Truth, Tales and Catalogues.
Peter Rogerson

This article first appeared as Peter Rogerson’s ‘Northern Echoes’ column in Magonia 62, February 19978

Truth, Tales and Catalogues

In his 25 Years Ago column in the pages of the previous issue of our esteemed organ, John Rimmer paid handsome tribute to the notorious INTCAT. which used to (dis?)grace the pages of the old MUFOB and the early editions of Magonia. It was truly a child of its time, a time of naive youth, when I actually thought you could tidily separate positive and negative cases.

It was as I worked on INTCAT, and in the many discussions with my collaborators on the project, that I began to realise that things were much more complicated. There were no unambiguously positive cases, and not all negative verdicts were secure. Getting half an ear on the often passionate debates in the French ufological circles of the time about the revisionist studies of the 1954 wave was a real revelation. Even today British and American ufologists blithely quote cases from that period that their French colleagues have dismissed as hoaxes 20 years ago. The reason is largely that little of this literature has ever been published in English.

You note I said collaborators. I had help from a number of overseas ufologists such as Richard Heiden, Jacques Bonabot, Ted Bloecher, Alain Gamard, Dave Webb and Barry Greenwood, not all of whom by any means shared my own opinions – it does of course go without saying that I received no help, interest or encouragement from BUFORA whose officials adopted their usual attitude of  ’if we can’t run it, we don’t want to know’. In any case occult speculation, not hard slog, was their forté at the time.

After spending the best part of a decade on INTCAT, I largely abandoned the whole project in the early 1980′s, keeping my hand in with the odd speculative article. This was the period of my transition from ‘New Ufologist’ to sceptic. My current incarnation as book-reviewer-in-chief has done little to assuage my scepticism.

Reading through book after book one encounters time after time statements to the effect that X, Y or Z happened to A, B and C. What this means at best is that A has produced a narrative which purports to be his or her memory of certain experiences which s/he alleges B and C also encountered. Investigator D may get similar memorates from B and C, but often not. More often a precis of D’s report appears in a book or magazine, from which it is further summarised by author E, who is then quoted by F who is quoted by G.

Every one of these stages produces problems. We surely know enough of the problems of perception to know that even in the tiny proportion of cases in which we have real-time reporting either by tape, mobile phone or notebook, there are likely to be distortions. The task of translating perceptions into words, which must depend on the verbal skills and cultural background of the reporter, will lead to even more distortions.

But 99% of the cases reported in anomaly literature are not real time reports, but memorates of past events, maybe only hours in the past, but in many cases years earlier. Here we encounter all the problems of memory, its distortions, false memories, confabulation, etc. The task of organising what may be difficult-to-express memories into coherent narratives will introduce still further problems. What I said about real time reports applies in spades. Especially when memories are ambiguous, vague or very anomalous, there is likely to be recourse to cultural narrative-telling traditions.

The standardisation of abduction and NDE memorates is probably occurring here. Narrators make use of words, phrases, and whole chunks of narrative from similar stories they have read or heard. A tendency to tabloid speak may take place. Narrators may believe that a good narrative ought to have certain features. These may include conversion themes such as ‘I was a sceptic until…’, ‘I was shown a photo of great aunt Mabel and the figure I saw in my kitchen was her’ or ‘the policeman who investigated said his superiors knew all about this but weren’t permitted to reveal…’, or the linking of discrete imagery into a coherent narrative.

Even now the processes have hardly begun. If a narrative is investigated, the investigators almost invariably supply their own agenda, they will often supply the witness with new vocabulary and imagery with which to express their ideas, in many cases they will supply a ready made ideology (ETHism, spiritualism, belief in conspiracies etc., etc.) around which the witnesses may organise their experiences. Where there are multiple investigations, the later investigators may be simply relayed the propaganda of the first to get on the scene.

Even the narrative itself will probably have been changed. This still applies when the same investigators interview the witness on several occasions. One should also note that witnesses may tailor their narratives to different investigators, depending on the latter’s sex, age, apparent friendliness, appearance, education, compatibility with the witness, personal beliefs, etc.

Next come the problems which occur when the investigators reduce what may be a mass of recordings or notes into a publishable narrative. They may be guided by what parts of the narrative agree most with their own beliefs or agendas; more subtly they will be guided by what they think the witness experienced, what mental imagery the witnesses’ narrative(s) conjure up in their heads. The published narrative will also be affected by the education, literary and verbal skills and life experiences of the investigators, and those of the assumed audience.

When other writers use this first-generation narrative as a basis of their own précis, further selection, bias and misreading are likely to occur. This can go on for numerous generations of narrative production. The final result that we see in any given book may therefor bear very little resemblance to what ‘actually happened’. Moreover we can never discover exactly what ‘actually happened’ – we weren’t there and in the witnesses’ mind(s). We may on the basis of past experience make good guesses. Certainly in many UFO cases in particular, we might be able to work out to our satisfaction what might have stimulated the original perception. But, we are never going to be in a position of proving, on the basis of narratives alone, that any given event is truly anomalous.

By the time we get to catalogue-type precis, we must give up any notion of positive and negative and recognise that at best we are getting nothing other than very reduced and probably very biased collections of folk stories. They may still say something of our general cultural beliefs however.

