From MUFOB New Series 5 (part 1) and 6 (part 2)
In recent years there has been much concern among sociologists with the process known as “the social construction of reality”. Although several theoretical works have come out on this subject, there have been in comparison relatively few examples of attempts to find out empirically how this process works. Whatever the reason for the dearth of such studies, it is obvious that they are necessary to the refinement and validation of theory. It behoves sociologists therefore, to take a closer look at the effects of various processes of “reality negotiation” on beliefs held by various members of society.
One area sure to yield some interesting insights is that of “anomalous phenomena”, events which seem to violate widely held rules about the nature of physical reality. In deciding about the reality of sea-serpents, abominable snowmen and UFOs, both scientists and laymen generally recognise the problematic character of any decision eventually reached. In very few cases have those making the decision had the experience which often constitutes the sole evidence for the events in question. They must depend, therefore, on the reports of experiences of others. Faced with such “hearsay” evidence, usually from untrained observers, many scientists refuse to render a judgement, on the basis that reports do not constitute “tangible evidence” (see Jones 1968a) or that the events reported are “impossible”. (1) If the reports are detailed or the witness “reliable” however, some scientists may be tempted to hazard a guess as to the true identity of the phenomenon, particularly if it can be placed within a class of similar, but known, phenomenon. (2)
The layman is in a more ambiguous position as ordinarily he is accustomed to making judgements about natural events on the basis of the authority of “experts”, and generally has little training in evaluating the evidence on which their judgements are based. Nonetheless, the layman’s judgement, like the scientist’s, is based on an overall assessment of the plausibility of the reports at hand. His grounds for evaluating such reports may differ, but his problem and that of the scientist are the same: what information about the real world can be gained from the report, and with what degree of confidence?
The valid assessment of a report depends on knowledge of the social context in which the report was generated. It is a perennial concern in military intelligence, where the reliability of reports is of the greatest importance, and in the courts, where a host of rules known as the “law of evidence” governs what is and what is not admissible. Nonetheless, the rules of evidence are founded on commonsense rather than scientific demonstration, a difference which becomes important when, for instance one is considering the confidence which can be placed in eyewitness accounts. (3) And evaluation of sources of military intelligence often place more on the basis of the quality of the reports transmitted than scientific evaluation of the transmitter. This is not to say that there does not exist a corpus of experience and commonsense wisdom on how the reliability of informants should be evaluated; but this is very different from truly scientific knowledge of the same subject.
It is not only a question of informants, however, but of the social channels through which information moves. A brilliant observer may be rendered useless if the only channel between him and the evaluators of social intelligence is sensational press accounts.
Likewise, it is no secret that information transmission through intelligence hierarchies is less than perfect (Wilensky 1976, oh. 3). And finally there is the question of silence. Investigation dies before it begins if the observer tells no one of what he has seen. The greatest enemy of social consciousness of anomalies is the ridicule which silences those who have seen but dare not make witness of their experiences.
What we will attempt do do here is give some brief rendition of the kinds of social factors which affect public knowledge about one kind of anomalous phenomenon: UFOs.
The Ontological Status of UFOs
Before proceeding further in describing social intelligence processes about UFOs, the reader may be concerned about whether the author considers these objects to be real or imaginary, and to what class of concepts, if not objects, the discussion will be limited. The label “unidentified flying objects” was originally substituted for “flying saucers” as an attempt to be more agnostic about the phenomena in question (Ruppelt, 1956, p.7; Strentz, 1970, p,3) Even the former term however poses difficulties. Menzel (1960) suggests that the term is a misnomer because it implies that the sightings are “of material reality”, a view to which Menzel does not adhere. Objection could also be made to the word “flying”, since this assumes something about the propulsion of the phenomenon: and in any case some of the most interesting manifestations are seen on the ground. How to delimit this seemingly amorphous class of objects or events?
Both the taxonomic and the epistemological problems can be solved if we are willing to adopt Husserl’s operation of “bracketing” the concept of UFOs: that is we will treat as UFOs those experiences to which people attach the label “UFO”, without being concerned for the moment with whether these experiences in fact represent a particular kind of physical object or not. By thus dealing with experiences instead of objects (4), we can avoid the necessity of coming to a decision which the “experts” themselves are still debating (5).
We are not suggesting that the question of the physical reality of UFOs is unimportant, even for our discussion here. In fact we will later discuss the kinds of indicators sociologists might use in distinguishing epidemics of imaginary and real objects. Nonetheless both physical scientists and sociologists are very far from being able to resolve the issue, and hence for the present an agnostic truce is perhaps the most reasonable.
