Friday, December 16, 2016

New Interview at Spaced Out Radio

Dear all,

I gave an interview a few days ago on Spaced Out Radio.

The interview is touching on a number of topics, but it emphasizes the challenges of appreciating UFO and paranormal events as being both objective and subjective in nature.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Who's Who in the UFO Zoo- Addendum

After receiving a few messages about this series of posts about the various schools of thought found in the UFO study world, I decided to add a short clarification post about all this. This clarification, however, is based on using more technical language about how we think, and how we do research in general.

The fundamental topic behind this three-part post series is ontology, which can be defined as looking more rigorously into how various collection of assumptions about the nature of reality we use are affecting how we look at reality. For many people this may sound as a silly question, but it is indeed an important question when dealing with topics like UFOs, and the paranormal in general. UFO events cannot be studied at will in a laboratory; such events are spontaneous and unexpected. As well, they do not often leave any physical traces, and when they do such traces are ambiguous at best and can be interpreted in many ways. Hence, we have a phenomenon that exists essentially as reports from witnesses, and as evidence open to interpretation. In such circumstances, where there is no real clarity about what we are dealing with, it is even more important to clarify our own assumptions about how we approach an ambiguous topic like UFOs.

All the UFO schools of thought that were briefly presented are in one way or another dualist in their ontological assumptions. This means that, implicitly, either we are dealing with something which would be objective or subjective, but it cannot be both. It is either a "real thing" out there, or it is "all in the head". Hence, the notion of dualism. Anyone familiar with the Kantian epistemology, and phenomenology  in general, can only be skeptical about dualism. We can safely state that the world exists independently from us (the objective side), but yet we can only relate to the world through our subjective mental make-up.

For instance, when someone sees something " weird" in the sky and declare having seen a UFO, it is only a UFO because it considered " weird."  Conversely, if what is seen in the sky is considered as something natural, even if odd and exotic, then it is not construed as "weird," and therefore it is not a UFO. In both cases, however, given that what was seen in the sky is transient and not amenable to further direct study, then we are left only with we have made of this observation: for some it is a UFO, for others it is a an odd and exotic natural event. If fact, in this case, the only thing we know for sure is that we do not know what happened, and that people have put forward different interpretations of what happen. Worse, because it is transient, we will actually never know for sure. Something objective happened in the sky, and yet we only noticed subjectively the phenomenon because it was perceived as "weird". If everybody agreed that it was a plane, then it would have been construed as a non-event. To draw a sharp distinction between the objective and the subjective is quite silly in such circumstance because it depends of what we are making of it.

When I say I propose "new relationships" between the main macroscopic variables found in the UFO world (witnesses, society, and the phenomenon), I mean here new ontological  relationships; how our assumptions about reality are in relationship with reality. My first key point is that the study of UFO, if it is to be successful in moving forward, cannot be entrenched in naïve dualist ontological assumptions. One has to accept that all the variables are interdependent, the subjective and the objective are mutually influencing each other.

In the example given above, we can make all kinds of inference about what  happen, like checking with the airport and finding that there was no plane or helicopter in the sky at the time; or looking for weather patterns that were similar to other occasions when a weird natural phenomena was observed. In all these situations, whatever conclusions we are coming with, these are only reinforced through inferences, but they are no proof. Yet, other explanations that are not dualist are possible. A mundane object like a plane was in the sky, but somehow created a telepathically shared vision of something else. Or, a PK-like apparition occurred, but because of the materialist mental predispositions of the observer, it was constructed as a natural phenomenon. As one can see, a dualist world is very limiting when one tries to research a challenging phenomenon like UFOs.

This bring me to my second key point, which is that if we add psi and social psi to the ontological perspective, then we need to be ready for new assumptions that further undermine naïve dualism. Psi implies that the mind (the subjective) can alter the physical realm (the objective) through PK, and other people's mind (the enlarged subjective world) through ESP, without using physical or direct means. If one accepts this assumption about psi, then insisting on separating the objective and the subjective is not only silly, it is a serious impediment for understanding of the phenomenon.

UFO events, especially the ones that are construed as " high strangeness", involve usually witnesses in altered state of consciousness. The witnesses' perception of reality is oftentimes mix-up with powerful images and impressions coming from their unconscious mind, and yet it is also in such circumstances that psi events are more likely to occur, whether they are of a PK or ESP nature. What is objective and what is subjective in such circumstances are all mixed-up. The common recurrence of paranormal phenomena found in UFO reports makes psi-related ontological assumptions that more important. Having an open-minded attitude towards an ontology that is not only about avoiding a strong distinction between the objective and subjective, but it is also about accepting a " two-way street" where the subjective can also alter the objective. 


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Who's Who in the UFO Zoo? - Part 3

In my book Illuminations, I proposed what I called the Parapsychological Hypothesis. It may constitute a 7th approach, but I think it is more than that. It was not intended to be a declaration of the “Truth” about UFOs, as in the present state of knowledge no one can make such a claim. Rather, it is an attempt to put together a more holistic construct that could integrate the so-called paranormal aspects of the UFO experience, reported by many witnesses over the years.