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A Personal UFO Experience.
Alan W. Sharp

Even our super-sceptical science editor Alan Sharp was not immune to the odd UFO experience, as this account, published in Merseyside UFO Bulletin, volume 3, number 1, January 1970, demonstrates:

One summer evening in the early 1960s when on holiday with a friend in the South of France we parked our car at the eastern end of the promenade at Cannes. The sun was shining, approaching the horizon and hence we decided to leave cameras and binoculars behind whilst we went in search of accomodation.

We began to stroll slowly back towards the town and had gone perhaps sixty or seventy yards when I suddenly noticed a bright patch of light slowly crossing the sky in the vicinity of the hills which lay in front of us but beyond Cannes itself,

Excitedly I pointed and we both stood still and watched as the elliptical object continued its progress at apparently low altitude, going inland fron the direction of the coast. If I remember correctly it had a bright centre then a black oval, surrounded in turn by a larger bright ellipse of light – white light, not coloured. Maximum angular dimension was about one third of a degree or even less.

Torn between the desire to run for camera and binoculars and fear of missing some feature of the apparition we continued to watch spellbound until just before the object passed out of sight behind some obstacle – one of the hotels probably – the light disappeared and was replaced by the distinct shape of an aeroplane, black in silhouette between the hills. A few seconds later and we should not have witnessed the change and would always have wondered at the nature of the UFO which we had seen.

How the peculiar effect was produced I have never been able to say with certainty but the thing looked like some sort of interference pattern, as such things are described in optics. The plane was possibly one of the helicopters which we had been noticing all day. At the tine I had not heard of Arnold’s famous Mount Rainier sighting, but it has often occurred to rte since that what he saw may have been something similar to that which so startled my friend and me that day on the Riviera.

To those with a knowledge of optics, the difficulty 1ies in the fact that we saw white light ‘fringes’, as they are called. Reflections from cabin windows? From rotor blades? Or what? The reader will notice, of course, the inevitable in such events. At the crucial time, all the optical apparatus which had been carted around all day, was safely stowed away out of reach in the car! C’est la vie – des soucoupes insolites!

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Alien Thinking
Peter Rogerson

left-stripe-blueThis article first appeared as Peter Rogerson’s ‘Northern Echoes’ in Magonia 59, April 1997.

A few months ago I challenged Jerry Clark in the pages of Fortean Times to disprove the ETH. At the time I thought it was one of those things that you just couldn’t do. It’s not really the sort of thing you can prove either way, is it? However I now think that there is a chance we can do something very close to that.

Let me be clear that I don’t mean to argue that there is no life of any kind out there, nor that there may not be powerful forms of consciousness on other worlds, What I do mean is that it is very unlikely that there are beings whose consciousness is sufficiently like our own as to be engaged on the same sorts of projects as we late twentieth century human beings: projects such as building spaceships and radio telescopes. One way we could test this is to see how robust our own consciousness is, and find out what happens to it if there are relatively trivial genetic changes. Will our human consciousness stay the same, or will it be transformed into something profoundly different.

What this mutation had done was to produce a shift in the nature and consciousness of the world itself

These thoughts were summoned up by a remarkable TV documentary in which Oliver Sachs, the well known neurologist, interviewed a number of young people who had a rare genetic mutation known as Williams Syndrome. What this mutation had done, apart from introducing a number of physical changes, some requiring specialist treatment, was to produce a shift in the nature and consciousness of the world itself. Williams Syndrome people are oriented towards a world of language, sound and interpersonal re{ationships. Their vocabulary is for in advance of their chronological age, their sense of hearing sometimes painfully hyper-acute, and Sachs felt they had an extreme sensitivity to the feelings of other people. But coupled with these gifts ore equally profound disabilities: a very poor visual spatial sense, and great difficulties with mathematics and abstractions.

It became clear from the programme that Williams Syndrome people, when using English (or any other language) were subtly altering the meaning of words. They used the concepts of height and weight interchangeably and in what seemed like a surreal and exaggerated fashion. A boy described his beloved bees as being as wide as his outstretched arms. Sachs suggested this was the use of language to convey a great narrative full of wonder, but it equally struck me that it might mean that Williams Syndrome people used weight and size related words not to convey notions of abstract physical quantity, a notion which Sachs suggested meant little to them, but to convey something which might be rendered as “presence in the world” – not in the world of physical space but in an interior, psychological space. Weight and height would thus indicate power over the imagination and capacity to fill up that interior world.

Clearly, we are not dealing with a group of people whose abilities can be matched with those of the majority on some linear scale of ‘gifted’ or ‘retarded’. Rather they are profoundly different, and their undoubted problems are largely caused by being obliged to live in a society to which they are not adapted. This sense of ‘otherness’ seems to have existed for a long period. Williams Syndrome was sometimes known as ‘Pixie Syndrome’ because the characteristic pinched look and upturned noses which it produced resembled drawings of pixies and fairies. Of course, what they really meant was that artists had used Williams Syndrome faces as icons of otherness and that the mature vocabulary of Williams children had evoked notions of changelings. This sense of otherness still persisted into our own times, as witness the suggestions some years ago in the magazine Magic Saucer (a UFO magazine aimed specifically at children) that Williams children were the product of an alien breeding experiment.

