In a recent article in this journal, Rogerson (1) reviewed a critique of psychological theories of UFOs in which I had suggested that, as a rule, such types of explanation were inadequate (2,3,4). He concluded that the critique contained “a number of unfounded statements and over-generalisations and thus has not established its case”.
It seems to me that Rogerson has somewhere lost sight of the central point of the critiques which was finding an answer to the question: can conventional psychological facts and theories be used to explain UFO phenomena? I stress conventional. because Rogerson is perfectly willing to make use of ‘paranormal’ concepts within a general explanatory framework and, despite his assertions to the contrary, such ideas do not have “a wide measure of acceptance in psychological circles”. Nor– as I hope to show — is their introduction into UFO debates to be encouraged, since they carry with them multiple problems of methodology and metatheory which Rogerson neglects even to mention, although he is quick to point out similar defects in my own logic.
In many single-witness cases of alleged UFO sightings it may be logically impossible to rule out the hypothesis of ‘conventional’ hallucination (i.e., hallucination due to drug intake, sensory restriction, psychosis, etc.), no matter how implausible such an interpretation may appear on the surface. In regard to the special hypothesis of ‘normal’ hallucination, therefore, single-witness cases unaccompanied by information about the witness or physical evidence of some sort remain a matter of controversy. Certain statistical considerations indirectly counter this proposition (5), but empirical evidence, for or against, is notable for its absence. Much of the relevant argument can be found in Hall (6,7), Grinspoon and Persky Johnson (9) and the various papers of Schwarz and others.
When it comes to multiple-witness cases the theory of simple hallucination becomes irrelevant, because shared hallucinations are unrecognised by psychology. This has nothing to do with the question of whether such events have ever occurred of course, nor does it throw much light upon problems concerning the validity of using such a concept as an explanation.If we rule out the hoax theory at the outset — a convenience which might find some objections, inasmuch as it is the only explanation capable of relating all UFO phenomena — we are left in a situation in which as Rogerson argues, we shall have to throw down at least some of our generally-accepted ideas about the structure of the universe. The question being, which?
There are two major alternatives: reports of UFOs can be attributed to:
1, extramundane intelligence, which includes the ETH as well as some of the more exotic possibilities, or
2, some sort of parapsychological interaction.
Rogerson supports the second alternative. In deciding between them, it should be kept in mind that the criteria by which we judge theories of UFOs must be identical to those employed in the evaluation of less dramatic notions. The most important of these are the requirements that theories should be based upon the minimum number possible of inferred or unobservable concepts; and that they they should be advanced in sufficient detail as to be capable of generating testable predictions preferably quantitative in form. Theories which fail to measure up to those yardsticks are not satisfactory.
In fact, neither of the two alternatives defined above are truly satisfactory, on these terms. Both make assumptions hard to verify outside of the UFO evidence; neither make precise predictions. It is a poor choice, in regard to methodology. It is true that whereas extramundane intelligence is supported by no hard evidence, astronomical or otherwise, there is a corpus of recognised, if controversial evidence relating to ‘paranormal’ phenomena. On the other hand, it would probably be true to say that the scientific community views the concept of extraterrestrial life with less dismay than it experiences when the concepts of ESP or psi are touched upon. It is not hard to see why. Paranormal concepts reflect a fundamental break with most of our models of reality; even in the absence of direct observation it is reasonable to posit the existence of extraterrestrial life via a process of simple extrapolation. All we can conclude here is that both possibilities are equally ridiculous.The main weakness of the ESP approach lies in its total inadequacy as a concept. It is in no sense a unitary concept –rather,
it is a rough way of classifying a heterogeneous moss of puzzling events. ‘Paranormal’ merely means — so far as I can see — anything which present-day science cannot explain. Imagine what this same concept would represent to an ancient Greek, to a medieval monk, an Elizabethan sailor;, just about anything. It is not an explanation but a description; and if science ca. 1972, cannot explain UFO phenomena, there should be no argument against classifying UFOs as paranormal. But isn’t that just playing with words? Does it help us to understand anything?
