Drain­ing the swamp

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

Fortean Times - - Ufo Files -

Pur­vey­ors of UFO pho­to­graphs can’t win. Ex­hibit a blobby, out-of-fo­cus thing, and the cho­rus will come: “It’s a blobby, out-of­fo­cus thing! Did you dip the cat in lu­mi­nous paint and throw it in the air?” and sim­i­lar ex­pres­sions of dis­re­spect. Pro­duce a sharp, de­tailed im­age and the cho­rus chants: “Bah, ob­vi­ously a fake. Only fakes are that sharp and de­tailed.” There are, of course, sharp and un- de­tailed UFO pho­tos, which a bit of ex­pe­ri­ence of these things will tell you is what hap­pens when some­one’s pasted some­thing on to a win­dow and shot the view of dreary sub­ur­bia with­out.

Fly­ing Saucer Re­view was full of so­phis­ti­cal ‘analy­ses’ of UFO snaps, which didn’t mean much and def­i­nitely fell on the col­lec­tive nose with Derek Simp­son’s won­der­ful Warmin­ster hoax (see FT331:40-47 and the Mag­o­nia web­site). Iron­i­cally it was Charles Bowen, then edi­tor of FSR, who had re­marked that “It is a well-known fact that UFO pho­to­graphs are the least re­li­able ev­i­dence of the ex­is­tence of the UFO phe­nom­e­non”; but that didn’t stop him get­ting huffy about the Simp­son ex­per­i­ment. The first re­ally ob­jec­tive at­tempt to in­ter­ro­gate this kind of pic­ture was Bill (Ground Saucer Watch) Spauld­ing’s, in the early 1980s, which used com­puter imag­ing tech­niques bor­rowed from metal stress test­ing to boost pho­tos in var­i­ous ways, so re­veal­ing strings from which the ‘UFOs’ were dan­gling, and so on. Spauld­ing’s kit didn’t al­ways get it right, but it was a start. Pho­to­shop can do as much and more, these days. Years ago, I ran one of the UFO pho­tos that GSW de­clared gen­uine – Sher­iff Jim Strauch’s – through Pho­to­shop, and it showed quite clearly that the ‘UFO’ was the light from a shaded stan­dard lamp, with re­flec­tions in the house win­dow and all.

Now along comes Vi­cente-Juan Ballester Ol­mos and Wim van Utrecht with a re­port on 38 years’ worth of UFO pho­tos from Bel­gium: the not-so-snap­pily-ti­tled Bel­gium in

UFO Pho­to­graphs 1950–88, which you can buy as hard copy for €40 from www.up­iar. com/in­dex.cfm?artID=191, or down­load for free from www.academia.edu/35133835/ BELGIUM_IN_UFO_PHOTOGRAPHS._ Vol­ume_1_1950-1988_. They bur­row about as deep as you can go into some 84 pho­to­graphs, and find no in­dis­putably anoma­l­is­tic im­ages. Seven of these (8.3 per cent) have in­suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion to eval­u­ate defini­tively – but you can see the pic­tures and fig­ure out for your­self whether they il­lus­trate an ‘in­ex­pli­ca­ble’ phe­nom­e­non or not. Fully 25 cases (29.8 per cent) they re­gard as hoaxes or, more bluntly, fakes. A fat pro­por­tion of these come from one in­de­fati­ga­ble in­di­vid­ual who, along with his hokey im­ages, had a suit­ably ex­otic story to match each one – all of which the au­thors sed­u­lously de­con­struct with, to their credit, no more mock­ery than the oc­ca­sional foray into mild irony. Some of the other hoaxes have a cer­tain charm, as one might hope from those per­pe­trated by jour­nal­ists: street lamps with their poles whited out, wa­ter tow­ers whose sup­ports are hand­ily ob­scured by trees, saucers repho­tographed from a French Louis de Funès movie and so on. The date 1 April has some bear­ing on these.

The au­thors are noth­ing if not scrupu­lous, metic­u­lous and ex­haus­tive in analysing the pic­tures they con­sider. Even hav­ing es­tab­lished from var­i­ous an­gles and ap­proaches that a photo is (to say the least) du­bi­ous – if one hadn’t guessed at first glance – they carry on to nail the case down, some­times go­ing into the very grain of the film to show how it’s been med­dled with. They give us Google Earth im­ages of sight­ing sites, to show where the Sun, Moon, and a ‘UFO’ were, com­par­a­tive con­trol pho­tos, de­tails of how to burn a weird im­age into a neg­a­tive, and so on. One thing to which they don’t draw par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion but leave im­plicit is the va­ri­ety of im­ages pur­port­ing to be UFOs – all man­ner of shapes and ef­fects jos­tle with the stan­dard fly­ing-saucer discs – and not many of those re­sem­ble the oth­ers pre­sented here. Ei­ther we’re be­ing vis­ited by end­less dif­fer­ent mar­ques of UFO, as some do say, or peo­ple cre­at­ing dodgy pic­tures can’t make up their minds what a ‘true UFO’ looks like. Although Adamski-ish im­ages are sur­pris­ingly rare (in Bel­gium any­way).

On oc­ca­sion, they bluntly ask ques­tions that any True Be­liever should have thought of in the first place, but (it seems) rarely does. For ex­am­ple: “[O]ne may ask why some­one would take pic­tures of an un­in­ter­est­ing part of the sky if noth­ing out of the or­di­nary was seen in that di­rec­tion. The sit­u­a­tion is even more bizarre if we know that a film was used that was de­vel­oped spe­cially for macro pho­tog­ra­phy.” Not un­re­lated is their equally blunt com­ment: “Next to the poor qual­ity of the ev­i­dence, we also noted a strik­ing lack of com­pe­tence among the ufol­o­gists who eval­u­ated and then pro­moted the Bel­gian UFO and fly­ing saucer pho­tos from the past... It is al­most as if the in­ves­ti­ga­tors were con­vinced from the start that the sci­en­tific method would not sup­ply any an­swers to what they per­son­ally felt was a mys­tery that sur­passes hu­man un­der­stand­ing.” One might won­der what the word “al­most” is do­ing in that sen­tence. But they are not un­fair: “When ca­sual, co­in­cid­ing cir­cum­stances are linked to­gether and se­ri­ous mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions are made, er­ror builds upon er­ror, gen­er­at­ing spu­ri­ous and of­ten com­plex UFO sight­ings that ap­pear un­ex­plain­able af­ter su­per­fi­cial prob­ing.”

Over­all, an ex­tra­or­di­nary achieve­ment; and in­dis­pens­able for the im­par­tial ob­server.

Liège, March 1975 (in­set); and the scene as it is now, the UFO need­ing a pole to keep it aloft.

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