Friday, October 7, 2016
Who’s Who in the UFO Zoo? - Part 1
When people use the expression “UFO”, whether it be in a book, a documentary, a newspaper article, on a website, or on YouTube, there is an implicit assumption that the meaning is actually understood, and that everyone agrees on such meaning. The fact is that it is not the case. “UFO” has many implicit meanings. How people define UFOs, in turn, tells us a lot about the various ways of thinking about the topic, and more particularly helps identifying clusters of authors thinking along the same lines. In other words, this helps figuring out the various “school of thought” on UFOs. Although some of those schools of thought are well-known, some important variations are often under estimated.
The first obvious misunderstanding comes out of thinking that “UFO” necessarily means a spaceship from another world. Many people using the term “UFO” are actually conveying a meaning that stays close to the actual origins of the acronym to mean “Unidentified Flying Object’, namely something that is not identified and therefore they do not jump to the conclusion that it is a spaceship of some sort. The second common misunderstanding comes from that many people use the work “UFO” out of convention, or for simplicity’s sake, because UFO is the best known term on the topic, but they actually mean “UAP” (for Unexplained Aerial Phenomena), as they do not even think that it is necessarily an “object”, and let alone a “spaceship”. I am certainly guilty of that.
The misunderstanding becomes even greater when one is reading the specialized literature on the topic. Depending on the writer’s starting assumptions, the actual detailed meaning of what are UFOs will vary greatly from one author to the next. In spite of individual variations among writers on the topic of UFOs, it is possible however to group them in loosely arranged “schools of thought”, by using their core assumptions about what they mean when the use the word UFO, and what degree of reality they do assign to the phenomenon (ontological assumptions). To complicate matters a bit more, some of those “schools of thought” have evolved over time, and older assumptions are now rarely used without much caveats and nuances. Hence, distinctions across time are crucial to understand who is who in the UFO zoo.
By using the core assumptions of the main writers on the topic of UFOs, it is possible to identify 6 different schools of thought that have emerged over time. This post intends to present a brief overview of each. But more fundamentally, this overview of the various schools of thought on UFO leads to a key observation: UFOs are made of weird phenomena, people observing them, and a social context for people to make sense of the weirdness. Those three dimensions of the UFO phenomena are all necessary for UFO to exist, and when must take of all into consideration to try understanding the phenomenon.
Six Schools of Thought
The first one is often called the Nil Hypothesis. This approach to UFO emerged in parallel to the ETH (Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis – see below) in the late 1940s. Its main focus is a negative one and it is deeply intertwined with the ETH, in the sense that it tries to proof that none of the UFOs are spaceships, but rather mundane objects. This approach is rather simplistic because it is built on a binary assumption of real or not real object, implying that the “alieness” of a UFO is only in the head of the observer. The inner world (beliefs, ignorance, wishful thinking, etc.) of the observer is what “creates” the UFO phenomenon and it is projected on a mundane object or natural event. To put it in scientific terms, the inner world of the observer is the independent variable; the parts that calls the shot. The phenomenon is the dependent variable, the one that is transformed by the independent variable.
The illustrative authors of this school of thought regarding UFOs are Donald H. Menzel and Lyle G. Boyd in their book The World of Flying Saucers (1963). They wrote in the preface that “he [Menzel] soon concluded (with a slight feeling of disappointment!) that the flying saucers were not vehicles from other worlds but were only mundane objects and events of various kinds, some of them commonplace, some familiar chiefly to meteorologists, physicists, and astronomers” (p. xiii). According to this perspective, an abnormal aerial phenomenon is only abnormal due to the ignorance of common people who reports those objects. In other words, they are projecting their ill-informed beliefs into an event they misinterpret. This approach takes into consideration “fads” and “panics” about UFOs, which relates to the social realm, but the central argument is one of a physical object or natural phenomenon being misconstrued. This approach is now less accepted among sceptics given its simplistic nature, and at times the quite condescending tone used towards observers, as they are complex psychological and sociological factors that require being included in the analysis, as well as very exotic natural phenomena poorly understood by the scientists themselves.
