Thursday, December 3, 2015

What is wrong with the Psycho-Social Hypothesis in ufology?

One of the schools of thought in ufology is described as the so-called “psychosocial hypothesis” (PSH). It is a loose group of writers, mostly centered on the Magonia magazine. Some of its authors are better known in ufological circles, such as David Clark, Hilary Evans and Peter Rogerson. Although there are some variations in their opinions, and their central point of contention has evolved over time, they are today in agreement to say that essentially ALL UFO events are of a mundane nature. Yet, contrary to their less sophisticated debunking brethren, they also consider that psychological and sociological factors are important in the understanding the overall UFO phenomenon.


The focus of their writings is on UFOs, so they are to be considered as ufologists, even if they do not see anything unusual in the phenomenon. To their merit, they highlighted a number of important, yet very problematic, points regarding UFOs. Some of their keys points can be summarized as follow:

-          UFO events are described by witnesses using descriptions that are “fashionable,” and such descriptions will change as fashion changes. For instance, in the 1950s aliens were described as coming from Venus or Mars. By the 1960s, we knew that Venus and Mars were lifeless, and the UFO reports of aliens from Venus or Mars disappeared. The grey aliens only became a common description after the story of Betty and Barney Hill became famous, especially after the diffusion of a telefilm on the topic in the early 1970s.

-          UFO events tend to describe machines that are meaningful to a specific era: airships in early 20th century, ghost planes and rockets in mid-20th century, triangles in the age of stealth bombers, etc.

-          UFO reports tend to follow ufological reporting frenzies created by ufologists in the mass media. The wave of 1947 launched the ball for flying saucers  reports until the humanoids reporting wave started in the 1960s. Then, it became quieter until the 1973 wave, followed by quiet times until the Roswell hysteria unfolded. The abduction phenomenon started to peak after several key books on the topic were published in the 1980s, etc.

-          In a number of well-known sightings events, further investigations have shown that a common description of events emerged after the fact and “fitting” a more socially conducive story line, either through the influence of a particular witness (think here how Betty Hill had an influence over Barney in interpreting their experience), or by the wishful thinking of a ufologist (think here of Budd Hopkins and the story of the UN Secretary-General allegedly witnessing an alien abduction).  


These issues are well-documented and they indeed point towards the UFO phenomenon in general being an expression of larger social phenomena. The ETH ufologists have not provided any meaningful answers to these issues, and given their simplistic and fundamentally materialist approach I doubt they will ever come up with any substantive answers to the issues raised by the PSH.

The real problem with the PSH is not about the critique and questioning they have put forward, it is about what they imply. Out of their critique of ETH ufology, there is an implicit idea that if the UFO phenomenon is embedded in social phenomena, then by definition there is nothing possibly anomalistic about UFOs. This implicit idea is actually a logical fallacy, and it can only be held if one does not understand key sociological phenomena.

PSH writers rarely use proper sociological terminology, and if they do they never fully embrace its implications. Many of their critiques are pointing out what should have been described as the social construction of reality, for which the key authors are Berger and Luckmann. This is a central concept in sociology that explains why any social structures or dynamics are essentially based on an implicit socially shared consensus. This is true for any social forms. For example, when people talk about “science”, it is a social construct defining the reality of "science", about what constitutes “science” and what it does not. In the Anglosphere, “science” means natural sciences and engineering. Yet, in different cultures like in continental Europe (Germany, France and Italy), “science” is defined as "organized knowledge" and covers both natural and human sciences. The consensus will vary from one culture to the next. Hence, what is science and what it is not is a social construction that determines where its reality starts and ends.


Does this mean that because something is socially constructed then there is nothing to it? No, of course not. It only means that how something is defined is based on social conventions. So, no one should be surprised if the notion of UFO is defined based on social conventions too, like anything else. To that effect, American ufologists tend to describe UFOs in very reductive ETH terms, whereas their European counterparts tend to describe UFOs with much more open terminology. Hence, UFO sightings tend to be described according to prevalent conventions, which will change over time, but it is actually quite normal. People use words that are available to them at a specific time. So, yes, UFOs are socially constructed; and that's no big deal!