Another feature of the Parapsychological Hypothesis is that it actually builds on all the previous schools of thought. Like all the other approaches, the Nil hypothesis is integrated in that I am not questioning the issue that many mundane objects and phenomena have been declared unidentified, while in fact they were identifiable. Similarly, I am also supportive of the ETH and sophisticated ETH approaches in that I acknowledge the existence of numerous cases where the phenomenon has a degree of objective reality that cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. As well, I agree that in a number of occasions, UFO observations can lead someone to think that objects appear controlled by some form of intelligence. The real question is whose intelligence? Poltergeist events also appear to be controlled by some form of intelligence, and yet there are every reasons to think that such intelligence is the unconscious one of those involved in the events.


My approach also integrates many elements of the psycho-social hypothesis (PSH). The UFO phenomenon is socially constructed, as the language and the images we use to describe odd events have an impact on our understanding of the phenomenon. Similarly, the psychological conditions of the witnesses will shape their perception (like any of our perceptions about everything else, for that matter). The sophisticated version of the PSH provides interesting additional tools to study UFO events from a psychological perspective, even if the PSH cannot explain any aspects that have a degree of objective reality. Yet, I must also underline that I reject unequivocally and forcefully every aspect of the PSH that builds on condescending assumptions towards the witnesses that they are just ignorant, syndrome suffering or fantasy prone individuals  (especially in the simplistic and improved versions of the PSH). This is certainly a major and completely unacceptable flaw of that hypothesis. In the 21st century, no social scientist worth of that name would accept such implicit assumptions based on crude 1950-style scientism.

Yet, there is still more to the Parapsychological Hypothesis, as it is in many ways “plugging the holes” that exist in the study of UFOs; it opens the way to a truly comprehensive approach for studying UFOs. As noted, in the first post of this series, the UFO phenomenon is based on three fundamental elements:

1.      Witnesses, or experiencers, who report very odd and strange events;

2.      Phenomena that have a degree of external, or objective, reality, as there are physical traces left, multiple witnesses reporting very similar observations at the same time, and a core experience that is relatively invariant across time;

3.      Society, and its cultural dynamics and particular relationships of power, that influence how we understand the world, as well as what is being reported and what is being ignored.

A sound study of the UFO phenomenon cannot be done properly unless all those three elements, or variables, are integrated into the analysis. The problem of all six schools of thought presented earlier is that really only integrate 2 of those elements, never all three at same time.

If we represent graphically the entire literature (that tries to explain the UFO phenomenon, which is by the way a small percentage of the UFO literature), it would look like this.

 Let me explain.
  • The arrow showing relationship 1, between the witnesses and the phenomenon, represents the focus of the Nil Hypothesis, namely how the witnesses are projecting their own assumptions into reality.
  •  Relationship 2, is what the simplistic ETH is emphasizing by looking into how the phenomenon is impacting the witnesses who report odd things.
  • The sophisticated ETH focus also on relationship 2, but implies that there is a relationship 3, where the phenomenon also influences society in subtle ways (notion particularly prevalent in Jacques Vallée’s texts).
  • The simplistic psycho-social hypothesis (PSH), on the other hand, focusses on the relationship 5, where the narrative about aliens and spaceships is the driving force behind any UFO observation. As well, the supporters of the simplistic PSH take for granted that relationship 1 is directly determined by relationship 5. In other words, witnesses are not important for them.
  • The improved PSH adds also a focus on relationship 6, where prominent individuals can also influence society’s narrative about aliens and spaceships. Yet, the improved PSH also assumes a relatively direct relationship between 5 and 1, so for them too the witnesses’ experience is not that important.
  • Finally, the sophisticated PSH still focusses on 5 and 6, but adds a revised version of relationship 1 that is not fully dictated by social narratives about UFOs. In other words, in the sophisticated PSH, what is going on in the life of the witnesses counts, but they still ignore the possibility of a somewhat objective phenomenon.
The Parapsychological Hypothesis introduces, fundamentally, two innovations. The first innovation is done through the notion of social psi being possibly involved in UFO waves, which adds the relationship 4 to the mix, where collective social psi could actually provide shapes, content and behaviour to the phenomenon. In concrete words, if people were actually seeing airship in the late 19th century, ghost planes and ghost rockets in the early and mid 20th century, and a variety of “spaceships” in the 2nd half of the 20th century, then unless one is considering all the witnesses as inept people, then society is influencing the phenomenon directly. By doing so, the Parapsychological Hypothesis actually completes all the six possible ways of looking at the UFO phenomenon. It patches this hole.
The second innovation, by adding the parapsychological concept of psi in the study of UFOs, is that it actually fully embraces the possibility of the inter-dependency between all three variables. In the case of the relationship between the witnesses and the phenomenon (relationships 1 and 2), if a psi effect occurs, then the witnesses can possibly affect the objective reality of the phenomenon (through ESP and Psychokinesis) while being affected by the same phenomenon (altered state of consciousness, traumatic experience, etc.). There is no need to decide if it is a subjective issue (relationship 1) or an objective phenomenon (relationship 2), as it can actually be both at the same time (new relationship “C” on the chart).
Similarly, the Parapsychological Hypothesis is fully embracing the interdependency between social narratives about UFOs and aliens (relationship 5) and the witnesses’ capacity to influence the same social narrative about UFOs and aliens (relationship 6). Yet, by doing so, the Parapsychological Hypothesis does not ignore the existence of the phenomenon like the supporters of the PSH do (in all its three versions). The witnesses and larger society exchange on ideas, images, narratives, and understanding about what is behind the UFO phenomenon (new relationship “B” on the chart), but such information is not translated directly into the content of the phenomenon. Such transfer of information about shape, content and behaviour of the phenomenon can only be understood by a careful analysis of how witnesses interact with the phenomenon (the personal dimension), and how society interacts directly with the phenomenon (what I called the impersonal aspects of the UFO phenomenon in my book Illuminations).
Lastly, as noted above, there is a possible direct interaction between society and the phenomenon (new relationship “A” on the chart) where collective social psi effects can affect the phenomenon and in turn it can shape new ways in society (like the creation of UFO-related cults).
By adding the possibility of the Parapsychological Hypothesis in the study of UFOs, it certainly makes things much more complicated. It forces the researcher to incorporate all three central variables (witnesses, phenomenon, and society) in the analysis, instead of only two as the other schools of thought on UFO do. As well, by accepting that all six possible interactions between those variables can be relevant, instead of just picking a handful of them that fits one’s worldview, we have an approach that requires multiple levels of analysis. This is harder, but this is also more rigorous and it creates better conditions to elucidate what we are dealing with.
The final question is, then, who in the UFO zoo is seriously willing to take a truly comprehensive approach to study UFOs?


