First published in MUFOB New Series 10, Spring 1978
Over the years, many students of the UFO phenomenon have come to realise that the solution to the UFO enigma is probably not going to fall into their laps in the form of that long awaited, indisputable piece of physical evidence. Any attempted explanation of the phenomenon based on the current supply of physical evidence would be deemed by most as wholly inadequate. In fact this lack of indisputable hard evidence has led many to speculate that the phenomenon may not have a physical dimension at all. Be that as it may, the stress put on the importance of physical evidence is undeniable. (1) Perhaps this emphasis may yet prove justifiable. However, it is also equally true that we have until very recently largely overlooked the possibility of gaining much insight into the problem through the systematic study of our most abundant form of data, the non-physical or ‘soft’ evidence.
This article is an attempt to provide a realistic and orderly approach to the problem of the analysis of ‘soft’ UFO evidence by inter-disciplinary study. Specifically, these recommendations are relevant to individuals involved in or interested in the study areas of psychology, history, statistics, sociology, anthropology and folklore. By ‘soft’ evidence we are referring to the psychological and sociological process involved in the experiencing of a UFO event, the generation of this experience into a report, the generalization and categorization or reports into a phenomenon, and the mythification of this phenomenon or a combination of phenomena into a folklore.If there are still any readers left at this point some clarification for their benefit will be attempted. We are defining the overall phenomenon as an ongoing process, and we are structuring it into four levels, of increasing abstraction, for the purposes of study. Basically the four levels of analysis visualised in this approach are:
1 – the witness
2 – the report
3 – the phenomenon
4 – the myth
In this model each level of the phenomenon poses separate and unique questions. By approaching the evidence through this structure the special talents of the scientific disciplines mentioned above (as well as others, the list is in no way meant to be exclusive) can be brought to bear in an effective manner.
The psychologist, for example, is interested primarily in the witness, his psychological profile, his perceptual abilities, his personality. His training allows him to judge properly the relationship between a hypnopompic hallucination and certain categories of close encounter UFO events. The sociologist on the other hand would more likely direct his energy to the report level of the evidence. He would be interested in the societal factors that motivate an individual to report his experience and in explaining the dynamics that permit bias to creep into an account. The statistician and historian are properly at home on the phenomenon level, both skilled in documenting factors responsible for such things as UFO waves. Finally, the social anthropologist and the folklorist are interested in the dynamics of myth building, the symbolism evoked, the techniques for the transmission of myth, and the cultural needs that are set or fulfilled by the UFO myth.
It should be noted that each discipline overlaps the structural levels to a greater or lesser degree, and none has exclusive domain over any one level. In any interdisciplinary study the objective is not to parcel out shares along lines of authority but rather to share knowledge and assist in the group’s understanding through the contribution of a different perspective.
Let us examine the current state of the phenomenon using the outline of the analytical model. We first approach the entire process from the level of the witness. On this level we are no so much concerned with what is described as who is describing it. In those situations where there is no logical explanation for the sighting, where we do in fact have a UFO and there is no physical trace, the person making the report must become the object of the investigation. (2) As our only tangible form of evidence the witness is extremely important. Ideally, we would like the full gamut of information on each individual witness: his history of mental health, his status in the community, educational level, perceptual abilities, his psychological profile drawn from a series of interviews and a battery of psychological tests.
In very few cases has all this information been obtained. Usually as the level of strangeness of a report increases the importance of this information increases proportionately. Therefore, it is not unusual that in the instances where this information has been gathered, it is for the high level close encounters – cases such as Betty and Barney Hill, Stella Lansing, or Parker and Hickson. However, for the majority of cases this extensive information on the witnesses is absent. There are some very good reasons for this. Most of it is very difficult and time-consuming material to obtain. Furthermore, there are ethical questions involved in compiling and releasing this information, and serious legal questions raised with the advent of now privacy laws in the USA.
This information does have value beyond determining whether a witness is a liar or a fool and there are some very real issues that could be resolved with it. For instance, is there a ‘selection effect’ for UFO witnesses? Why do some people go through their entire lives without seeing anything whilst others have several UFO experiences? Should the repeaters be disqualified or believed? Is there a correlation between demonstrated ‘psi’ ability and UFO experiences? Is there a correlation between mild cases of adaptive schizophrenia and UFO experiences? Are percipients of UFO events prone to hallucinations?
Many of these questions are speculated upon without any real evidence. The article Psychiatrv and UFO Reports by Grinspoon and Persky) is a good example of an attempt to relate psychological phenomena to UFOs without citing a single actual example from a UFO case!
