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.