Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Research Program: UFO waves

Some basic methodological considerations

A very wide-range of topics can be used to study how psi-related phenomena, but not all of them, are linked to social dynamics. Given the limited resources available to a single researcher like me, pragmatic choices have to be made to maximize the return on the time invested. The challenge here is that psi-related phenomena must be amenable to sociological analysis, and therefore must go beyond the individual in terms of the key unit of analysis. Again, most of the work in parapsychology, being a sub-discipline of psychology, has for its foundational unit of analysis the individual. Theoretical conclusions from parapsychology will be used, but most empirical data will not as the basic unit of analysis is different.

For instance, it is possible, in theory, to see telepathy as a social phenomenon, if one aggregates individual experiences and then look for collective patterns and dynamics. But from a pragmatic standpoint, it is very difficult to do. How can one have access to mass data about individual experiences of telepathy without being quickly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of such task? Furthermore, most of the data available is essentially laboratory experiments from parapsychologists taken outside the normal social environment. The rest is anecdotal and therefore very hard to use in a systematic way. Yet, theoretical conclusions from parapsychology such as telepathy and other psi-related faculties seem to be based in unconscious processes is, indeed, very valuable to parasociology.

So, a sound research program in parasociology should be guided by specific criteria. The first one is data should be already collective in nature (e.g. about a society, or some specific sub-groups in a society). The second criterion is data be available from open sources, which is usually the case when dealing with social phenomena. A third criterion is that if parasociology looks at “how society is possible”, then it is easier to explore “abnormal” situations where social tensions emerge. This is a usual way of doing business in social sciences, simply because these situations can reveal how people are linked together when the bond is actually missing or weakened. (For instance, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialization was causing enormous strains on Western societies, and this is how the “father” of modern sociology, Émile Durkheim, developed his classical sociological theory about the different forms of social solidarities). Hence, unusual paranormal events, given the assumptions and hypotheses described in the previous posts, should be signs that the social link is under tension. Otherwise, if specific paranormal events, at the social level, cannot be linked to specific social tensions, then parasociology cannot be tested.

UFO waves as case studies

Given the above criteria, it appears that UFO waves would constitute good cases for parasociology. UFO waves are by definition social phenomena, as they are noted and persistent observations of UFOs by a wide array of people. UFO waves eventually become public through mass media and other forms of open source information. Historically, there have been several UFO waves, for which there is a fair amount of information available from open source. Lastly, it is event-based, as it is possible to estimate a start and an end date, even if those dates maybe not 100% free of debate. Hence it is possible to at least attempt to correlate a specific UFO wave with specific social tensions in a specific society. In other words, UFO waves are testable from the point of view of parasociology.

Another important factor is that with the analysis of several historical UFO waves, it is possible to generate a list of social factors closely associated with UFO waves. These factors in turn can be developed into predictive factors to further test parasociology to assess under what conditions and when the next major UFO wave may occur. This additional possibility makes, at least theoretically, parasociology falsifiable, a major criterion for positivist science. Dialogue with positivist scientific communities is therefore possible.

Why not ufology instead of parasociology?

One may wonder, if the starting research program of parasociology is UFO waves, then why not simply embrace ufology? This is a good question. The short answer, however, is that ufology and parasociology have different approaches. Ufology tries to discover and prove what UFOs are, and so far has failed to do so. Parasociology tries to discover social paranormal linkages and prove how they work. In the case of parasociology, UFOs are just one expression of such linkages; one among others. Yet, if parasociology succeeds then ufology will have more to say than before. In other words, parasociology is more promising than ufology.

There are also other reasons to not pursue UFO waves from a ufological perspective. The main one is that establishing any dialogue with ufologists, particularly in North America, without first fully espousing the “nuts-and-bolts” approach to UFOs is almost impossible. Jacques Vallée described very eloquently the situation in a 2006 interview with the online magazine SUB ROSA, when answering the following question:

“SUB ROSA: What are your thoughts on the state of ufology in 2006?

Jacques Vallée: It’s a mess. There is valuable research going on, but it is carried out by individuals working with almost no financial or logistical resources. The few scientists who are still actively involved are forming a new version of the old “Invisible College,” communicating privately to stay away from the sensationalism that has taken over the field. As for what remains of the organized groups, they are not playing the role of disseminating information, conducting field research or encouraging critique and open debate. They are little more than lobbies for a particular point of view. This is a pity, because periods of low UFO activity like the current one present the best opportunity to do quiet research. By centering the whole discussion of the phenomenon on highly-charged, but poorly-researched issues like Roswell and abductions, ufologists have lost credibility, alienated the scientific public and opened the floodgates to hundreds of Internet sites where the wildest rumors circulate. No wonder serious researchers are going underground!”

That is said, quality research done by ufologists will be integrated to the parasociology research program, as some of it attempts to understand the paranormal and parapsychological dimensions of UFOs, as well as their social ones. The wheel will not be reinvented, as much as it is possible. But crooked wheels and flat tires will be discarded without hesitation. The quality material from ufology will be the object of an ongoing literature review. The first instalment will be provided as part of the next few posts, and any new discovery on my part, will be posted in the form of book or article review.

Copyright © 2008 Eric Ouellet

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