Of course, such children are perfectly human, and they are a sign of one of the possible alternative directions human consciousness might have taken. This would have been a direction which would never have led to spaceships, though it may have led to a language system so rich that our present languages would be little more than a set of articulate grunts in comparison.

And here we get to my point. If such a small genetic change within one species can produce a shift in consciousness in which, say, mathematics (the ‘universal language’ of CETI) does not develop, can we believe that creatures with a totally separate biological and evolutionary history – far more remote genetically from us than slime mould – are going to possess our form of consciousness and have our aims and priorities? Surely this is speciesist nonsense of the first order.

There’s one other point. We should not rule out the possibility that equally profound genetic shifts in consciousness might exist without other obvious symptoms. Such a thought may illuminate many of the intractable arguments encountered in our pages and elsewhere. Perhaps `believers’ and ‘sceptics’ see the world so differently because their brains are wired up in slightly different ways, and they literally perceive and interact with the world in a different fashion. If you doubt that possibility, imagine staging a dialogue between Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins: Englishmen of roughly the some age, background and education who see the world in as profoundly different ways as possible. And you still think you could talk to Zeta Reticulans?

 

 

 

 

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A Fatal Illusion.
Matthew J. Graeber

From Magonia 62, February 1998

In recent times the tragic suicide of 38 American UFO cult members has graphically illustrated the extremes that fixation and identification with alien life forms can have upon certain individuals. For not only did these troubled souls believe that by taking their lives they were also going to rendezvous with an extraterrestrial space ship that was skirting a comet’s tail, but several of them had even shaved their heads and castrated themselves (perhaps in an effort to mimic the purely cerebral, highly spiritual and, presumably, asexual appearance of the space creatures that tthey anticipated meeting).

Other UFO-related cases of unusual human behaviour involve the complete abandonment of highly sensitive listening posts by several US military personnel in Germany, so they might meet with a flying saucer that they believed was coming to Earth to pick them up, as well as the planned radioactive assassination of local government officials in New York State by UFO aficionados who thought that the authorities were covering up information about a saucer that had crashed near Long Island.

Of course, these are extreme examples and it would be totally unfair of me to paint the entire UFO subculture with the same brush. For many saucer buffs are intelligent, hard-working and well-meaning folks and it is, in fact, precisely because of their good intentions and belief in the UFO phenomenon that they can be easily manipulated and exploited by charismatic, unscrupulous and deluded individuals who may be operating within the saucer movement itself.Interestingly, in the early days of UFO charlatanism, the schemes (much like the developing UFO phenomenon) lacked the sophistication of today’s technological-sounding scams, which not only include an array of bogus classified documents, photos, video footage and crashed saucer artifacts, but also the sanction of a growing number of credulous professionals who treat abductees and reportedly help them to deal with the post-traumatic stress and lingering anxiety of repeated experiences with alien beings that had kidnapped and abused them.

All this at the insistence (and, in many instances, the direction) of self-proclaimed UFO abduction experts, who often lack anysort of medical training or certifica-tion in clinical or forensic hypnosis.

ASK NOT WHAT A SUPER-TECHNOLOGICAL ALIEN CIVILISATION CAN DO FOR YOU, ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP STRAIGHTEN OUT THE MESS RIGHT HERE ON PLANET EARTH!

The reported transformational effect of the abduction experience is believed to involve a spiritual, philosophical and intellectual heightening of the individual’s self awareness through a continuing process of contact and educational interaction with alien intelligences that have selected the abductees for some specific purpose.

Several experts believe that the purpose of abduction is grounded in the immediate wants and needs of the aliens who are, apparently, attempting to bolster their own faltering genetic pool through a clone-splicing technique that they have perfected in order to thwart their impending extinction.Several other UFO experts feel that the benevolent aliens are concerned about our own planet’s ever-mounting ecological, sociological and political woes; and that they have been visiting this world and covertly contacting some of its inhabitants in preparation for a kind of social reorganisation which will supposedly take place after the Earth goes through a period of dramatic changes (e.g. the result of a global catastrophe such as a nuclear holocaust, a complete ecological melt-down, a world-wide plague, or a bewildering series of natural disasters). In fact, it has even been suggested that the planet itself may be knocked off its axis by a rogue asteroid and entire continents might be swept away – beneath the angriest of seas.

Still other reported after-effects of contacts with the alien Greys, as they are commonly called in UFO circles, are said to include a sense of cosmic consciousness (or, the magnified awareness of one’s oneness with the universe), the occasional spontaneous cure or remission of various physical, immunological, emotional and psychological disorders, as well as the abductees experiencing marked changes in their career choices, personal interests and long-term goals.

But, beyond all of the above, human contact with the aliens has also produced marked alterations in the way the abductee perceives him or herself, even to the point of their experiencing sexual identity difficulties and/or gross distortions of self, which includes the questioning of their even belonging to the human race or feeling any sort of allegiance to it. That the abductees would identify, sympathise and voice open affection for their captors is not an unknown psychological phenomenon. But, that the abductees would so readily cast off their humanity and profess partial (i.e., hybrid) or total kinship with their alien captors does seem to open the door to much deeper contemplation.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS

The problem, of course, is that few abduction experts have the requisite medical training to fully comprehend the dangers of hypnotically probing the unconscious mind of the individuals they matter of factly call the abductees – a term which automatically confirms as physically real the very confusing experiences which these perplexed individuals have sought out the experts for. But, even worse than that, the term sets them up for additional experiences, simply because it is common knowledge throughout the UFO community that the Greys always come back for the abductees, and their children too! Perhaps it was this expectation and fear that led a woman in the UK to kill her young grandchildren before they would be kidnapped by aliens?