The second school of thought is certainly the best known one and it is usually referred to as the ETH (Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis). As noted above, this approach emerged also in the late 1940s, when weird aerial phenomena started to attract greater attention by the general public and were increasingly accredited to alien visitors from outer space. This approach integrates the criticism from the Nil Hypothesis in that it accepts that many reported UFOs are indeed misconstrued conventional objects or exotic natural phenomena. Its authors often refer to the Blue Book Project statistics that about 5% of all UFO observations are true ‘unknown”, namely well documented and yet unexplainable. For them, UFO means this residual group of unexplainable reports. Many will use implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the logical fallacy that “what else could it be but alien from another world”, invoking the apparent “intelligent” behavior of the phenomenon. And then, from the “what else could it be” they usually take the last step to declare that those UFOs are indeed aliens from another world. This approach grants full autonomy to the phenomenon by ascribing it to powerful extra-terrestrial visitors, makes the observer essentially a passive bystander, and relegate the problem of identifying those observations to governmental authorities. In scientific terms, the phenomenon is seen as the independent variable, while the observers are the dependent variable (they will see only what aliens want us to see).
The list of authors illustrative of this approach is long, and each of them have their own little variation and interpretation of the phenomenon. However, just to take one example, Coral Lorenzen wrote in Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of the invasion from outer space (1962) that “there are no definite indications of hostility on the part of our visitors; but equally important there is no indication of friendliness either. […] To fail to educate the public concerning the facts at hand, however, is to court danger of a particularly insidious nature. The existence of a species of superior beings in the universe could cause the civilization of earth to topple” (p. 278). In same breath she calls for governmental authorities to be both more transparent and proactive against the implied threat. In spite of having absolutely not physical proof that UFOs are spaceships from another world, this approach still has many followers today, particularly in the movement of the so-called “exopolitics”.
The third school of thought has been oftentimes labeled as the Paranormal Hypothesis, but at closer look it would be more accurate to call it the Sophisticated ETH. This approach builds on the last two approaches. It incorporates the criticism of the Nil Hypothesis that many observations have indeed nothing anomalistic about them. Yet, this approach also criticizes the ETH on a number of grounds, but mostly about the completely illogical behaviour of the alleged aliens visitations and the complete lack of physical evidence of any ET visitations. However, it does not ignore the strangeness and physical reality of many UFO-related events. Instead, it implies that some intelligent forces that we may not ever be able to understand are behind the unexplainable events, and they affect individual observers and societies as whole. To put in scientific terms, the phenomenon is the independent variable, while both the observers and society are the dependent variables.
The main authors who have sponsored this approach are Jacques Vallée and John Keel, emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their approach is very much an extension of the ETH however, but it removes some of the most problematic elements of the ETH, namely the persistent absence of physical proof of extra-terrestrial visitations. The phenomenon is still considered as somewhat independent of the observer, even if the experience can be very personal and unique to each observer. UFO events are oftentimes construed as being physical in some ways, but resisting conventional explanations. At times, Keel described them as something similar to hauntings or demonic manifestations. Hence, it is attributed to undefined forces that influence in complex ways both individuals and societies, for better or for worse. This approach still advocates for greater transparency and involvement of the authorities, but in the name of science rather than in the name of handling visitors with dubious intentions. The conclusion of Vallée and Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky (2009) covers most those ideas in a succinct manner. It is deemed the “paranormal” hypothesis because it implies some form of non-human intelligence being behind the phenomenon, but such intelligence is not necessarily extra-terrestrial or embodied in the usual ways of using those terms. This approach has been criticized by the both the supporters of the ETH for its lack of capacity to explain how such ethereal visitors could exist in the first place, and by the supporters of the more sophisticated version of the nil hypothesis whereas disembodied entities and object are simply projections of our own unconscious unto our perception of reality (to be discussed in the next post).