The second problem with the PSH’s lack of sociological terminology is that they refer essentially only to what sociologists called “dominant narrative”, also known as “meta-narrative” or “grand narrative”. There are many key authors in sociology studying this phenomenon, but they tend to owe a lot to the ideas of the Germany philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

A dominant narrative is essentially a particular way of looking at reality which becomes the dominant view, even if facts are not always matching. More importantly, such dominant views are maintained and reinforced by those who benefit the most from such perspective. A classic dominant narrative is in the realm of medicine where only members of the medical profession (namely Medical Doctors) can speak about health issues. Over the years, abuses by medical doctors, narrow-mindedness in refusing to consider innovative treatments, refusal to accept the effectiveness of alternate medicine, and refusal to acknowledge patients’ rights in selecting their own treatment have all contributed to erode the dominant narrative that “doctors know best”. But in the end, it still remains the dominant narrative. Members of the medical profession have resisted and protected this narrative because, obviously, their social power and monopoly over health treatments depend on it. Dominant narratives exists in all spheres of life, be it about science, religion, politics and governance, in defining terrorism, etc.


Are there dominant narratives in ufology? Of course there are, like any in other sphere of life! The main dominant narrative is essentially the one maintained by ETH ufologists, who have a vested interest in making sure that it is the only one perceived as valid, because their social reputation, and sometimes livelihood, depend on it. And yet, like any dominant narrative, the facts do not fully match. If one takes the time to look at actual UFO reports, the variety of experiences is quite astonishing, and oftentimes do not match at all what ETH ufologists are portraying. Hence, the PSH writers are correct in identifying “fashions” and “coloring” of UFO events due to the actions of ufologists and the mass media. But they are only showing the normal dynamics that dominant narratives create when one looks only at the mass media representations of the UFO phenomenon. The “suppressed narratives” (i.e. the reports that are not fitting the ETH, which rarely surfacing in the public realm) provide a much more complex and diversified perspective. Again, the existence of a dominant narrative in ufology is in no way a proof that there is nothing anomalistic to the overall phenomenon, because it is only about how things are represented by a few influential voices. It is also interesting to note that many PSH writers put the caveat that they are not interested in analyzing individual cases, but just in the “big picture”. Now you know why.

A third problem with the PSH is the idea that particular images may shape actual sightings, for those who venture in explaining individual cases. In such situation, one will typically read from a PSH article that images from an obscure sci-fi magazine or B series movie are the original images that was reported by the witnesses, speculating that the witnesses must have seen such images before, yet without feeling the need to prove such assertion. Here there is an implied notion that socially shared images may have a specific psychological and cognitive effect on specific UFO witnesses. Once again, key conceptual terminology is absent in their analyses. In this case, however, it is much more problematic. The linkages between sociological phenomena and psychological ones are yet to be done; establishing a real bridge between sociology and psychology remains to this day an incomplete task. How could the PSH proposes such explanations while the key disciplines involved can’t!


Authors in cultural studies, like the psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, have proposed a number of ideas to bridge the two, but they all remain speculative and unsatisfying. Before him, sociologists like Erich Fromm produced similar unsatisfying results. Social psychology has been very effective in studying small group interactions, but very much unable to explain in a detailed way how larger social dynamics connect with individual psyche. Here is an interesting article for non-specialist on this topic.  


In my opinion, there might be one school of thought that can provide some ways to establish a partial bridge between the two disciplines, it is Serge Moscovici’s “theory of social representation”. Moscovici, and those who followed his lead, studied how ideas and images become prevalent in the popular culture of a society. His first research was on how ideas and notions from psychoanalysis became part of the popular culture in France and used by ordinary people. Notions such as Freudian slip of the tongue, projection, neurotic behavior, Oedipus complex, etc., are part of the specialized terminology of psychoanalysis which eventually became part of the common language, oftentimes with a meaning significantly distinct from its original psychoanalytic roots. What is key in his research is that for something to become part of popular culture and where individuals start using such ideas or images, there is a need for key people to actively promote such ideas and images, i.e., what Moscovici calls the agents (usually through the mass media). As well, there is a two-step process where such ideas and images are at first anchored in the collective psyche and then objectified (or institutionalized). This is not a random process. The presence of the very widespread images related to flying saucers and gray aliens can definitely be explained through the theory of social representations. But when it comes to pick arbitrarily an image from an obscure sci-fi comic book to explain a particular UFO sighting, there is nothing in psychology, social psychology or sociology to support that. In the end, the PSH is doing exactly what it accuses everybody else of doing about UFOs: explaining a mystery by another mystery.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Elusive nature of paranormal phenomena - Follow up with interview at BoA

During the interview I gave to Tim Binnall on Binnall of America, an important question emerged, but we did not have enough time to explore it in full. It is the notion that the more there are control measures to observe possible psi effects, the less likely it is to be observed. This may appear as a paradox at first, and a convenient excuse from the sceptic point of view. However, there are good reasons for it.