Monday, October 17, 2016

Who's Who in the UFO Zoo? - Part 2

The fourth school of thought is the simplistic Psycho-social Hypothesis. This approach has a different focus than the older approaches seen so far. It essentially emerged as a popular idea in the early 1980s. For the supporters of this approach the UFO phenomenon is essentially a mass phenomenon, made of socially shared narratives about UFOs, and alien visitations. These narratives are built on science-fiction literature and cinema, on the thousands of ETH books on UFOs that are essentially acting as rumour mills about aliens. Those narratives are influenced by the commercialization of popular culture, as well as by the decline of traditional religions compensated by belief systems linked to UFOs and aliens. A crucial difference, here, is that these authors are not interested in looking into actual individual observations, except to use the ones that fits their own explanation as illustrations of their theories. For them, the social narratives about UFOs and aliens is what makes people see UFOs in the sky and aliens on the ground in the first place. The magazine Magonia has been a well-known source of publications for this approach. To put it in scientific terms, society (or social and cultural dynamics) is the independent variable, having an influence on the observers (dependent variable) by filling their mind with images of aliens from outer space. As a second order of effect, mundane objects becomes interpreted as aliens from outer space, and by doing so integrates also the Nil Hypothesis into its framework.  

For instance, in the April 1984 issue of the magazine Magonia, Peter Rogerson wrote that “It must be further emphasised that the UFO experience is not ‘all in the mind’ in the sense of being the product of the imagination of isolated individuals. It is a social and cultural phenomenon much more than a psychological one. The whole problem of the content of the kind of experiences I have been discussing is wholly unresolved. Why, for example, should hypnogogic imagery involve ‘faces in the dark’? What are the reasons behind the transcultural stereotyping in UFO experiences? In recent years the interests of the Editors of this magazine have been increasingly concentrated, not on individual anomalous experiences, but on the social context within which such experiences take place, and which generates them. The experiences both condition, and are conditioned by, the beliefs of society by a process of mutual feedback. Within a social context many apparently ‘absurd’ beliefs and experiences have depth and meaning” (Magonia, As noted by Rogerson, the linkages between the individual experiences and the greater social context is not easy to make, and the simplistic version of the psychosocial hypothesis has been criticized on this ground, leading to more sophisticated approaches within the realm of the psychosocial perspective.


The fifth school of thought is in many ways an improved version over the somewhat condescending attitude towards observers that is implied in the simplistic psychosocial hypothesis. Because of that, I would call it the improved Psycho-social Hypothesis. This approach, contrary to all the previous ones, originates mostly from academia and emerged in the 1990s. One well-known authors from this school of thought is the British folklorist David Clark. It is definitely more sophisticated than the simplistic version of the psychosocial hypothesis in that it brings back the experiencer in the analysis, even if its main tenets are similar to the simplistic version of the psychosocial hypothesis. The experiencers are now considered as being candid in reporting their experiences and thus are active agents in creating unwittingly the UFO myth. Similarly, experiencers’ reactions in face of zealous defence officials or scientists trying quell the UFO rumours at all costs are perfectly understandable in taking their own experience even more seriously, and thus in turn reinforcing even more the UFO myth. Clark’s website provides ample evidence of this much more generous attitude towards experiencers ( In scientific terms, both the observers and society are inter-dependent variables, as they influence each other, but in the end, like in the simplistic Psycho-social Hypothesis, there is a second order of effect, where mundane objects become interpreted as aliens from outer space by observers, and by doing so integrates also the Nil Hypothesis into its framework.