Beyond this, the UFO ‘experts’ lack of perception regarding the marked psychical background of the so-called abduction experience (i.e., its mythopoeic make-up and dream-like contradictory content) means that the experts must keep coming up with new (and often ridiculous) explanations of how and why the aliens might do something that is obviously nonsensical in character (e.g., the little Greys can reportedly levitate at will, lift and carry the much larger and heavier humans that they have captured – yet, they often walk their victims to their waiting space craft and climb stairs into its hatchway, even though they reportedly filtered through the locked doors and brick walls of the abductee’s home only moments before).

Yet another obvious contradiction pops up in the reports when the dematerialising aliens use metallic instruments to perform invasive surgical procedures upon their human captives, especially when they are also alleged to be capable of inducing the abductees’ bodies to dematerialise as well.

Moreover, today’s medical practitioners can routinely perform similar gynaecological procedures to those that the aliens reportedly employ, but without producing the marked fear and pain which so frequently characterise the medical aspects of the abduction experience.

ENCOUNTERS WITH THE UNKNOWN

In many instances, man’s encounters with the unknown were believed to be real contacts with gods, spirits, or demons of various description, and often involved the experiencer being whisked off to magical realms beneath the Earth or sea, high upon a mountain, deep within the forest, or in the firmament above.

Today’s abduction reports often feature similar mythological settings in their scenarios (albeit with a technological accent) and we even discover reports of UFO interiors which have earthen floors and shag rug wall-to-wall carpeting (Indeed, dirt floors in a supposedly highly advanced and medically sterile space craft.) In fact, the UFO which reportedly kidnapped Linda Cortile (the central figure in Budd Hopkins’s book Witnessed) was said to have plunged into the Hudson River with all hands on board rather than flitting off into the starry sky with its cargo of human captives. So, the question immediately arises – was the craft a sub-UFO from Earth’s inner space or an ill-fated space craft from outer space?

While it seems perfectly normal for modern man to dismiss the idea that wee folks, fairies, leprechauns, and hobgoblins actually existed and occasionally interfaced with our forbears, a great many people living in very sophisticated societies as little as a century ago absolutely did believe that such tales were true. Indeed, some folks even believe it to this very day. The point is that, in a hundred years or so, it may be that our contemporary beliefs in UFOs and the pint-sized creatures that pilot them will also become a curiously amusing fact, especially when one considers that the UFO legend’s tales are so highly characteristic of our society and our times (i.e., an era in which our own space-conquering aspirations have been projected upon an array of alien intelligences that we assume to be flourishing somewhere in the cosmos – a fact that Dr C.G. Jung pointed out over forty years ago in his landmark book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies).

In short, we may be lifting our eyes, minds, hopes, and hearts to the skies in search of a super-technological deity instead of the supernatural god that our ancestors worshipped. We may be yearning for an answer to our tiny planet’s ever-mounting problems – fantasising and, in so doing, inventing a new-age panacea (or super-advanced technological response) to the dark side of our own sciences and technologies, and the nuclear/ toxic demons that we have unwit-tingly created and unleashed upon ourselves.

That this panacea should take the form of little creatures with swollen heads that are choc-full of intelligence and good will towards mankind (instead of a host of angels with blaring trumpets bursting through the firmament), informs us that a growing faith in advanced sciences and technology has woven its way into our culture’s unconscious, even to the point that UFOs (i.e., the symbol of the panacea) have been invested with the power of bringing salvation to mankind. A power which they do not possess and in no way deserve.

Man has always feared and revered strange and awesome things that he’s seen in the skies – he had recorded his perceptions upon cave walls, clay tablets, and video camcorders. Perhaps knowing what the signs in the skies actually were never was as important as what the observer believed they were, and the tremendous impact that such beliefs have had upon the human psyche.

Perhaps UFOs have always played a part in the living experience of man. Perhaps they have been called soul-sparks by the ancients and space ships by today’s observers. Perhaps, too, their operators have been known as angels, demons, wee-folks, and Greys. Are these creatures from outer space, inner space, or a space and time existing somewhere in between these divisional concepts? Do they seek to contact us consciously, unconsciously, or on a spiritual level?

UFOS AND INKBLOTS

Like many great artists, Leonardo Da Vinci was fully aware of the inner mind’s ability to well up images, and we find that even his friend and colleague Piero Di Cosimo commented in his writings on how many wonderful creatures could be found hidden in the stains of masonry work. Of course, we’ve all had some personal childhood experience with seeing various animal shapes in cloud formations; and, if one tries hard enough, quite a few other imaginary things can be spotted lurking in the shadows of leafy trees too.