The Distribution of Experience:
There are two reasons why the distribution of UFO experiences is important: 1) because the spatial, temporal, and social distribution may in itself reveal something about the phenomenon and 2) the social standing of those who have such experiences will affect the transmission and credibility of their reports. Apparent lack of UFO sightings by astronomers has been adverse to the credibility of the phenomena (Jones, 1968a). Similarly, the “original” 1947 sighting by Kenneth Arnold attracted a great deal of attention because of Arnold’s excellent reputation (Ruppelt, 1956, p.30).
In 1966, 5% of a US national sample indicated that they had seen something that they thought was a “flying saucer” (Lee, 1968, p. 212). A 1968 study by the University of Colorado, which used the words “unidentified flying object” instead of “flying saucer”, found 3% of their national sample had see a UFO (Lee, 1968, p.224). Whilst there is doubtless some misunderstanding and possible deceit in the responses to these polls, it is unlikely that a better estimate of the number of “sighters” in the US will become available.
The geographical distribution of sightings is important, but unfortunately little information has been made public. It is known that in 1953 the distribution of UFO reports received by the US Air Force did not mirror the distribution of the population (Ruppelt, 1956, p.278): the geography of the 1947 “wave” of reports is known (Bleacher, 1967), and it has been suggested that certain “flap” areas receive a disproportionate number of sightings (Keel, 1970). Reports of UFOs tend to be unequally distributed in time (Vallée, 1966, ch.8), and this may imply that experiences are also unequally distributed: but since it is unlikely that reports are representative of experiences – due to various social filtering processes – extrapolation from reports to experiences is dangerous.
In regard to landings of UFOs, Vallée (1966, pp.156-170) has done an excellent analysis of the French wave of 1954 (6). Although his analysis is based on reports, his findings are nonetheless suggestive for conclusions about the distribution of primary experiences. He found that landings tend to be rural, that they tended to occur in circumstances where the locals would be “high discriminators” (7), and that those who made the reports tended to be respected in their communities, held a steady job, and tended to observe the landings between 9 and 11 pm. Only 15% of those who reported landings were alone when they saw the UFO, but this may reflect differential reporting. We will suggest below that one-person sightings are less likely to be reported then others, since shared experiences generally have a greater credibility.
A study by Warren (1970) established that college-educated, sharply status-inconsistent individuals reported proportionately the most sightings in the 1966 Gallup poll. These individuals also had a much stronger tendency to believe that what they saw represented an extraterrestrial vehicle (Warren, 1970, p.603). Warren explains this finding on the basis of the marginality (8) of such individuals, and in fact marginality could be expected to be involved in interest in anomalous phenomena generally. In as much as being integrated into a society requires a certain cognitive set, those less integrated will be less likely to hold this set, and thus more cognitively disposed to perceive or conceive of objects which do not fall within it.
The discrepancy between the findings of Vallée and Olmos and those of Warren might be explained by reference to the way in which the sightings in each case reached public attention. In the Warren cases, an attempt was made to survey a population for sightings. His finding that, among the college indicated, status-inconsistent individuals have more UFO sightings probably means that, exposed to the same stimuli, these persons tend to conceptualise them as UFOs more often. This tendency would seem to be borne out by the observation, that, given a UFO sighting, these persons are more likely than other UFO-sighters to give it an extraterrestrial explanation.
In the Vallée and Oleos cases on the other hand, we are dealing with a population of reports which has passed through a number of social filters. In this case individuals who had better standing in the community — i.e. ordinary, people — would generate reports that would better survive social filtering. One would also expect, although the evidence is not at hand, that group reports would be more likely to survive the filtering process than the reports of individual sightings. The status-inconsistent individual might have more observations of of objects interpreted as UFOs, but he and society might share a mutual disrespect which would not encourage reporting or transmission of his experience.
In discussing these clues to the nature of UFO sighters, it is important to distinguish the distribution of experiences from the distribution of reports. The former, if real unusual objects were involved, would represent a joint distribution of objects and potential observers. The distribution of reports, on the other hand, will represent the result of a social filtering process, and may bear an extremely biased relation to the actual distribution of sighters. Hence studies like Vallée and Vallée (1966) and Vallée and Olmos (1972) which fail to deal with the question of how the population of reports relates to the population of sighters, neglect the question of how representative the sample of reports is. (9)
Society at large, but particularly government agencies place a higher value on sightings by ‘reliable’ witnesses. In this case (10) this “reliability” seems to involve two factors: 1) honesty and 2) an ability to detect whether an object is really “anomalous” or not (11). While the need for the first quality is self-evident the second perhaps requires further definition. Detecting something anomalous in terms of current scientific knowledge requires aquaintance with the sorts of phenomena which might be mistaken for something truly “strange”: balloons high in the air, sundogs, ball-lightning, airplanes, and so forth. What is desired is some one who will have a low probability of mistaking for a UFO something which is not. Let us call such a person a “high discriminator”.