In Clark’s book How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth he wrote that he does not “seek to disparage the UFO syndrome as a false belief held by deluded people.  On the contrary, the PSH [Psycho-Social Hypothesis] sees all aspects of ufology … as interesting and worthy of serious study.  It seeks to understand the whole syndrome both as modern folklore and as a myth in the making.” Later he adds “accounts of UFO experience form the core of the syndrome, but the stories do not constitute ‘evidence’. They are folklore. […] Culture—not experience—creates the UFO interpretation but some experiences are independent of culture”. In other words, the actual experience of people is still fundamentally irrelevant, and there are no phenomena to talk about except the myth-making process about UFOs. Clark is often accused of ignoring both the observers’ own experience and that there is a physical substrata linked to the UFO phenomenon and that his approach cannot account for many difficult cases.


The sixth school of thought can be seen as further refinement of the psychosocial hypothesis by bringing back the subject own reality into the phenomenon, and by doing so trying to close the difficult gap between the “psycho” (individual) part and the social (or collective) part of the hypothesis. In this sense, it can be called the sophisticated Psycho-social Hypothesis. It emerged somewhere in the early 2000s. The main tenets of this approach is that UFOs exist both as social reality that influences the inner worlds of observers and social representations of the outer world, but the individual’s inner world is also an important variable that it is not necessarily a “sample” of larger social narratives about UFOs. Hence, according to this approach individual UFO events deserved to be studied in full, including developing a good understanding of the witnesses as people. To put in scientific terms, society is an independent variable, and to a lesser extent the inner world of the observers is also an independent variable, both of which have only a degree of interdependency.


The research conducted by religion scholar David Halperin is a good example of this perspective. In this case, although social dynamics and narratives do play an important role in shaping UFO experiences, the individual observers’ own reality is not dismissed nor ignored. Like in the case of the improved psycho-social hypothesis, influential individuals can indeed shape societal perspectives on UFOs, and therefore what sociologists call human agency is recognized. One can think of George Adamski as an example of someone who created a new genre (the contactees) soon to be copied by many others. This approach is also much less deterministic (and much less condescending) than the simplistic Psycho-social hypothesis, given that it fully recognizes the need to investigate also the inner world of the observers to make a sound analysis of a UFO event. Each UFO event is seen as unique because they are experienced by unique individuals having a unique life history.


For instance, Halperin on his excellent blog Journal of a UFO Investigator, takes great care to look into the information available about the personal life of UFO witnesses: what kind of symbolism would be specifically meaningful to them, what kind of difficulties and tensions they were facing at the time, etc. Furthermore, this approach does not judge the projection of one’s inner world into the outer world as some sort pathology or as the behavior some naïve or ignorant people. We all do this in one form or another, it is not just about UFOs. In a way, this approach resembles quite a bit the writings of Jung on UFOs.


Like with the simplistic Psycho-Social Hypothesis and the improved approach, there is no recognition that an anomalistic phenomenon occurred in any case. This is a significant problem when physical traces can actually be pointed out or very odd anomalies occur, as those approaches do not have any explanation to offer for them.

In the next post, I will discuss the place and role of what I have called the Parapsychological Hypothesis.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Who’s Who in the UFO Zoo? - Part 1

When people use the expression “UFO”, whether it be in a book, a documentary, a newspaper article, on a website, or on YouTube, there is an implicit assumption that the meaning is actually understood, and that everyone agrees on such meaning. The fact is that it is not the case. “UFO” has many implicit meanings. How people define UFOs, in turn, tells us a lot about the various ways of thinking about the topic, and more particularly helps identifying clusters of authors thinking along the same lines. In other words, this helps figuring out the various “school of thought” on UFOs. Although some of those schools of thought are well-known, some important variations are often under estimated.

The first obvious misunderstanding comes out of thinking that “UFO” necessarily means a spaceship from another world. Many people using the term “UFO” are actually conveying a meaning that stays close to the actual origins of the acronym to mean “Unidentified Flying Object’, namely something that is not identified and therefore they do not jump to the conclusion that it is a spaceship of some sort. The second common misunderstanding comes from that many people use the work “UFO” out of convention, or for simplicity’s sake, because UFO is the best known term on the topic, but they actually mean “UAP” (for Unexplained Aerial Phenomena), as they do not even think that it is necessarily an “object”, and let alone a “spaceship”. I am certainly guilty of that.