As an example of research that would be useful in this area, Benton Jamison presented one research proposal at the 1976 CUFOS conference (4) which would test whether or not there exists significant sociological and psychological differences between a sample of people who have had a UFO experience and a sample of those who have not. In his proposal he recommends including measures of hypnotic suggestibility and beliefs about psychic ability in the witness testing.
Research in this area should be supported and encouraged both because of the importance of the questions rained and because the research could begin today, which is not true of studies which need physical data, which must wait for the evidence to come to them.
The next level of the model is the report. Reports are what our perception of the enigma at the phenomenon level are exclusively based on. It is therefore very important that we understand the dynamics of reporting and the reliability of our evidence before we begin to make any conclusions on the nature of UFOs.
Basically the reporting process involves the following societal filtering effects: an individual or a group of individuals must conceptualise an event as unusual enough to make note of it, must be motivated enough to report it, and must have enough status and credibility to have the report accepted.Because we know there is a very definite selection effect involved in the reporting of a UFO event, a prime object of research in this area should be to obtain as close to a random sample of actual incidents as possible. Even obtaining the services of a professional opinion survey firm and going lack to the subject pool to collect a new independent sample of witnesses would not be carrying this effort too far. We could then compare the characteristics of such a sample to the population of reports we have on file to determine what some of the ‘laws’ of reporting this phenomenon are, and how badly biased our current sample of reports is.
For a further discussion on the nature of these societal filtering effects and how they affect the reporting of UFOs, I refer the reader to an excellent treatment of the subject by Dr Ron Westrum, in his article Knowing about UFOs, carried in two parts in MUFOB new series 5 and 6. (5)
As used herein, the phrase ‘the UFO phenomenon’ is defined as the product of the categorization of reports of extraordinary events which share as their common attribute the observation of unusual aerial objects. The word ‘phenomenon’ is therefore not synonymous with ‘event’ or ‘occuronce’ as it would be in its strict dictionary definition. It implies rather a compilation of events, and is hence an abstraction and not an event.
The Battelle Memorial Institute study that became Project Bluebook Special Report 14 established statistically that the population of true ‘unknowns’, i.e. unidentified reports, is significantly different in attributes from reports that can be attributed to misidentifications. (6) This makes it very unlikely that the UFO phenomenon can be attributed to any currently known natural phenomenon ‘if we just try harder’. It also means that we do, in fact, have a real and not just an imaginary problem On our hands. We should examine this problem both in terms of what we currently know about it and where we can go with that knowledge.
Perhaps our most important asset in this study is our ability to discern patterns within the UFO phenomenon. This is true because the presence of patterns reaffirms our original hypothesis that a certain set of events should be classed together. When we look at the phenomenon, we find some very strong patterns which might be categorized in the following manner:
1 – patterns in descriptions
2 – patterns in behaviour
3 – temporal patterns
4 – spatial patterns
There exists, for instance, similarities in the descriptions of objects including size, shape colour, number of lights, etc., and in descriptions of humanoids associated with those objects. One very obvious area for further research would be to continue the work started by the Batelle study to determine how their patterns co-vary with one another and how they correlate with patterns observed in occupant or object behaviour. An example of such a study is that provided by Fred Merritt. (7) By studying similarities in descriptions of ‘landing’ marks, and reports of the objects and occupants associated with these events he was able to cluster landing reports into five groups or ‘catenas’, one group of which he was able to eliminate as indicative of a ball lightning or similar atmospheric effect.
We also know that UFO reports occur with marked variance in frequency over time and that reports are not evenly distributed geographically. Ballester Olmos has found from statistical data that close encounters tend to manifest themselves in sparsely populated areas, whereas lights-in-the-sky reports have a random spatial distribution that is directly correlated with population. (8)
David Saunders has determined that the five year cycle waves (1947, 1952, 1957, 1967 and 1972) are characterised by negatively skewed distributions. (9) That is, they are waves that build slowly to a crescendo and taper off quickly, rather than waves that seem to be sparked by a few well publicised cases which peak early and taper off as interest dies. Saunders (1O), and Anderson (11) have linked the temporal aspects of UFO events with their spatial occurence. By following development of the major five year waves they separately traced the movement of reports outward and predominantly eastward from theoretical longitudinal starting points. Further research in this area may result in almost total predictability of when and where a major UFO wave may occur.
Finally, Saunders has also advanced the scientific case for orthoteny, or the heavy frequency of occurence of UFOs reports along certain great circle lines around the globe. (12) While the meaning of these ‘orthotenic’ lines appears to be beyond our present comprehension, their existence has nonetheless been validated.
