He not busy being born is busy dying
PETER BROOKESMITH surveys the latest fads and flaps from the world of ufological research
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