The misunderstanding becomes even greater when one is reading the specialized literature on the topic. Depending on the writer’s starting assumptions, the actual detailed meaning of what are UFOs will vary greatly from one author to the next. In spite of individual variations among writers on the topic of UFOs, it is possible however to group them in loosely arranged “schools of thought”, by using their core assumptions about what they mean when the use the word UFO, and what degree of reality they do assign to the phenomenon (ontological assumptions). To complicate matters a bit more, some of those “schools of thought” have evolved over time, and older assumptions are now rarely used without much caveats and nuances. Hence, distinctions across time are crucial to understand who is who in the UFO zoo.
By using the core assumptions of the main writers on the topic of UFOs, it is possible to identify 6 different schools of thought that have emerged over time. This post intends to present a brief overview of each. But more fundamentally, this overview of the various schools of thought on UFO leads to a key observation: UFOs are made of weird phenomena, people observing them, and a social context for people to make sense of the weirdness. Those three dimensions of the UFO phenomena are all necessary for UFO to exist, and when must take of all into consideration to try understanding the phenomenon.   
Six Schools of Thought
The first one is often called the Nil Hypothesis. This approach to UFO emerged in parallel to the ETH (Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis – see below) in the late 1940s. Its main focus is a negative one and it is deeply intertwined with the ETH, in the sense that it tries to proof that none of the UFOs are spaceships, but rather mundane objects. This approach is rather simplistic because it is built on a binary assumption of real or not real object, implying that the “alieness” of a UFO is only in the head of the observer. The inner world (beliefs, ignorance, wishful thinking, etc.) of the observer is what “creates” the UFO phenomenon and it is projected on a mundane object or natural event. To put it in scientific terms, the inner world of the observer is the independent variable; the parts that calls the shot. The phenomenon is the dependent variable, the one that is transformed by the independent variable.  
The illustrative authors of this school of thought regarding UFOs are Donald H. Menzel and Lyle G. Boyd in their book The World of Flying Saucers (1963). They wrote in the preface that “he [Menzel] soon concluded (with a slight feeling of disappointment!) that the flying saucers were not vehicles from other worlds but were only mundane objects and events of various kinds, some of them commonplace, some familiar chiefly to meteorologists, physicists, and astronomers” (p. xiii). According to this perspective, an abnormal aerial phenomenon is only abnormal due to the ignorance of common people who reports those objects. In other words, they are projecting their ill-informed beliefs into an event they misinterpret. This approach takes into consideration “fads” and “panics” about UFOs, which relates to the social realm, but the central argument is one of a physical object or natural phenomenon being misconstrued. This approach is now less accepted among sceptics given its simplistic nature, and at times the quite condescending tone used towards observers, as they are complex psychological and sociological factors that require being included in the analysis, as well as very exotic natural phenomena poorly understood by the scientists themselves.
The second school of thought is certainly the best known one and it is usually referred to as the ETH (Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis). As noted above, this approach emerged also in the late 1940s, when weird aerial phenomena started to attract greater attention by the general public and were increasingly accredited to alien visitors from outer space. This approach integrates the criticism from the Nil Hypothesis in that it accepts that many reported UFOs are indeed misconstrued conventional objects or exotic natural phenomena. Its authors often refer to the Blue Book Project statistics that about 5% of all UFO observations are true ‘unknown”, namely well documented and yet unexplainable. For them, UFO means this residual group of unexplainable reports. Many will use implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the logical fallacy that “what else could it be but alien from another world”, invoking the apparent “intelligent” behavior of the phenomenon. And then, from the “what else could it be” they usually take the last step to declare that those UFOs are indeed aliens from another world. This approach grants full autonomy to the phenomenon by ascribing it to powerful extra-terrestrial visitors, makes the observer essentially a passive bystander, and relegate the problem of identifying those observations to governmental authorities. In scientific terms, the phenomenon is seen as the independent variable, while the observers are the dependent variable (they will see only what aliens want us to see).
The list of authors illustrative of this approach is long, and each of them have their own little variation and interpretation of the phenomenon. However, just to take one example, Coral Lorenzen wrote in Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of the invasion from outer space (1962) that “there are no definite indications of hostility on the part of our visitors; but equally important there is no indication of friendliness either. […] To fail to educate the public concerning the facts at hand, however, is to court danger of a particularly insidious nature. The existence of a species of superior beings in the universe could cause the civilization of earth to topple” (p. 278). In same breath she calls for governmental authorities to be both more transparent and proactive against the implied threat. In spite of having absolutely not physical proof that UFOs are spaceships from another world, this approach still has many followers today, particularly in the movement of the so-called “exopolitics”.
The third school of thought has been oftentimes labeled as the Paranormal Hypothesis, but at closer look it would be more accurate to call it the Sophisticated ETH. This approach builds on the last two approaches. It incorporates the criticism of the Nil Hypothesis that many observations have indeed nothing anomalistic about them. Yet, this approach also criticizes the ETH on a number of grounds, but mostly about the completely illogical behaviour of the alleged aliens visitations and the complete lack of physical evidence of any ET visitations. However, it does not ignore the strangeness and physical reality of many UFO-related events. Instead, it implies that some intelligent forces that we may not ever be able to understand are behind the unexplainable events, and they affect individual observers and societies as whole. To put in scientific terms, the phenomenon is the independent variable, while both the observers and society are the dependent variables.
The main authors who have sponsored this approach are Jacques Vallée and John Keel, emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their approach is very much an extension of the ETH however, but it removes some of the most problematic elements of the ETH, namely the persistent absence of physical proof of extra-terrestrial visitations. The phenomenon is still considered as somewhat independent of the observer, even if the experience can be very personal and unique to each observer. UFO events are oftentimes construed as being physical in some ways, but resisting conventional explanations. At times, Keel described them as something similar to hauntings or demonic manifestations. Hence, it is attributed to undefined forces that influence in complex ways both individuals and societies, for better or for worse. This approach still advocates for greater transparency and involvement of the authorities, but in the name of science rather than in the name of handling visitors with dubious intentions. The conclusion of Vallée and Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky (2009) covers most those ideas in a succinct manner. It is deemed the “paranormal” hypothesis because it implies some form of non-human intelligence being behind the phenomenon, but such intelligence is not necessarily extra-terrestrial or embodied in the usual ways of using those terms. This approach has been criticized by the both the supporters of the ETH for its lack of capacity to explain how such ethereal visitors could exist in the first place, and by the supporters of the more sophisticated version of the nil hypothesis whereas disembodied entities and object are simply projections of our own unconscious unto our perception of reality (to be discussed in the next post).   