Historians can be a valuable asset to this level of research by documenting the historical events that correspond and contribute to the presence of UFO reports over time. The ‘swamp gas’ fervour of 1966 is one obvious example. Time series analysis such as that done by Saunders could then be linked to an historical analysis of the cycles of public interest. The integration of these two forms of analysis could offer now insights.
Finally we come to the analysis of the myth associated with UFOs. This subject is purposely treated last because the processes involved in the dynamics of myth development seem to draw upon all levels of the phenomenon for material. Just dealing with the term ‘myth’ is a problem in itself. On the one hand the word carries definite connotations of storybook images of things that ‘really can’t exist’; and it is often employed in the sense of ‘fiction’ or ‘untrue’. On the other hand, myth has also come to mean something quite different to anthropologists, folklorists and students of comparative religion. Myth in this sense is a dynamic processthat explains reality, or more exactly, how reality came to be. (13) It is this function of myth that sets apart from common folklore. As such it supplies models for human behaviour and gives meaning and value to life.
Translating this understanding of myth to the UFO enigma we find a mechanism to explain the phenomenological reality of UFOs. Throughout the world we can find many examples of ‘living’ myths. Myths are alive in the sense that they are believed and used as examples to explain our day-to-day world. In our own culture science and technology have largely supplanted myth as the mechanism for explaining reality. The case of UFOs is one notable exmption.
The need to know is a universal human trait. Some social scientists describe it as the need for ‘closure’, that is, a need for predictability in an uncertain universe. When a strong man suddenly sickens and dies for no apparent reason, some reason needs to be created. In a primitive culture his death could be attributed to witchcraft. In our own culture we would ascribe it to virus, or unseen micro-organisms, such as ‘Legionnaire’s Disease’. The UFO is indeed a living myth in our own myth-less culture because, in the absence of an adequate scientific explanation of UFOs, myth is called upon to supply the answer.
What exactly is the ‘UFO myth’, then? That’s not an easy question. We know that myth is a product of empirically observed facts, beliefs, and some very strong human emotions. As such it represents a fairly awsome subject:
It seems to be impossible to guage the power of what Jung called the ‘modern myth’ of UFOs, a myth generated by our post-WWII encounter with a real phenomenon (made no less real by its failure to be universally recognised as such), sustained not only by years of rumor, denial, newspaper, radio and TV accounts, but by an unending stream of mostly unpublished UFO incidents, and charged psychically by virtue of its connection with almost universally held aspirations and fears.If this myth does have the power to create thousands or even tens of thousands of spurious UFO sightings on the part of people who show no apparent signs of malfunction or derangement, then some way must be found to explore the mechanism by which these sightings are generated on the one hand, and on the other to separate them from sightings of physically real objects. (14)
Anthropologists and folklorists have long been aware that the deciphering of myths is always a sticky business Some of the dynamics of myth are thought to be fairly well understood, mostly dealing with the techniques of myth transmission (through psychological studies of telling and retelling stories, through anthropological studies of cultures with active oral traditions, and through sociological studies of modern media) The importance of symbolism in myth to account for human needs is also recognised (through psychoanalytic analysis of classical mythology).
I think it would be fair to say that most people ascribe some form of alien visitation to the UFO myth, be it extraterrestrial or otherwise. Visitation by spacecraft is not the only aspect or message of the myth, however.
John Rimmer was the first to recognise the importance of the UFO as an anti-scientific symbol. (15) As such the UFO represents the forces of magic in a technologically dominated (and one might add technologically despoiled) modern world. The attractiveness of this symbolism should not be underestimated. Several millenarian movements have already developed around UFOs as agents of salvation. (16) This subconscious symbolism may also explain why the leadership of the scientific establishment is so threatened by the UFO question and have, right to the present, refused to examine the issue rationally and dispassionately.
We know that the myth encompassing UFOs is persistent. It has endured in more or less the same form for over 30 years. It may well have persisted in altered form for thousands of years before that. This raises the question as to whether the ‘real’ phenomenon behind the myth is the causal factor for that persistence, or whether the reality of the myth is so powerful and the symbolism evoked so very important that the success and permanence of the UFO story is guaranteed through time with little change.
In Passport to Magonia Jacques Vallée makes the connection between modern day UFOs and medieval myths. (17) He bases this connection on:
1 – similarities between the appearances of UFO occupants and the descriptions of elves and gnomes.
2 – similarities in the absurd, ludicrous behaviour of UFOs and UFO occupants and the antics and pranks of fairies.
