Sunday, August 29, 2010

More lessons from pioneers – The World of Flying Saucers

This post is looking into another pioneer of UFO research, but this one was the “Dr. Evil” of ETH ufology: Donald H. Menzel. He published a major book on UFOs in 1963, looking back at 15 years of ufology, and most of what he wrote could be applied today, now looking back at (almost) 65 years of ufology. Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil.... The full notice is:

Menzel, Donald H. and Lyle G. Boyd. (1963). The World of Flying Saucers: A scientific examination of a major myth of the space age. New York: Doubleday.

Flying saucers are real! (but first you have to believe in ET)

Donald Menzel (1901-1976) was much vilified by the ETH ufological community (even today, nearly 35 years after his death), but it is to wonder how many ETH believers even bothered to open one of his books. Menzel’s main concern was the lack critical thinking in the world of UFOs, and not so much to prove that every single UFO sighting can be explained by a down-to-earth explanation. In other words, it was first and foremost a matter of education, not of ufological method. If one fails to understand his central argument, then one does not understand what Menzel was writing about.

This lack of critical thinking is described in his book as the “saucerdom”, a world where anything not readily identifiable as a known flying object is immediately considered as a spaceship visiting planet Earth. In the saucerdom, the full meaning of “unidentified” or “unknown” is ignored so that flying objects are immediately re-identified as spaceships. In a colourful way, he described this issue as follow: “When told there’s a horse in the bathtub, for example, the sensible man realizes that the visitation, while not impossible, is extremely improbable. Therefore he does not immediately begin speculating on the color of the horse, where it might have come from, what its purpose may be, and whether it will wreck the bathroom. Instead, he adopts the scientific method and first goes to find out whether the horse is really there” (p. 3).

A number of ETH ufologists have pointed out that they do investigate and they found “something” in the bathtub, hence considering Menzel’s argument as irrelevant. But these ETH ufologists missed the point, some of them purposefully. The point is that many people in the general public are willing to accept any story about “spaceships” on its face value. More importantly, without such credulity in the public many ufologists would not have been able to have a career simply because there would be no one to buy their books. In other words, for most ETH ufologists it is in their vested interest to keep the saucerdom alive, because they depend on it. Hence, for Menzel, one should not count on the ETH ufologists to show intellectual integrity; it is against their objective interest.

The saucerdom, 50 years later, is doing quite well with the hundreds of fake UFO pictures and videos posted on the Internet annually, which always find an audience to believe them as true. Menzel was dealing with a real issue, and that issue has not gone away. If there is a critique to formulate against Menzel, however, it is his naive faith in reasoned discussions. The saucerdom is a belief system, and like any belief system it is impervious to any amount rational facts, proofs, or analyses.

Absence of evidence is evidence of absence of evidence

The second key issue that Menzel was dealing with was the lack of evidence to prove the extra-terrestrial origin of UFOs. As he wrote, “in the study of UFO phenomena this question of ‘evidence’ is crucial. The careful investigator tries always to distinguish sharply between an observed fact, which is evidence, and an interpretation of that fact, which is not evidence no matter how reasonable it may seem” (p. 4). And indeed, 50 years later we are in the same situation: “no data in these [military] unsolved cases suggest that the UFOs had an interplanetary origin or that they constitute a threat to the security of the United States. When Air Force investigators have determined that a UFO report does not represent anything of interest to Intelligence, their primary duty ends. However, since many UFO puzzles are of interest for scientific or technical reasons, the investigators try to find the specific explanation of each case and, if it has attracted public attention, give the final solution to press” (p. 275).

What does this mean is that when you have a “stubborn unknown,” military investigators are short of facts too, and they provide what they think to be the best interpretation. In other words, this is not the “truth” but educated speculations. Menzel was often accused by ETH ufologists of using the notion of thermal inversion to “debunk” cases, but he was simply doing educated speculation. ETH ufologists (the serious ones, anyway) are doing the same: educated speculations. The very existence of “stubborn unknown” is created by a lack of evidence that might decide which speculation is the most likely. This simple issue was quickly lost in the fray.