Friday, September 30, 2016

Real Conspiracies and Conspiracy Stories that Sell – Part 2

My last post was raising the question as whether the content of UFO-related conspiracies is actually possible. This question was not asked based on whether extra-terrestrial life is possible, nor if it is possible to produce technological devices to travel the vastness of interstellar space. The actual veracity of UFO conspiracy has never been proven (i.e. what is allegedly hidden), so this is not an issue that can be addressed in any meaningful way. Similarly, the question was not about how human can invent such narrative about conspiracies and get such narrative spreading throughout popular culture. Social scientists have already studied this issue in great detail. No, my question is in many ways much more sociological in nature, and it is about whether humans can actually enact such conspiracies?

There are many variations of the UFO-related conspiracies, and it would completely unrealistic trying to assess them all. So, I intend to focus on the main characteristics rather than specific elements that might be unique to one version or another. The narratives linked to UFO conspiracies are not a new, and pre-dated very much the Roswell story that emerged in the late 1970s. Very early in the 1950s, the issue as to whether the American government was not truthful about its knowledge of UFOs was raised by a number of authors. Just as an example, in 1953 Donald Keyhoe wrote that “the secret intelligence analysis should be made public, with all the evidence which led to the final conclusion. […] their massed evidence that the saucers are interplanetary […]” [1]. The same story is repeated a dozen years later by Coral Lorenzen, as she states that the layman “[…] is faced with the fact that official opinions often contradict the available evidence. He concludes that a ‘conspiracy of official silence exists’ concerning ‘true facts’ "[2].

These two examples illustrate the basic, or original, conspiracy about UFOs. Summarily, it can be described as “the government” (whatever that means) knowing the true nature of UFOs, which is that they are spaceships from another world and are driven by aliens visiting the Earth. The intents of the aliens are not clear, but “the government” knows what it is, and it may be an accomplice in having done some sort of deal with the aliens. For reasons unclear, “the government” refuses to disclose such knowledge publicly.
There is a more sophisticated version of the conspiracy story surrounding UFOs. It is less dramatic but also much less popular, and it is based on the notion that there are real anomalies linked to the UFO phenomenon, and people in “the government” know about it, but they do not really know what to make of it. They may have some small secret programmes to keep track of them, but these are not terribly successful. Yet, there is a fear that governmental ignorance might be seen as problematic by the population, and therefore “the government” prefers hiding the little it actually knows, and suppresses those who want to discuss it. This is actually a reasonable statement, and there is enough evidence to show that it was more or less true some time ago. Yet, “the government” also hides secret research programmes behind stage fake UFO events to confuse people, distract attention, and potentially trying to influence populations for purposes that are quite unclear. This is also a reasonable statement, as there is evidence to support it, but it dies not seem to be as extensive as one might imagine. Finally, the phenomenon being itself quite elusive, seems to be engaged in its own cover-up, independent from the one of “the government”. This last secret can be explained by the elusiveness of psi, and does not require a non-human intelligence to be. Jacques Vallée is a well-known representative of this view on UFO-related conspiracies. In his book Dimensions: A casebook of alien contact (1988), he has an entire chapter on this issue entitled the “Triple Cover-up".

Some people might say that people or artefacts actually came forward with the “real deal”. Yet, those stories appear to be make-belief events, as many analysts noted about Philip Corso, Bob Lazar, several of the Roswell “witnesses” and the quasi-totality of the Majestic papers, which after much verifications leave us rather empty handed.
So, what should we make of all of this?
As noted in the previous post, the first characteristic to keep in mind is that secrecy is a normal social dynamics found in every walk of life. To find secrets surrounding UFOs is actually normal. A complete lack of secrecy would be actually suspicious. The fact that many governments of the world have surrendered most of their UFO files over the years (as noted in  my book Illuminations), but have kept a few away from the public eye is actually a good sign. We are dealing with a “normal” secrecy situation. The next question should be: are there secrets worth trying to keep to maintain social relationships? Obviously, the military and the defense establishment have relationships with their parent state, which they are charged to defend. Secrets involving the protection of the state are therefore to be expected. As UFO-related documents are being declassified over time, every single UFO files that remained classified for a longer time had a component that, if revealed at the time of the first disclosure, would have endangered the relationship (e.g. individuals named in documents, sensitive detection system still operational, sensitive military activities, etc.). There are no big alien invasion stories, ever. There is only attempts to protect relationships of trust between various parts of the government. Furthermore, those declassified files illustrate that the direct or indirect admittance of governmental ignorance about UFOs was finally acknowledged. The cover-up about governmental ignorance is no more, because no one inside or outside government seems able to crack the UFO mystery in any meaningful way; there is nothing to be ashamed of anymore.