In the early 1900s, Dr Hermann Rorschach (a Swiss psychiatric pioneer) effectively demonstrated that extraordinarily meaningful material buried deep in an individual’s subconscious could be brought to the surface by having that person attentively mull over a series of ink blots in an effort to describe what they saw in them.

In most instances, just about everyone tends to see the same kind of things in fluffy clouds and Dr Rorschach’s ink-blot plates simply because the general shape of the visually perceived external object that they are gazing at does bear some degree of similarity to a mentally stored image of some other object that they are comparing it to. But, it seems that after one’s initial comparative or reductive processes have been exhausted regarding Rorschach’s ambiguous ink blots, some unusual things start to happen to a person’s perceptive abilities. This also appears to be the case in many UFO observations, and may even play an important role in the close-encounter experiences that occasionally follow them.

As any seasoned field investigator can tell you, quite often the play of reflected sunlight or cloud shadowing upon an otherwise easily discernible abject (such as a commercial airliner’s fuselage) may create false optical cues that can cause a person to misidentify the aircraft and call it a UFO. What’s more, because the startled UFO observer does not have the opportunity to replay the incident and, therefore, cannot possibly verify his or her observation, they may not ever realise that they have mistakenly identified a fixed-wing aircraft for an unidentified flying object.

Interestingly, it seems that even though an individual undergoing Rorschach testing has the opportunity to take a good long look at a particular Rorschach plate, nevertheless the general shape and even the coloration of the ink blot tends to play an important role in the mental formulation of the kind of things that he or she will see in it. This may be a very important factor for UFO researchers to consider because the changing size, shape and coloration of a fleeting UFO or its pulsating lighting may produce (or induce) similar effects upon the experi-encer’s perceptive skills.

Considering the adverse effect that shadow, distance, darkness, and poor weather conditions might have upon an individual’s optical acuity at the time of their sighting – it seems reasonable to suspect that UFO watching, much like ink-blot gazing, primarily involves the observation of a strange object or some pattern of ambiguous lights that are usually seen against the backdrop of a night-time sky.

So, it is not surprising that one’s best attempts to positively identify the object (or the distant lights) are going to become embellished with subjective (apperceptive) phenomena that form around the object, or may tend to fill in the empty space that is situated in between the mysterious points of light – investing them with not only a structural configuration, but also volition and, in some cases, even questionable intent. Naturally, these attributes are projected upon the unknown object by the observer as a result of their emotional and intuitive responses to the situational and confrontational character of their UFO encounter; and, once that happens, their UFO experience broadens and deepens, taking on a subjective tone which may also in-clude the active influence of very primitive introjective processes (i.e., assuming that the object is intelligently guided or that the UFO operators have specifically selected the observer for some reason).

All of these factors must be seriously considered by the objective UFO researcher simply because one cannot be certain which percentage of UFO reports are generated by the observation of space craft from another world (or holographic imagery that is transmitted by an alien civilisation), as opposed to those that may have their origin in the depths of man’s inner space – that is, his unconscious mind. And, of course, there is also the distinct possibility that the UFO experience is both objective and subjective in nature, and that separation of the two is simply beyond our investigative skills.

This appears to be the case where a physically real airborne object (be it a misidentification of some sort, or a real UFO) is observed and then the observer projects his or her own psychical contents upon it – very much like what happens during Rorschach testing experiences.

In his landmark psychological exploration of the UFO phenomenon, Dr C.G. Jung identified the basic discoidal (or round) UFO configuration as being similar to that of a meditative mantra and several other symbolic manifestations of the self which, as we know from our studies of depth psychology, is a very important archetype that tends to spontaneously appear to individuals when there is a profound emotional need present in their lives, or when they are caught up in a seemingly hopeless or overwhelming situation. Both of these prerequisites seem to fit the above mentioned UFO experience model which speculatively describes the UFO encounter as being a kind of display or the symbolic equivalent of some internal conflict that is unconsciously troubling but, nevertheless, affecting the observers at the time of their UFO encounter.

I am not alone with this estimate of the UFO situation, for several other researchers have come to similar conclusions regarding a display factor in UFO events and, quite recently, Dr R. Leo Sprinkle (noted psychologist/ufologist of Laramie, Wyoming) has presented a paper on the psychical analysis of UFO experiences which echoes Dr C. G. Jung’s assertion that the UFO may be (at least in part) a symbolic representation of the observer’s self. But these guestimates are based upon present-day UFO reports and the investigative data that today’s researchers are gathering. It would also bee interesting to attempt to determine what impact the presence of such ambiguous aerial objects may have had upon our forebears.

.cave-art

CAVE ART AND UFOS

Curiously, UFO-like shapes and forms have been discovered amidst the human and animal forms depicted in Palaeolithic and Neolithic cave art which is generally thought to have been created during the time when man’s consciousness was first developing (i.e., roughly one million years ago). These, too, are believed to have been produced while early man was involved with welling up mentally stored images of the many animals that he hunted and feared. But, unlike the beautiful deer, bison and horses that appear to have been repeatedly drawn in the same area of the caves and were apparently used for some kind of hunting magic ritual, these unusual circles, braces and chevrons were not drawn in layers and are believed by many experts to have had an independent mythology connected to them. Interestingly,squares, chevrons, and a series of circles and dots commonly called recall-benders frequently pop up in Rorschach testing too.