3 – the religious and mystical motivations behind apparitions and percipient experiences.4 – the evolutionary process of the observation of objects from airships to dirigibles to ghost rockets to flying saucers.
Many of the similarities he provides between the UFO phenomenon and the fairy phenomenon do appear to be more than coincidental. Vallée states that he was forced to make a parallel between UFO reports and the main theses of fairy-lore because some details in in UFO reports were simply unbelievable unless taken in context with accounts of encounters with fairies. (18) This raises a few more questions. What share of these similarities between UFOs and other myths should be attributed to human factors? And how strange and divergent can these accounts get before we are forced to discard the hypothesis that they are caused by a real external phenomenon?
One of the areas where the greatest contribution by folklorists can be made is in documenting and relating to the UFO problem the differences in the development of myth that is the product of fiction, and myth that evolves from real events
and becomes imbued with mystical symbols.
We might speculate that real events, translated into myth, would have a more limited range of strangeness than ‘true’ stories that are the products of hoaxes or actual works of fiction (although even these are limited to a cultural frame of reference) The 1896-97 data reveals that the most reliable reports were of objects similar to objects seen today. (19) Hoaxes are the most elaborate in their descriptions of the airships, putting all the ‘bells and whistles’ imaginable on the object.
We have one last important question to consider under this topic. Does the phenomenon itself draw upon the myth for material? There seems to be some evidence that some of the important patterns of UFO events have occurred consequent to their popularisation in fictional accounts. The first association of UFOs with power blackouts occurs in a novel entitled Twilight Bar written in 1933, and the first reference to UFO effects on a car’s ignition system was also made in a novel published in 1950, well before the first major wave of car stoppage reports in the French wave of 1954. (20)
Whether these fictional accounts are coincidental or whether they were even incorporated in the UFO myth before real events occured is a matter for debate. If the phenomenon does in fact draw upon the myth – our perceptions and cultural representation of that phenomenon – then it either raises strong doubts about the physical external nature of the phenomenon, or, it brings us into the unattractive research position that the subject of our study responds to or even anticipates our observations!
The crux of the problem is succinctly stated in a reference by Hynek from one of Peter Usinov’s plays: “You mean they know we know that they know we know?” (21)
This article provides a conceptual framwork for the analysis of UFO evidence that hopefully will foster further inter-disciplinary interest in research on the UFO question. It is hoped that the few research proposals suggested as examples within will spark interest and generate other proposals from informed parties, so that when the eventual day comes that scientists are able to sit down and address the UFO problem with a respectable operating budget, a good outline exists for a plan of attack.
See for example Billy Smith’s schematic chart and accompanying article in MUFOB NS 6, pp. 13-14 (Spring 1977). Also, Ray Stanford’s Journal of Instrumented UFO Research, shows some good examples of the sophisticated and expensive electronic gear that has been purchased to capture physical evidence.
Bardley Earl Ayers, ‘The UFO Investigator: Reporter or Researcher?’ Proceedings of the 1976 CUFOS Conference (henceforth CUFOS 1973) pp. 11- 14.
Grinspoon & Persky, ‘Psychiatry and UFO Reports’, UFO: A Scientific Debate, pp.233-246. Cornell University Press, 1972.
Benton Jamison, ‘Some Proposals: Modest. Immodest and maybe Fundable’. CUFOS, 1976.
J Allen Hynek, The Hynek UFO Report.
Fred Merritt, ‘A Preliminary Classification of some reports of UFOs based on shape and dimensions of imprint patterns. CUFOS 1976.
V-J Ballester Olmos. ‘Are UFO Sightings Related to Population. CUFOS, 1976.
Ann Slate, ‘Interview with Dr David R Saunders. Saga UFO Report. December 1976.
David R Saunders, ‘A Spatio-temporal Invariant for Major UFO Waves ‘, CUFOS 1976.
Irving S Anderson, ‘The Periodicity of Flaps’ CUFOS 1976.
Ann Slate. op. cit.
Mircsa Eliade, Myth and Reality (1953)
Benton Jamison, op. cit., p.126.
See e.g. Robert Bloch & David Taylor ‘Salvation in a UFO”, Psychology Today, October 1976; and Leo Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails.
Jacques Vallée. Passport to Magonia, pp.160-161. (Regnerey, 1969).
Jacques Vallss, ibid., p.111.
Loren Gross, Charles Fort, the Fortean Society and UFOs, (1976).
Jacques Vallss, op. cit., p.169.
J A Hynek & J Vallee, The Edge of Reality.