Then, there are relationships with industries involving at times massive amounts of money, which demand secrecy (to keep the technological edge of both the supplier and the client). New technologies are constantly developed and new military applications are routinely classified. This is perfectly normal. This illustrates that only something valuable need to be keep secret, the second characteristics of secrecy. Yet, once again, when a secret loses its value, the secrets goes away. A good example of it is about balloons and UFOs. The US Air Force historical service published in 1958 Contributions to Balloon Operations to Research and Development, an unclassified document. In there, (pp. 72-74) it states clearly that balloons were often mistaken for UFOs and they knew about it, and the chief scientist Gildenberg even wrote in the unclassified Holloman base newspaper about this issue. By 1958, balloon-based research had lost its edge, and there was no need to keep the secret about it. Gildenburg testified at the U.S. Air Force official investigation on Roswell in the mid-1990s, saying the same thing he wrote in 1950s…. Once again, no sinister secrets about alien invasion. Once the need to camouflage technological research into UFO stories is gone, people are quite open about it. Another example can be found in the Project Beta (2005), written by Greg Bishop, where he describes an elaborate UFO-related scheme that was put in place for distracting a ufologist to figure out the latest research on ground to satellite communications. Bishop, years later once that technology was no more a big deal, was able to uncover the whole story without major difficulties, people readily admitting what they did.

This leads us to the third characteristics, which is about that it is hard to keep secrets. People will talk, especially if they have an issue with those who keep them out of the secret. The UFO literature is filled with stories of people who were told to shut up, and one of the latest incarnations of these stories can be found in the various testimonies of the Disclosure Project Briefing Document (2001), produced by Steven M. Greer. Yet, a closer look at those testimonies shows that there were attempts to put a lid on UFO stories, not that their actual alien-related content was true or proven… A critical distinction. The document attempts to show that there was a conspiracy about the "conspiracy". From a sociological perspective, this needs to be interpreted in a sound perspective. Those who are kicked out of the secret tend to talk, especially if it is done in a hurtful way. That does not mean the had a good understanding of the secret, especially if they stumbled on the secret by accident. Yet, even more importantly, many other people who were “in”, once they leave in good terms, actually do speak as well! All those military people and officials who came forward telling their story about the “no big deal” are also participating in spilling the secret. Their voice cannot be ignored just because it is inconvenient. There stories are also quite clear that those UFO-related secrets were not about aliens from other space or bizarre and complicated social experiments conducted for nebulous reasons. The secret is consistently described as much pragmatic and down-to-earth in nature and quite localized in scope.

Finally, the last characteristics is about the ethical nature of secrets. The less ethical and the more people involved the harder it is to keep it secret. The vast majority of people in the military and defense establishments are actually very ethical people. Once they get engaged in something unethical, the secret is bound to come out, even if it takes some time to occur. One can think about the MK-Ultra experiment or the secret military operations in Cambodia during the Vietnam War or the Abu Ghraib scandal; people’s conscience will eventually act out. If the governments of the world would have a sinister grand deal with aliens going back all the way to the 1940s, it would have been out long time ago. Similarly, if grand scale weird, complicated, and risky techno-social experiment would have been conducted in various areas of the world, this would have come out too. Unethical conspiracies to be enacted by normally ethical people do not remain secret for long. 

Does any proponent of UFO-related conspiracies actually try to make sense of them sociologically? After all, conspiracies are human-made and are therefore explainable by tools of social and human sciences! But of course, these proponents do not feel any need to meet such requirement. Why would they? It makes their stories a lot more interesting and captivating. It allows their stories to remain consistent with the original UFO narrative. In the end, it helps selling books of a particular genre. In other cases, it is partially unconscious, as some of those authors come to believe their own stories in spite of the blatant lack of evidence, and their complete inability to explain why such grand and risky conspiracies would be put in place. This explains why such dynamics can go on forever.

In fact, if there is a conspiracy it is the one put forward by the numerous UFO-related authors going back all the way to the 1950s and their unscrupulous publishers (and now audio-visual producers)who are maintaining alive the narrative about conspiracies. Like in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum we have a conspiracy about imagined conspiracies. But let's face it: this little dirty secret has been out for quite a while. It is seriously time to move on.

[1] Keyhoe, Donald. (1953). Flying Saucers From Outer Space. New York: Permabooks, p. 217.

[2] Lorenzen, Coral. (1966). Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of the invasion from space. New York: Signet, p. 278.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Real Conspiracies and Conspiracy Stories that Sell – Part 1

Finally, I am able to resume the blog. I apologize for my long silence.

I attended a symposium a little while ago on UFOs, parapsychology, and other related topics. The symposium was attended by first class researchers and writers, and it made me think a lot about the notion of conspiracy in the UFO world. The two notions of UFO and conspiracy are inextricably linked to one another, particularly in the United States. One must be aware, however, that it is much less the case outside the U.S., even in neighboring Canada. In Europe and elsewhere, research on UFO tends to focus on the new physical science aspects, the social dynamics, and to a lesser degree on the paranormal dimension.  
This post is looking at what we actually know about conspiracies, and how this knowledge could be helpful to make an assessment of UFO conspiracies, which are otherwise opaque in nature, and their place in framing our understanding of the phenomenon.
A number of authors in the U.S. have studies the belief in conspiracy theories in general, and on UFOs in particular. For instance, one can refer to Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy (2013), the edited volume of Debbora Battaglia E.T. Culture (2005), Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America (1998), UFO Crash at Roswell (1997) by Saler, Ziegler and Moore, or the classic book by David Jacobs The UFO Controversy in America (1975). These books and others, in one way or another, look into why people believe in conspiracies, why conspiracies are enduring even if no substantive facts emerge or when counter-proofs are provided, what kind of people believe in conspiracy, and how conspiracies theories evolve and mutate. These questions are certainly legitimate social science research issues to study, and these books provide a very illuminating analysis of the American society, and of the inner social dynamics of the UFO buffs’ world.  