Although there may be a number of possible explanations for the existence of the UFO-like cave drawings, two seem to be the most plausible. Either the cave man recorded his real-world encounter with such objects, or he dreamed of such forms and the dreams had such a profound impact on him in the waking state that he wanted to share his experience with his contemporaries.

In either case, it appears that these UFO-like shapes were considered important enough to merit separate space upon the cave walls, for they are not pitted and marred like the animal depictions which have obviously been subjected to many missile impacts that probably occurred during a hunting magic ritual. In other words, the UFO-like drawings have been afforded a separate space within the caves, and they probably had an entirely separate mythology associated with them.

The experts on cave art seem to be somewhat perplexed by these drawings and, of course, opinions vary quite a bit regarding their possible meaning. The so-called brackets are often thought to be a stylised version of the female form about to receive male sexuality, while some experts feel that the brackets may be related to the sexual aggression of the cave man himself.

One thing seems certain. These forms are totally unlike anything that is thought to have existed in the cave man’s natural environment. They appear to be symmetrical, possibly aerodynamic in design, and they also have a modern-day technological look about them. While they may not actually be depictions of UFOs, one must admit that they certainly do look a great deal like sketches that today’s observers produce regarding their en
counters with alien space vehicles.

Dare we ponder the notion that contact with alien intelligences could be channelled through the vast reaches of man’s inner space (i.e., his unconscious mind) and that such contacts may have been going on since mankind’s conscious dawning? Dare we believe that human inner space is just as vast, wondrous and awesome as outer space and that we have barely touched the surface of the mysteries and wonders that lie within its depths? Indeed, depths from which the UFOs themselves may hail?

No matter how far we reach out amongst the stars, we must always bear in mind that in our outreaching lies a human motive, and that the further we reach the deeper the want, the need, the fear, or the desire is to touch the face of the unknown.

As we are about to enter the 21st century, we might do well to note that despite our new sciences and great technological advance
ments we are still linked to our distant ancestors and carry the essence of their being within us. Have we become so estranged from this primal fabric that signals from it are thought to be attempted communications from an alien world? What is the signal in the noise of UFO reports? And, even more importantly, why is it being picked up by so many people at this particular point in human history?

UFO-IMAGERY ANALYSIS

Although Hermann Rorschach’s work with the phenomenon of human perception (its alteration or distortion) is generally applied to the diagnosis of pathology, some experts feel that it might be an error to assume that it is not also a viable method for studying the workings of perceptual phenomena in normals too. Dynamic UFO Displays may be one of many such phenomena, for the sudden and oft-times riveting perception of a Dynamic Display or close encounter may trigger a projection function that displaces some of the excess psychical energy (libido) assigned to an internal conflict that may be adversely affecting an individual. Thus, the Dynamic Display variety of UFO experience may bethought of as a self-regulating function of the psyche which is induced into activity by intrusive sensory stimulation (i.e., the impact of encountering a UFO) as opposed to the tranquil meditative process of Rorschach plate scrutiny.

Even in cases where the UFO investigator is completely unable to resolve the UFO report as a misidentification of a conventional airborne object (or perhaps an atmospheric anomaly of some kind), he or she is still left with the opportunity to examine the observer’s recollection of what the unidentified flying object looked like, how it appeared to operate and, of course, how it may have interacted with them.

This is most valuable information because, if we are correct about the UFO’s image and its interactive performance being dramatic representations of the observer’s self condition , we can learn something about the UFO experience’s meaningfulness in regard to the observer’s wants, needs, fears and expectations, along with something about the general make up of their defensive shielding. Indeed, we might consider a Dynamic UFO Display as a form of self-perception and communication that is triggered by the UFO’s presence in our skies – and even more importantly – in ouy lives.

IS THE SIGNAL SYMBOLIC?

In order to interpret the symbolic materials that well up during the subject’s observation and interaction with the UFO, the investigator must attempt to determine what the UFO (as an image) may actually represent on the one hand (e.g., a misi-dentification of some physical and external airborne object/s, or perhaps a totally unknown anomaly) and how that object’s image and behaviour might be symbolically linked to the psychology of the observer/s on the other hand. It is also apparent that what is observed during a UFO experience and how it is emotionally perceived and responded to is not solely determined by the observer’s conscious estimation of his or her UFO encounter, but also by the active influence of a mixed bag of intrapsychical forces that come into play during the event.

Since we suspect that the primary sensory stimulation (which is visual in most UFO cases) and the observer’s logical estimation of the experience concerning the size, shape, colouring and nearness of the object, is also backed up by emotional, intuitive and instinctual inputs that quickly flow across intrapsychic structures during the event, the UFO researcher should be on the look out for any bits and pieces or archetypal and/or instinctual debris that may be clinging to the observer’s account of their encounter with an unidentified flying object or its occupants.

In regard to this process, it seems that the altered or distorted form of perception which is instigated into activity by the ambiguity of the ink-blot plates in the case of Rorschach testing, and the often-times equally ambiguous, though obviously much more shocking, process of UFO watching primarily involves the subject’s complete fixation with the object, and a general falling away (or perhaps the total absorption) of their reality testing during the experience (e.g., Well, it was quite dark that night and at first I thought it was an aeroplane, or maybe a helicopter … but, then, as it hovered just above my head, I slowly realised that it was something unlike I’d ever seen before ).