This notion is not just a philosophical point. It is rooted in empirical observations of spontaneous anomalies. For instance, anyone familiar with “ghost hunting” has experienced or heard about a strange phenomenon occurring only when the equipment has been packed up, or when the camera is not working, or the battery is dead, or it is at the wrong angle, etc. Similarly, camera dysfunctions have plagued the “UFO hunting” history, and even if it works it produces only vague lights, quite different from what people saw. The Belgian UFO wave discussed in Illuminations provides specific examples of this. Jet fighter radars oftentimes loose the “object” as soon as it can do a lock-on. Both the Belgian and Washington D.C. UFO waves, also discussed in Illuminations, provide well-documented examples of this “elusiveness”.

Most parapsychologists who studied psi in a laboratory setting came to similar conclusions about micro-psi effects. In fact, this notion of evasiveness is one of the key characteristics of psi, supported by a wide consensus among parapsychologists. Already in the early 20th century, the philosopher and psychologist William James was also baffled by the elusiveness of psi. He wrote in 1909:  

“For twenty-five years I have been in touch with the literature on psychical research, and have had acquaintance with numerous “researchers.” I have also spent a good many hours in witnessing . . . phenomena. Yet I am theoretically no “further” than I was at the beginning; and I . . . have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department to remain baffling, to prompt our hopes and suspicions all in equal measure, so that, although ghosts and clairvoyances, and raps and messages from spirits, are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible to full corroboration.” (James, 1960, p. 310).


Since then, many others added their voice to such observation about psi phenomena. Prominent papapsychologists already noted on this blog like Batcheldor, Beloff, Braud, Eisenbud, Hansen, von Lucadou, and White came over the years to very similar conclusions (Kennedy, 2003, 54). The key question is why it is so. There are no definite answer, but there are a few key hypotheses.

The first to propose a hypothesis, without a surprise, was the founder of scientific parapsychology, Joseph Banks Rhine. He noted in 1946 that psi phenomena seem to be caused by mental processes that are deeply hidden in the unconscious part of the human mind (Rhine, 1946). The unconscious mind is not only very hard to access (hence the challenges of clinical psychology in helping people), but it is also something in a constant state of flux with feelings, symbolisms and ideas brewing. Most parapsychologists today would agree that the unconscious part of the mind plays a central role in psi phenomena, but Rhine’s explanation about the elusiveness, in the end, is not helping much. A number of other parapsychologists tried to find other psychological variables to explain why psi is so elusive. Among other variables proposed to explain the situation are: the fear of psi (only happening when the conscious mind is not in charge), losing feelings of spontaneity during lab testing (and thus showing up again only when spontaneity is back), and the loss of confidence and /or belief in producing psi when there are “pressures” to perform (and thus only happening when pressure is off). These various psychological variables are certainly playing a role in one way or another, but it seems that they play only a partial role.


Other parapsychologists like George Hansen considers that psi is something dynamic and it is the resultant of a combination of pressures, where psi will only be observable if people find themselves in an “in-between” zone, what he called “liminality”. Psi seems to be stuck between pressures to be used as normal human expression and the immense pressures against any form of psi, coming from our socialization about what is normal and society in general, but also from representatives of established religions and various economic and political institutions, and of course by the “police of thought and speech” found in the pseudo-sceptics and debunkers of various kinds. In a way, it is as if there are also powerful anti-psi fields around us, and it is only in rare occasions where the pro-psi field energy is strong enough to be observable, and only for a short time.

In this vein, Kennedy notes that “Bierman (2001) suggested that the number of people becoming aware of and potentially influencing psi experiments increases as experiments are repeated. Presumably, the background opposition to psi has an increasing role with replication, while the motivation and novelty for the experimenters may decline. The evidence that psi effects abruptly drop after meta-analyses (Houtkooper, 1994, 2002) is particularly relevant” and that “If these ideas are correct, the optimum conditions for psi results would be for one person or a few people with psi ability to carry out self-tests with the firm constraint that no one else will ever learn of any positive outcomes. This is consistent with the strategy “go and tell no one” recommended by some proponents of psi (e.g., Sinetar, 2000)” (2003, 66).


Finally, and as discussed in Illuminations, others like von Lucadou proposed that psi is something akin to quantum fields, where the very fact that human consciousness is assessing if something exists in a field makes it definite (there are no more in a state of statistical flux). It is known as collapsing a quantum field by measurement. Psi is something that can only happen if the various systems at play, especially the mind of the people involved, are in a state of non-determinacy. As soon as they look carefully for psi, their quantum-like psi field collapses, and there are no more effect possible. For an accessible and detailed discussion of this idea, I suggest Chris Carter’s recent book Science and Psychic Phenomena.


These various explanations are in many ways complementary to each other. The flux of the unconscious mind, the omnipresent anti-psi pressures, and the collapse of quantum-like fields can accommodate each other into a wider explanation.