Even the most naive form of the extraterrestrial hypothesis is is more constrained, better defined. We may dismiss the logic employed by Smiley (10) in ‘disproving’ that UFOs come from Mars but at least here is an example of the scientific method: a formal statement of basic assumptions, the production of specific (even quantifiable) predictions and he testing of those predictions. The Mars Cycle observed in some UFO data could clearly provide some support for an extramundane hypothesis, if we wore to relax the rather puritan assumptions made by Smiley in regard to the capabilities of possible alien technologies. Rogerson’s answer is that people may tend to have more hallucinations when we are closer to Mars. An argument that I don’t accept.
This example indeed highlights the weakness of the parapsychological approach. Rogerson makes no attempt to describe the mechanisms involved in the transmission of an hallucinatory UFO experience from one person to another. The vagueness which characterises ESP-type concepts relieves him of the need to do so. Thus the following questions, and many others remain unanswered:
1. If a single ‘experience’ is shared by several persons why do UFO events typically obey the laws of perspective? Why don’t UFO witnesses report totally identical stimuli as would TV viewers?
2. Admitting that question 1 raises a valid point, what mechanism is there inside the human information processing system capable of calculating the perceptual effects of change-of-perspective for each of a number of individual and instantaneously transmitting the appropriate image
3. If question 2 is left unanswered would this not logically force the parapsychologist to accepts the possibility of intervention by a superior, nonhuman intelligence?
4. It is easy to imagine visual images being ‘injected’ into the witnesses’ perceptual systems just as a signal enters a TV set and produces an image on the screen. but human sensory processes in general, and the visual system in particular, are remarkably complex. We have only a very vague idea about how they work. To To put it crudely: if we can’t explain how normal perception operates, what chance is there for a model of some even more exotic process?
None of this argument should be thought of as disproving or dismissing the parapsychological theory. Rather, the aim is to demonstrate the dangers inherent in a chain of reasoning which runs: paranormal phenomena cannot be explained, therefore any phenomena which cannot be explained are paranormal, therefore UFO phenomena can be explained paranormally. The weakness of this logic is glaringly obvious.
5. Is there any puzzling or inexplicable event or set of events which a ‘paranormal’ theory could not explain?
My personal feeling is that if the extramundane theory is weak (in methodological sense), the parapsychological theory is weaker still. It may not be very enlightening to claim that “people see UFOs”; but is our curiosity any more satisfied by the assertion, “people parapsychologically transmit UFO experiences to each other”?
Rogerson’s closing argument is that contemporary psychology is in a primitive state, therefore novel theories which attack psychological laws are in some way more satisfactory than are theories, such as the ETH, the acceptance of which would imply the violation of known physical laws. The argument contains one or two flaws, depending on one’s philosophy: monists would maintain that all psychological laws are ultimately physical, anyway; less committed thinkers night point out that telepathy and clairvoyance, for example, provide no less profound a challenge to recognised physical concepts than does any physical UFO.
In sum, I think that the parapsychological theory as statedby Rogerson is still not powerful enough to explain UFOs, primarily because of its lack of clear definition and the absence of any specified means of disproving it. But the extramundane theory is, so far, insufficiently developed, although it is a somewhat better choice than the more specific extraterrestrial model. The best thing to do would be to adopt a less contentious inductive approach, but UFO researchers, unable or unwilling to resist the lure of speculation, rarely accept this alternative. Proponents of rival theories blandly neglect inconvenient data. Thus Rogerson would be happy to explain away reports of physical traces and radar sightings; Sharp (11) is careful to dismiss reports involving paranormal or religious manifestations; and Menzel, Condon, et al. dismiss the whole lot. In all cases there are some perfectly rational reasons for rejection; the mistake made lies not in rejection but selection. As Fort pointed out on many occasions, if you reject what you can’t explain’ you should be able to explain everything, It merely depends what you mean by ‘everything’.
Some progress be made if ufologists seek to maintain a theoretically neutral position recognising that UFO reports such as the cases of Rita,Malley, ‘Dr X’, the Welsh wave of 1905, frequently involve phenomena which, at face value lie beyond most of our current physical and psychological concepts. A search for patterns which involved the systematic neglect of these phenomena would violate most of the requirements of statistical sampling. If the final answer is a completely novel concept, the deductive approach would necessarily fail.
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