What has been much less done is to study UFO-related conspiracies from the point of view of the sociology of conspiracy; to try understanding whether UFO-related conspiracies make any sense from a sociological perspective. After all, conspiracy is a real social phenomenon with its own dynamics like project management, or bureaucracy. The sociology of conspiracy is in fact quite old and can be traced back to an article from the well-known sociologist Georg Simmel in a 1906 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, entitled “The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies”.

Simmel wrote that: “The keeping of secret is something so unstable, the temptations to betrayal are so manifold, in many cases such a continuous path leads from secretiveness to indiscretion, that unlimited faith in the former contains an incomparable preponderance of the subjective factor. For this reason those secrets societies whose rudimentary forms begin with the secret shared by two, and whose enormous extension through all times and places has not even yet been appreciated, even quantitatively—such societies have exerted efficient disciplinary influence upon moral accountability of men. For there resides in confidence of men towards each other as high moral value in the companion fact that this confidence is justified”. (p. 473)
Here are some of the insightful observations from Simmel about how secrecy and conspiracy decorticated. First of all, secrecy is one of the oldest form of social dynamics. As soon as you have three people or more, then we have at least three pairs of people who have their own unique one-on-one relationship, who will inevitably not share 100% of the relationship with the other pairs. Hence, secrets are born. This observation at the micro level also stands at the macro level. People have work and family secrets that do not cross into the other realm. Similarly, large organizations have secrets that are shared only internally to their members, and it can become a key issue of competitiveness between organizations, like between Apple and Samsung. The same can be said of intelligence agencies that have a hard time sharing information with each other because they want to protect their own sources.

The second point is that secret information becomes valuable because only those who are in have access to it. It is true in creating special relationship between individuals. The secret moments are what make their relationship special and valuable. This is also true for large organizations, which compete against each other. Conversely, once the secret is spilled, the information loses its value. Sometime, it is not the content of the information that actually brings value, but simply the existence of a secret. The classic example is Freemasonry, which has it rituals published in many different books over years, while its true value is in “having been there” when the ritual is performed. The real value in this case remains in the common experience rather than in its content.

A third characteristics is that secrets are very hard to keep! Bragging about being part of a secret is a phenomenon that goes back to beginning of time, and it is how the police today very often catches small time criminals. Then, revenge against those who wronged you, or selfish calculations to obtain favors in exchange for information are the story of modern spy recruiting. For instance, Oleg Penkovsky was profoundly disgusted with the actions of the Soviet Union and became a volunteer spy for the West who had a key role during the Cuban missile crisis. Richard Ames simply sold crucial American secrets to the Soviet Union for money.

Large organization based on secrecy are well aware of those problems and try establish various measures to protect their secrets. One of those measures is to ensure that those entrusted with secrets are sharing the values behind the secrets. For instance, the secret of the cryptographic work done against German signals during World War II at Bletchley Park was a very well guarded one, and this many years after the war was over. The people were fully dedicated to protect Britain and the Western world against fascism, raid bombing, and U-boot attacks. They had very strong motivations to keep it secret. The Mafia, on the other hand, tries to keep secrets based on family values, and try to recruit among family members. But their goals are much less noble, and eventually someone talks. That’s what gangsters’ stories are made of. The Watergate scandal was easily uncovered by two journalists because of the immorality of what was done. People were willing to talk and provide proofs.

Another measure is fear and intimidation. This can work up to a point, but eventually people reach a point where they have nothing to lose, and they spread the secret. Once again, organized crime is a classic example of using fear and intimidation, and yet people eventually talk. Witness protection programmes have been created to give these people a second chance after they reveal the secret. State intelligence agencies can use the threat of prosecution and jail time, or even worse, if people reveal their secrets, and yet we have people like Snowden who was willing to risk it all.

Lastly, organizations are using secrets as a way to get people motivated to keep secrets! It is essentially done by getting more secrets over time, and moving one closer to the inner circle. Cults are classic examples of it, but organized crime is the same. Intelligence agencies provide high clearances as people get promoted to upper ranks. Yet, this does not always work. For instance, Oleg Gordievsky, the Soviet resident in London, which was a pretty high position in the KGB, defected to the West when he could.

Ultimately, the morality or immorality of a secret is often a defining characteristic as to whether a secret can last for long, assuming that people in are essentially normal people. A secret that supports a cause that is construed as noble and moral will last long. The exception are immoral secrets that are kept by profoundly depraved people, like in the case of pedophile rings. Such secrets tend to be held closely because of the serious consequences for those in if the secret is revealed. But it also imposes a limitation on the size of the secret group, as when the circle enlarges too much, sooner or later someone will have problems with his/her conscience. Many modern-day terrorist plots were stopped in this manner, as the circle becomes larger.

In light of those sociological characteristics linked to secrets and conspiracies, how well the UFO secrets and conspiracy fare?