The lack of evidence of the ET origin of UFOs, and the fact that they do not represent a threat to national security is a conclusion that has been re-confirmed by many other governments since Menzel passed away, in particular Canada, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Russia, and Chile. Each of these countries, through their own agencies, research agendas, and set of cases came to a similar conclusion. If it is not good enough to say that we have evidence of absence of evidence, then nothing will be good enough. This brings us back to the saucerdom as belief system; let’s not waste our time engaging in reasoned discussions with people who do not care about reason (in spite of claiming to the contrary).

Open Minds, Closed Skies (and your taxes)

In his later years MEnzel became much flexible, probably unconsciously, as he was certainly frustrated by being unable to engage in serious discussions with people in the field of ufology. Surrounded and constantly attacked by quasi-religious believers he responded in kind: nothing in ufology is worth considering. His exasperation was understandable, but it undermined his cause. Yet, Menzel, originally, was much more open minded that he was portrayed by ETH ufologists. He wrote that “the creative scientist, eternally curious, keeps an open mind toward strange phenomena and novel ideas, knowing that we have only begun to understand the universe we live in. He remembers, too, that Biot’s discovery that meteorites were ‘stone from the sky’ was at first greeted with disbelief, and he hopes never to be guilty of similar obtuseness. But an open mind does not mean credulity or a suspension of the logical faculties that are man’s most valuable asset” (p. 289). He was seeking to have a level-headed debate, but he was not heard.

Menzel was also exasperated by the conspiracy theories that were already having lot of credence in the saucerdom in the early 1960s. As Menzel wrote, “the Air Force has found no evidence of any kind that anyone has ever seen, heard, smelled, photographed, touched, or in any way detected a trace of an interplanetary spacecraft. Extraterrestrial visitors have not yet arrived, and may never arrive. If and when they do, our Air Force wants to be the first to know. [...] The Air Force cannot afford to guess what is in our skies. They want to know” (p. 289). What Menzel is saying here is that the military are not the enemy, and that they investigated UFO sightings for pragmatic reasons. Yet, if you find nothing after investigating for quite some time, then it is time to do something else. The military and various government agencies are not “Scooby Doo and the Gang” on public treasury payroll. How hard is it to understand? Scrapping publically-funded UFO shops after years of absence of evidence is just common sense, as it is to make the data available to those interested in studying anomalies. The Project Blue Book cases have been available for 35 years. Other countries have done the same since.

Concluding remarks

Menzel tried to keep discussions about UFO with the realm of reason, and as much as possible based on serious factual investigations. He certainly showed that the Project Blue Book’s finding that about only 5% of UFO sightings are true “unknown” was essentially correct. His debates with others also showed that those “unknown” remain “unknown” and that multiple explanations can co-exist, and that when one explanation is prevailing it is not because of the strength of the explanation but because of various psychological and sociological factors. In this context, his education campaign predictable failed for the reasons discussed above.

In this last year of the first decade of the 21st century, the saucerdom is very much alive and kicking, but as the writers of the RRRGroup noted on their various websites, there is very few substantive replacement to the old guard of ufology (all approach confounded). As well, as Chris Rutkowski Canada’s “UFO central”) noted, the phenomenon is becoming quite shy with almost no more new cases of close encounters (from 1 to 3). The direct impact of all this is that nowadays there is very little research conducted on UFOs, from an ETH perspective or otherwise.

The key, in my opinion, is not to wait that the phenomenon becomes more ostentatious, as it may never do. As well, it is critical not to repeat old mistakes. Any new research agenda should not try to engage the saucerdom; Menzel showed how futile this is. As well, Vallée in an interview noted that ufology is now back to something akin to the days of the “Invisible College”, but this time researchers are not hiding from the scientific establishment; they are hiding from the saucerdom. In light of Menzel’s experience, this seems to be the only meaningful approach for the foreseeable future.

Eric Ouellet © 2010

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