Dynamic UFO Display case studies graphically illustrate that UFO researchers do have the ability to identify the symbolic contents in UFO reports which relate to both the observer’s personal life conflicts and even those that may be considered to be far more rudimentary (or archetypal) in character.

THE UFO SIGHTING AND ITS POTENTIALLY BENEFICIAL EFFECT?

If certain visually perceived imagery such as that found in Rorschach’s plates and some UFO configurations do have the ability to deeply penetrate the human psyche and induce the displacement of archetypal symbols, subconscious contents, and psychic energy, we are obliged to further examine this remarkable phenomenon in an attempt to determine if there may be some therapeutic application for such a process.

Perhaps the cinematic replication (i.e., animation or computer animation) of UFO-like imagery which may be custom-designed from the information gathered by the therapist during counselling sessions with his or her patients might be as effective a tool as the purely mentally generated images that guided imagery practitioners presently attempt to direct at an array of physical, emotional and immunological disorders. Perhaps the sudden impact on perceiving a Dynamic UFO Display may enhance or surpass the effectiveness of the passive guided imagery techniques because of its highly confrontational character and deeply penetrating impact on the observer(s).

Perhaps, too, this same sort of psychical shock was the driving force that first nudged early man to conceive of things that did not yet exist, but surely would some day, simply because he could create them.

 

Gill Again: The Father Gill Case Reconsidered
Martin Kottmeyer

Originally published in Magonia 54, November 1995

In a 1979 survey of ninety leading ufologists, Ron Story found the case of Father Gill of Papua New Guinea was most mentioned when he asked for the strongest UFO evidence. [1]

Jerry Clark had acclaimed it as “History’s Best Case” in an article for Fate magazine the year before. [2] J. Allen Hynek termed it a “classic” and said he was impressed by the quality and number of witnesses and the character and demeanour of Reverend Gill. [3] In The UFO Experience he gave it the highest probability rating among the close encounters of the third kind. [4] Jacques Vallee thought it “one of the great classics in UFO history”. [5] The Lorenzens include an assessment of it by one of their APRO representatives as “one of the most important ever recorded” in their Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space. [6]

It wasn’t hyperbole. There are 38 witnesses. No other entity case comes close to that number. Twenty-five signed their names to a detailed report. Five of them were teachers and three were medical assistants. There was agreement the object was circular, had a wide base, a narrow upper deck, a type of legs, four human figures, and a shaft of blue light which shone upwards into the sky at an angle of 45°. It was visible for hours. The Australian Air Force, while able to explain away some details of the case as astronomical bodies, confessed they could reach no definite conclusions and granted the seeming presence of “a major light source of unknown origin”. [7] Sceptics, including Donald Menzel, Daniel Cohen and Phil Klass, have not fared well in their criticisms of the case. [8] Gill answered the major charges convincingly when he was interviewed by Hynek. There’s been no confession or revelations pointing to a solution. While we don’t hear it mentioned much these days amid the din of things like Roswell and the Greys, it is not because of any resolution of the puzzle or the discovery of stronger evidence for UFOs. It’s still an impressive anomaly.

Location of the Gill case

It of course isn’t impressive enough to make me believe in visiting extraterrestrials. Indeed the high point of the case highlights one of the core paradoxes of the UFO phenomenon. The figures on the deck waved back at the witnesses on the beach leading them to think it would soon land. Yet it didn’t. Why no contact, given this seeming friendliness? The case invites question after question about it that seem to cast doubts on a veridical extraterrestrial interpretation. Of all the places in the world to reveal themselves to this maximal extent, why Papua New Guinea? Why 1959 and never again? Why did it float about in the air for hours, slowly drifting, especially when most saucers of that era went blazing about at great speeds? Why do the drawings show a UFO much thicker than most of the saucers of that era? Why are the figures walking about on top of it; something we don’t see much of in reports nowadays? Why are the figures so human-looking; so unlike contemporary Greys? Guyorobo’s drawing shows branching legs that seem unlike anything else in the UFO literature, why? What is with that 45° shaft of blue light? Why is it pointed up instead of down as they usually are in cases with light beams? If it is a laser, as some suggest, what is it firing at, illuminating, or connecting? The case is so singular, one wonders if it even belongs with the rest of the UFO phenomenon.

Yet what is the alternative? Klass suggested it was a hoax. [9] This has its difficulties. Gill was an ordained Anglican priest. Even granting religious authority has lost some of its lustre in recent years in the wake of televangelism scandals, this is still a good mark in the case’s behalf. The involvement of five teachers similarly suggests a group of people likely to have a higher moral standard than average. The story told by Gill is oddly banal set next to most of the hoaxes in UFO history. The figures on deck seem only to be working and their interaction with the witnesses is limited to waving. There is no dramatic conflict, no sense of danger, no sense of horror, no indications of cheekiness. Gill’s field notes have an authentically clipped style of someone briefly noting events he is observing. There is a notable lack of narrative quality to the notes. They don’t build up to a climax and lack adjectives, superlatives, or flourishes of an imaginative sort.