While reports from policemen are taken seriously because of their imputed honesty, reports from astronomers are given even more weight because it is believed that astronomers are high discriminators. As Ruppelt puts it, “astronomers know what is in the sky.” (12)
In view of the widely held belief that astronomers do not see UFOs, it is interesting to note that in 1953, an informal poll conducted among 45 well-known astronomers by J Allen Hynek revealed that 11% of them had seen some thing that they couldn’t explain, and that 23% thought that UFOs were a more serious problem than most people recognised (Ruppelt, 1956, p.283). A control group of non-astronomers, picked at random among Hynek’s aquantances, had a much lower frequency of UFO sightings, 1%. However, as we will see, the reporting of these observations by astronomers is infrequent.
Before we leave the distribution of experiences, one other point should be mentioned. This is the effect of primary experience upon those whose responsibility it is to report or evaluate other’s experiences. During the early years of the USAF’s Project Blue Book many former sceptics in the Air Force were converted to believers after their own direct experiences with a UFO (Ruppelt, 1956, PP-13, 178, 190, 203). Although Ruppelt does not say so, one can conjecture that the subsequent handling of UFO reports by such personnel was more sympathetic than it otherwise would have been. Similarly, observations by scientists of UFOs, even when not published, have been influential in making them personally more receptive to UFO reports and in some oases have changed the direction of their careers. One example of the latter is Dr Leo Sprinkle, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Wyoming:
On two occasions, each time in the presence of a person who shared my claim, I have observed unusual aerial anomalies which I could neither identify nor understand. My first observation of a “flying saucer” led me to change my position from that of a “scoffer” to that of a “sceptic” And my second observation forced me to change my position from “sceptic” to some thing like “unwilling believer”. (National Amateur Astronomers, 1969, p.13)
Sprinkle has since become very active as a UFO advocate. I have also found in talking to physical scientists that, experience, while seldom creating instant believers, often increases willingness to consider UFO reports.
The UFO Experience: Conceptualisation
Just how does a person decide that he is having, or has had, an experience with a UFO? This is clearly a critical question, both in terms of the person communicating his experience to others and in terms of the experience being socially correlated with others. It is possible, of course, that the realisation will occur only after the experience has been discussed with other people. However, let us put this possibility in abeyance for the moment and consider the lone individual having an experience. How does the person decide that he is looking at something really unusual? Clearly his reality-testing is vital for any ultimate assessment of the significance of his experience.
In his study of the public reaction to the Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938 Cantril (1966) found that belief in the “invasion” was influenced by a lack of what he called critical ability. Briefly, critical ability was shown by those who made checks about the authenticity of the described events either through the internal evidence of the broadcast, or by checking the social context for counter-indications, such as routine programmes on other stations. Those without this critical ability, even when they were of a relatively high educational level, believed that the play was indeed a news broadcast and that the Martians were actually landing, etc. – except in the case of those who were lucky enough to discover by accident that the broadcast was a play.
In the UFO experience, we find the same division of ability. Those with critical ability try to use external checks of the validity of their own observations, try to test out alternative explanations or even seek a change of position of observation for a better view.
The object looked like the top of a parachute canopy, he told me; it was white and he thought he could see the wedges of panels. He said that he thought it was moving across the ground a little bit too fast to be drifting with the wind, but he was sure that someone had bailed out and he was looking at the top of his parachute. He was just ready to call the tower when he suddenly realised that this “parachute” was drifting across the wind.(Ruppelt, 1956, pp.161-162)
It is not unusual for UFO sightings to begin with the hypothesis that one is viewing something routine, and to discard this hypothesis as features of the sighting make it clear that this is untenable. For instance a group of scientists who thought they might be mistaking airplanes near their installation for UFOs had planes fly over to see if they produced the same effect (Ruppelt, 1956, p.226). Still other ways to make sure that one is seeing something correctly are to ask others if they can see it too, or having left the locale of the sighting to return to see if the object is still there: “I wanted to make sure it was there. To take another look to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. We did go back” (Fuller, 1966, p.64).
