Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Primer for the Canadian wave case study

As discussed in several previous posts, it is difficult to assess what constitutes a UFO wave. There are a number of methodological challenges linked to the very notion of UFO wave.

Reporting issues
One of the main challenges is that not all UFO sightings are reported, and there can be a number of reasons for that. The first one is that people can be afraid of being turned into ridicule. This fear, however, seems to be much less present in the 21st century as the UFO phenomenon is much more entrenched into the popular culture. The second reason is linked to the first one, and it is about the lost sensitivity about UFOs. A lot of people are rather indifferent to the phenomenon, and unless it is a very usual experience, many people will simply shrug off the sighting and say it is probably a plane (or something like that). A third reason is the unprofessionalism of a number of ufologists that over time really gave a bad name to the field, and many people prefer not to report rather than having to deal with someone that might be a bit too weird for their liking and might turn their UFO experience into a circus. A last issue is that the general public is probably better now at identifying aircrafts and satellites in sky than before, hence there are probably less incentive to pay closer attention to the sky.

On this last point, I had an instructive personal experience. I live in an area where there have been a number of sightings of triangular UFOs. I actually “saw” one a few weeks ago. It was a regular plane on a long landing path towards the international airport, but at night it looked like triangle at the angle I looked at it. Also, “it made no noise” (a famous “smoking gun” in the ETH world). Yet, anyone living not too far from a major airport knows very well that a plane does not have to be that far in the sky to not be audible (especially true for newer jetliners). Based on the prevalent wind patterns, my area is bound to have “triangular UFOs” on a recurrent basis. I can see that some people who are not used to aircrafts may be considering that it is a UFO, but in this day and age of skies having, literally, daily aircraft traffic jam, informal knowledge about aircraft is much more common compared to the situation in the 1950s and 1960s. But such knowledge is never perfect. We may be now in a reverse context, where there is a number of UFOs that are misconstrued as IFOs.

Limited investigative capabilities
A second challenge is that only a small percentage of UFO sightings are actually investigated. Here too there are some obvious reasons for this. Almost all investigations are now conducted by volunteers from UFO organizations and clubs, and they have very limited resources to go around investigating. So only a few are investigated. Then, there is the selection process to maximize the use of limited resources, oftentimes based on unconscious criteria. The usual criteria are: either “easy” cases (not requiring much time, money and travel), or cases which fits the basic assumptions underlying the ETH. Reporting bias in ufology is a long standing issue, and there is no improvement on the horizon.

A third and last challenge is the fragmentation of information. Given that there is no central repository for investigated UFO cases, then it is much more difficult to really assess if there is a UFO wave while it is occurring. It is usually much after the fact that the existence of a UFO wave can be identified by gathering data from multiple sources. The 1966-67 UFO wave is representative of this pattern.

UFO waves as social realities
The net result is that UFO waves tend to be identifiable in real time only when the phenomenon “insists” long enough around a given area to get the attention of the mass media. The 1973 wave in the United States, Belgian wave of 1989-90, and the 2008 mini wave in Pennsylvania are good examples of this process. Although there is a physical reality behind UFO waves, they are for all intent and purpose social realities. It is so simply because we can only notice them when there is a social process of mass communication occurring, which in turn shapes the very content of a UFO wave. The objective reality of UFO waves is not directly reachable. It can only be grasped through our socially shared subjective processes. Studying UFO waves is first and foremost a sociological task, but taking such an approach is not tantamount to say that it is all in the head of the witnesses.

Eric Ouellet © 2010

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