. But this is not the scientific method. The analysis of testimony properly belongs to the law courts and to history, which attempt to weigh human uncertainties; for the present at least, science cannot apply its methods there. This is not a deliberate refusal to do so, but merely an acknowledgement of the fact that science has its limitations” (p. 13).

In other words, it was clear for him, and it is for me, that the actual content of UFO sighting reports is not what will give us the answer to the phenomenon. This idea, as obvious as it may be, is still not fully understood in present-day UFO buff circles. I read, not that long ago on the web, a comment from an experienced UFO researcher where he is dreaming of digitizing all UFO reports from various key ufological organizations and do an extensive content analysis to figure out if we can deduce the propulsion system of UFOs. Not only this would be a gigantic waste of money, but this would not provide any answers, because it is based on what it is: reports by people of strange events very often collected by people who have a very narrow view as to what is relevant and what is not when it comes to UFOs.

Along the same train of thought, Michel continues by stating “if we study these five observations [that he mentions a few lines before] as isolated events, we are driven to the same inevitable conclusion that for ten years [i.e. 1947-1957] has blocked scientific study of the saucer phenomenon: if witnesses really saw what they described, it was a prodigious event, perhaps the most stupendous event in human history; but unfortunately, there is nothing to prove the truth of their accounts.” (p. 14).

Once again, I can only agree with Michel (50 years later), UFO events studied as isolated events will never yield anything. Yet, 50 years later it is still the norm in ufology. It is fundamental that one look into the phenomenon from a wider perspective, propose some hypothesis and try to validate such hypothesis. Michel proposed the notion of “orthoteny”, trying to show that UFOs travel in straight-lines when all the reports are studied as a collective event. There is no point here to dwell into the critiques against Michel’s approach. Indeed one has to fudge a bit the locations to find straight lines, and what he found does not occur in other UFO events. But the key here is the attitude of trying to go beyond the surface of individual sightings, and put the phenomenon into a larger context. This is actually the real scientific approach. The David Hume-style bottom-up empiricism (i.e. thinking that the “truth” can be extracted by dwelling into isolated cases) that exists in ufology has been rightfully described as pseudo-scientific. I really do not comprehend why it is so hard to understand.

In any event, it is quite clear why Vallée used Michel as a role model when he got seriously interested in UFOs in the 1960s. Vallée, although I do not agree with his control system explanation (as a sociologist I can say that what describes is very much something explainable through normal sociological analysis), has maintained an approach that is truly scientific in that he went much beyond the appearances of individual cases.

The early paranormal hypothesis

Michel is probably one of the firsts to propose a paranormal approach to the phenomenon, and he certainly had a fair bit of influence on Vallée in this respect. He was very much aware that even in his own research there are no substantive evidence beyond witnesses accounts to determine what these flying saucers are. As he wrote, “Is contact real, but invisible? This is our last, and most fascinating hypothesis. For it must be admitted that such a thing is not impossible. If contact between “them” and us were to occur on their level, rather than on ours, then, no matter what we do, it will forever remain imperceptible to us, just as most of our relationships with animals are altogether undiscoverable by them. Therefore, the answer to the question, “Why have we not had visitors from space?“ is perhaps this strangely simple one: “There seem to have been none because only our eyes see them, and not our consciousness, which is blind to them” (p. 230).

This text written in 1957 shows that the ETH had competition from day one and this competition came from someone who was displaying serious research efforts. As well, Michel’s last hypothesis summarizes, in my opinion, what Jacques Vallée will try to demonstrate in his ufological career from 1960 to the mid-1990s. The influence is quite clear. However, as stated in my last post, the PNH remains beyond verification because “they” would call all the shots. Michel understood this from the unset when he wrote: “no matter what we do, it will forever remain imperceptible to us”. This is the true challenge of the paranormal hypothesis.

Once again, what is important here is not such much whether this type of paranormal hypothesis is correct or not, even if it would be verifiable. It is rather this attitude of trying to look beyond the surface of a phenomenon; to seek deep patterns and dynamics and how they relate to other realities. If we are to understand the UFO phenomenon, it is imperative to maintain the scientific attitude to look beyond the surface displayed by people like Michel and Vallée.

Eric Ouellet © 2010

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