This checking of one’s perceptions against other explanations, against other’s perceptions and for constancy over time renders more valuable the reports generated in this way. The uncertainty as to whether one has really eliminated alternative explanations – i.e. that one has not been able to act as a “high discriminator” – seems to be responsible for much non-reporting of sightings. In the Colorado survey sighters who did not report what they had seen, most frequently (40%) gave as the major reason that “it was probably something normal that just looked funny for one reason or another” (Lee, 1968, p.228)
In contrast to this “critical” approach, the reaction that can popularly be called “hysterical” starts with the premise that what one is looking at is a UFO, and other details of the sighting are rationalised to agree with this hypothesis:
I really wanted to see a UFO. I remember saying aloud… ‘This is no natural phenomenon. It’s really UFOs, I… made an attempt to communicate with them. I had a flashlight … and signalled … in Morse code… No visible response elicited. After I came into the house I had an over-powering drive to sleep… My dog went over between the two trash cans like she was frightened to death … High frequency sounds inaudible to us? (Quoted by Hartmann, 1968, p.577)
It is ironic that the sighting in this case may have been the Russian satellite Zond IV re-entering the atmosphere. It is important to recognise that a hysterical reaction by itself does not imply that a UFO was not in fact seen. Many of the UFOs which are the result of “critical’ sightings get classified as “unknowns”, but the hysterical reactions could well have stimuli that are just as unknown. The reaction is as much a property of the observer as of the stimulus.
Interestingly, while “mass-hysteria” is seen as an alternative to UFOs being real, the credibility of a sighting (at least for males) tends to be enhanced by signs of extreme emotion. In the Exeter, New Hampshire sightings reported in Fuller (1966), those referring to the credibility of the witness’s reports repeatedly mentioned the extreme degree of fear shown subsequent to the sighting as evidence the witness was telling the truth. Hence an hysterical reaction in someone who is normally very unlikely to show this reaction tends to be interpreted as an indication that the person really did see something strange.
One point raised by Hartmann (1968) bears discussion here. He notes that many observers of what was probably the Zond IV re-entry attributed to it erroneous traits. He goes on to state (correctly) that this event shows that eye-witness testimony of celestial events is often faulty, and that therefore it cannot be used as a reliable indicator of what actually happened. This is of course a basic principle of forensic psychology. He the suggests that since this is so, that “it is conceivable and defensible that ell of the UFO reports could result from mistakes illusions, unusual conditions and fabrications” (p.589). This is logically correct.
However, much the same thing can be said about a variety of celestial phenomena. the absence of cameras has not precluded people in a variety of cultures, from Sumer to the USA, from making accurate astronomical observations. If civilization had disposed of all eye-witness reports of celestial phenomena on the grounds that some reports were inaccurate, the development of modern astronomy would have been much more slow. Hence one must condsider not only the fallibility of eye-witnesses, but also the capability of others. That eye-witness testimony is fallible does not mean that it is without use.
- (1) Fielding makes an interesting observation about this word in Tom Jones. “Jones now declared that they must certainly have lost their way; but this the guide insisted upon was impossible; a word which in common conversation is often used not only to signify improbable, but often what is really very likely, and sometimes, what has certainly happened: an hyperbolic violence like that which is so frequently offered to the words infinite end eternal: by the former of which it is usual to express a distance of half a yard: and by the latter a duration of five minutes. And thus it is as usual to assert the impossibility of losing what is actually lost”
- (2) Scientists have often been willing to guess as to the true nature of “sea serpents”, partly because they felt that such things represented a misidentification of which they knew the explanation. See Heuvelmans (1968)
- (3) See for instance Munsterberg’s On the Witness Stand. (1915)
- (4) This method of treatment was suggested to me by my former mentor Duncan MacRae.
- (5) For opposing views on the matter the reader is directed to Gilmor, 1968, and US House Committee on Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1968.
- (6) Vallée & Olmos (1972) have done a parallel study on Spanish landings 1925-1969 which reached similar conclusions.
- (7) For instance in people’s backyards or on their way to work, etc.
- (8) That status-inconsistent individuals are “marginal” is not tautological, and therefore must be proved. Marginality reflects dual group- or culture-membership, whereas status inconsistency refers to traits like education, income and so forth. Warren’s argument that status-inconsistent people are marginal is cogent, but not conclusive.
- (9) Vallée and Olmos do note that of the 38 single-person sightings in their sample, 31 were by males and only seven by females. Even considering the possibility that Iberian females simply don’t get out as much as males, one can note that it is just as plausible that what is involved here is a greater propensity to report on the part of males.
- (10) Obviously the question of reliability of information received through social channels is one of the capital questions of the sociology of knowledge. Our view of the world and its contents is profoundly affected by what we choose as a reliable source. The way in which certain persons and organisations become viewed as ‘reliable’ merits extensive empirical study.
- (11) Hovland, Janis and Kelley (1953, pp.19-55) note that under conditions where a message lacks intrinsic credibility, evaluation of sources becomes important. Sources are usually evaluated in two ways: Trustworthiness and competence. This finding is borne out in the UFO field.
- (12) Whether this is true relative to airline pilots, meteorologists or intelligence personnel is another question. What is important from the point of view of sociology is that astronomers are given special weight because of their perceived competence.
Part Two, continued (with bibliography)