He not busy be­ing born is busy dy­ing

PETER BROOKESMITH sur­veys the lat­est fads and flaps from the world of ufo­log­i­cal re­search

Fortean Times - - Ufo Files -

In a re­cent let­ter, Ni­cholas South­well won­ders ( FT354:71), among other things, “Why do peo­ple who be­lieve so whole­heart­edly that there is noth­ing to UFO phe­nom­ena care so much about [them]?” I will do my best to an­swer his ques­tions. I can’t an­swer for Robert Sheaf­fer (although I sus­pect he finds UFO con­fer­ences and those at­tend­ing per­versely en­ter­tain­ing) or any other scep­tic. Con­trary to ru­mour, UFO scep­tics dis­agree about a lot of things.

It’s per­haps worth ex­plain­ing that when I first be­came en­tan­gled with this sub­ject I was a naïf, and had to be ed­u­cated in it by Charles Bowen – then ed­i­tor of Fly­ing Saucer Re­view – and J Allen Hynek and, while struck with the sheer va­ri­ety (in­con­sis­tency) of the ‘phe­nom­ena’, couldn’t help but feel there was some­thing ob­jec­tive to them. I then drifted to the no­tion that UFO ex­pe­ri­ences were in some senses psy­chic, some on the hal­lu­ci­na­tory spec­trum, oth­ers more ex­ot­i­cally tulpoid, as Jung rather obliquely pro­posed – a phase that didn’t last long. I then re­searched or more of­ten com­mis­sioned re­search into a few UFO claims and found them spec­tac­u­larly want­ing: wit­nesses and ex­trap­o­la­tions from their ac­counts turned out to be im­pres­sively in­ac­cu­rate – even fic­tional – as well as lack­ing in fun­da­men­tal logic, which is the great un­der­pin­ning of sci­ence. ‘Sci­en­tific’ is what ufol­o­gists have tra­di­tion­ally claimed their stud­ies to be. They are noth­ing of the sort. And there has never been an un­bro­ken chain of ev­i­dence that led from UFO ex­pe­ri­ence to ac­tual ET aliens. So I didn’t ar­rive where I am by jump­ing, fully armed like Athena from the head of Zeus, into the deep end of dis­be­lief.

Nonethe­less, I don’t think there is “noth­ing to UFO phe­nom­ena”. I do think there is pretty much noth­ing to the ETH, for rea­sons I gave at mon­u­men­tal length in the se­ries ‘Ele­phants on Mars’ ( FT134:40-44, 135:30-33, 136:30-33). In the 17 years since that was pub­lished, noth­ing has hap­pened to change my mind. Nei­ther am I con­vinced by spec­u­la­tive ori­gin-myths about other di­men­sions, time-trav­ellers, denizens of a hol­low Earth, &c &c. Nor, to be pedan­tic, do I care very much about UFOs per se, de­spite three very fine sight­ings of my own. But I am in­ter­ested in how par­tic­u­lar sight­ings, pic­tures and claims are in­ter­preted – at the time and later – and, in the case of claims of (say) alien ab­duc­tions and crashed saucers, how these are con­structed, dis­sem­i­nated, and in­cor­po­rated into var­i­ous sys­tems of be­lief. All of which re­volves around the ex­pe­ri­encer. Then there are ufol­o­gists, the gath­er­ers and pur­vey­ors of UFO ‘data’, who range from scep­ti­cal en­quir­ers who test wit­ness ac­counts in the hope of ex­plain­ing them (and/or find­ing a gen­uine anom­aly), to the prob­a­bly harm­less – or so I hope – lu­natics who think Pres­i­dent Trump is keen to frighten sleep­ing gi­ants or that Nazis lurk on the far side of the Moon tend­ing a fleet of fly­ing saucers, and like odd­i­ties. Some­where in the mid­dle are the hon­est hod-car­ri­ers of ufol­ogy, who gather reams of sight­ing re­ports and try to make some sense of them – a frus­trat­ing, if not im­pos­si­ble, task if you take this stuff at face value.

All these facets of the field have their au­di­ences or mar­kets or, if you pre­fer, ad­her­ents. I make no com­ment about the con­sumers of ufol­ogy, be­cause peo­ple will be­lieve or dis­be­lieve what they will, and spend their time as they wish. How­ever, it in­ter­ests me, first of all, how ufo­log­i­cal sto­ries arise – that is, why cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences are in­ter­preted the way they are – and, se­cond, what in­duces peo­ple to ad­here, some­times quite fe­ro­ciously, to the pre­sump­tion that of­ten quite im­plau­si­ble anom­alies ex­ist ‘out there’ and in some cases have hap­pened to them. There is no doubt peo­ple have weird and in­ex­pli­ca­ble ex­pe­ri­ences, and they ought not to be mocked. There’s also no doubt that some other peo­ple, de­luded or un­scrupu­lous as the case may be, ex­ploit those peo­ple and their ex­pe­ri­ences and the au­di­ence for them for their own pe­cu­liar ends. The raw data of ufol­ogy have al­ways been screened and fil­tered and re- pre­sented by in­ves­ti­ga­tors and re­porters. And so the ac­cre­tion of a se­ries of leg­ends sup­port­ing the un­der­ly­ing myth (that we are be­ing watched, vis­ited and in­ter­fered with by be­ings from else­where) – in other words the de­vel­op­ment of a folk­lore – was al­most in­evitable, given the sci­en­tific, psy­choso­cial, and po­lit­i­cal con­text, from the end of the Se­cond World War on­ward.

That said, I there­fore plead in­no­cent to any charge of “sneer­ing” at peo­ple who be­lieve any of the cu­ri­ous things they do, ufo­log­i­cal or oth­er­wise. The ti­tle of my col­umn, “There is no sense in try­ing” ( FT352:26), was not in­tended to be snooty about UFO be­liev­ers, but point­ing to Isaac Koi’s heroic ef­forts and the hypocrisy of Ted Roe, who has in ef­fect driven Isaac to aban­don his good and use­ful work. Isaac tried; and was shafted for his trou­ble. This was an in­jus­tice and a loss worth re­port­ing. And I’m cer­tainly not try­ing to save any­one from sin – life would be very dull without sin. I merely hope that, in gen­eral, this col­umn en­ter­tains read­ers with tales from the odder edges of ufol­ogy, and that the oc­ca­sional foray into se­ri­ous­ness is at least il­lu­mi­nat­ing. So I per­sist in try­ing, in my way, af­ter all.

The raw data of ufol­ogy have al­ways been fil­tered by in­ves­ti­ga­tors and re­porters

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