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