When one think of the UFO phenomenon, having in view the general elusiveness of the phenomenon, the OZ factor (common altered state of consciousness among experiencers), the active but unconscious role of the ETH ufologists in keeping the topic firmly within the realm of the ridicule and in a near hysterical conspiratorial neurosis, and the unavailability of producing convincing physical evidence, in spite of having very credible experiencers, the parallel with the challenges regarding the elusiveness of psi in parapsychology is striking.




James, W. (1960). The final impressions of a psychical researcher. In G. Murphy & R. D. Ballou (Eds.), William James on psychical research (pp. 309–325). New York: Viking.


Kennedy, J.E. (2003). “The capricious, actively evasive, unsustainable nature of psi: A summary and hypotheses”. Journal of Parapsychology 67: 53–74.


Rhine, J. B. (1946). The source of difficulties in parapsychology. Journal of Parapsychology 10: 162–168.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Illuminations: Book “reviews”

There are, so far, two published “reviews” on my book Illuminations, one in the Magonia blog by Peter Rogerson, and another one in the Fortean Times by Jerome Clark. I put the word “review” in quotation marks because they are not really book reviews. They are rather what I would consider “denunciations” of someone thinking differently than them.

The key argument of my book is about presenting a hypothesis, based on parapsychology, to propose an explanation about some, but not necessarily all, UFO events. As well, faithful to the notion of hypothesis I do not claim having the “Truth”. It seems pretty clear that the notion of “hypothesis” has escaped these two reviewers, because in the end their “reviews” were simply promoting their beliefs that either the psycho-social hypothesis (PSH) can explain (implicitly ALL) UFO sightings, or the extra-terrestrial hypothesis (ETH) is (also implicitly) the only valid explanation for ALL truly unexplained UFO sightings. In the end, they are both proving by their very own writing what I wrote in my Introduction: when it comes to UFOs people are stuck between the “nil hypothesis” (in its more sophisticated version through the PSH) and the ETH. This doctrinarian situation is at the very core of the UFO studies problem. The letter “H” for “Hypothesis” in “PSH” and in “ETH” is absolutely not deserved.

It is fascinating to read people making grandiloquent claims about the superior scientific value of the PSH, while none of their writings quote the sociological literature or used accepted operational models from sociology and psychology. For instance, highly relevant approaches like Berger and Luckmann’s social construction of reality, Serge Moscovici’s social psychology of social representation, or Maurice Halbwachs’ notions of collective memory, or even Durkheim’s concepts of collective consciousness, are not even mentioned in their “analysis”, let alone actually used in a scientific way. Why? Because sociologists know the limits of their science, and therefore the PSHers would have to admit the same…a believer can’t admit having his “truth” limited.

For the ETH, and the focus on the physical traces (CE-2) mentioned many times by Clark, I can only say that the greatest expert of CE-2, Ted Philips, is now agreeing that the UFO phenomenon is at its core a paranormal event. What more could one say about analyzing CE-2 evidence?

Finally, both Rogerson and Clark wrote about my approach being a rehashing of the 1970s. First, I have been clear in my book that I picked up where it was left off, because not much of worth has been produced (with the exception of people like Vallée, Randles and a few others who persevered) since the collective delirium caused by the Roswell / Majestic-12 non sense. Indeed, that period was a lot ado about nothing. I integrate a number of new ideas and concepts that did not exist in the 1970s. Science is not about fashion, it is about research and incremental improvement. The PSH and especially the ETH have been going nowhere for a long time now, so it is time to resume doing serious research, based on hypotheses.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Interview on Coast to Coast with George Knapp

I did another interview about the book, this time on Coast to Coast with George Knapp, in the early hours of today. I also answered a few questions from listeners calling in. I hope you will find the podcast interesting, if you missed it on live radio.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Interview at Binnal of America


Dear all,

I gave recently an interview about the book to Tim Binnal, who has a very interesting website on the paranormal called Binnal of America, where one can find many podcasts with various authors and researchers, as well as links with forward thinking writers on the topic.

The interview can be listened as podcast and it gives more details about ideas that are built-in the book. I hope you will find it interesting and enjoyable.



Sunday, August 23, 2015

FINALLY...the book is now available

Deal all,

Thank you for your great patience.

My book is now available and it can be ordered from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon France, JPC in Germany and directly from Anomalist Books.

I hope you will enjoy the reading, and please feel free to provide me with your comments and thoughts.

Best Regards,


Monday, January 5, 2015

Upcoming Book - Update

Dear all,

I signed a contract with Anomalist Books for a book entitled:

Illuminations: The UFO Experience as a Parapsychological Event

It will be available in a few months.

More to follow...