Klass proclaims his disbelief over the Gill case mainly on a single point. He cannot accept that Gill would go to dinner with the prospect of a landing at hand. Gill acknowledged this seems odd to him in retrospect in his interview with Hynek. Yet the field notes provide a ready explanation:

Waving by us was repeated, and this was followed by more flashes of the torch, then the UFO began slowly to become bigger, apparently coming in our direction. It ceased after perhaps half a minute and came no further. After a further two or three minutes the figures apparently lost interest in us, for they disappeared below deck.

At 6:25 two figures reappeared to carry on whatever they were doing before the interruption. The blue spotlight came on for a few seconds, twice in succession. The two UFOs remained stationary and high up – higher than last night, or smaller than last night.

6:30 P.M. I went to dinner.

Drawing based on Father gill's description
Drawing based on Father Gill’s description

There was no longer any forward motion to indicate a landing was imminent. There was no more interest by the figures in Gill or the others on the beach. This suggests simple reciprocity. With the figures showing lack of interest in Gill, Gill probably lost interest in them in turn. He had watched them for four hours the previous night with no sign of a landing; why stand around another four hours when he could be eating? Indeed the point can be flipped around; why would a hoaxer include such a banal detail as figures going below deck and then returning to do unspecified work involving “occasionally bending over and raising their arms as though adjusting, or setting up something (not visible)”? Why doesn’t Gill claim they landed, exchanged greetings and moral platitudes, and invited him on board for a ride? That would be more in line with the stories we saw in the fifties.

Then there is the matter of motive. What would possess 25 people, including teachers and medical people, to risk potential scandal? What would possess Gill to drag so many people into a hoax and risk having them giving the game away? Even he could get a consensus to play a joke on Cruttwell, we are told by Cruttwell that the witnesses had told their stories to other Papuans who passed the news on to him. Did Gill ask them to lie to all these other people as well? With these people making up a religious community, one would expect any hoax to more likely involve an effort to supply miracles to buttress the faith. There is no religious detailing to Gill’s story at all. It makes too little sense for the hoax explanation to be credible.

This leaves us with the idea of a misinterpretation. Donald Menzel proposed that Gill had been viewing the planet Venus. It was near maximum brightness and “roughly in the position indicated by Father Gill”.Menzel saw the obvious objections: “Planets don’t appear to have men standing on them. Planets do not send out search lights.” His way round this was by assuming Gill had myopia and astigmatism. The men would be “slightly out of focus images of [his] eyelashes”. The search beam “could easily have been the effect of clouds”. He states we have no way of knowing whether the other people who signed Gill’s report actually saw what Gill saw. [10] Evidently Menzel did not see Cruttwell’s report for there was verbal confirmation of agreement by the witnesses of these details to the investigator and a drawing by Stephen Gill Moi also has four figures visible. Worst of all, Menzel asserts Gill “never even mentions” Venus as a point of reference, when he most certainly did: “I saw Venus, but I also saw this sparkling object…” [11] In a later account for a lecture Gill mentioned that he had seen Venus set on the prior night, but on the night of the sighting he became aware of the UFO because “there wasn’t one Venus, but two”. [12] When Gill met with investigators in the seventies, he provided them with his documented optometric history which effectively refuted Menzel’s scenario. [13]

Allan Hendry toyed with a variant of Menzel’s scenario, suggesting that Gill’s Venus was Mercury and the UFO was still Venus. “On all three nights, the time of disappearance of the main UFO never exceeds the time Venus sets … the coincidence of the disappearance of the main UFO and the time of Venus setting is provocative.” The long duration of the sighting is consistent with other cases involving astronomical misinterpretations. Against this, as Hendry was quick to point out, we have Gill saying the apparent diameter was five times the moon’s width, the bearing of 30° altitude in the WNW, and the basic similarity of the drawings by four of the witnesses. [14] His final assessment was that the case couldn’t be pushed any farther in terms of investigation: “At least we feel confident that the sighting was generated either by an extraordinary UFO as described, or by Venus distorted in size and shape by (amazing) atmospheric distortions (and memory spanning 18 years by Father Gill) … BUT NOTHING ELSE” (emphases and punctuation by IUR).

More recently Steuart Campbell has added a characteristically wild twist by suggesting the “sparkling object” involved a mirage of Mercury at first, and then later, tricked by discontinuities in observations created by clouds, the object was confusedly mistaken with mirages of Mars and Venus. [15] He doesn’t even try to account for the four figures or how dozens of people could be fooled by mirages for hours.

gill-tableThe case is probably even worse than you might guess. None of the sources give the coordinates of Venus that evening. When I finally got someone to provide the data, I learned Venus had an azimuth of roughly 285° when it set that evening – that’s 15° north of west. In the field notes of 26 June, we have an observation at 9:30 p.m. reading “‘Mother’ gone across sea to Giwa – white, red, blue, gone.” That’s the last it is seen that evening. Giwa is located along a line running 70° north of west (340° azimuth) giving a substantial disparity of 55°. This is pretty hard to argue away as normal eyewitness fallibility.I suspect most ufologists might accept that one person alone could hallucinate seeing a group of people inside or on a flying saucer, but not two. Having 25 people sign a report claiming they saw this and having them agree this is what they saw in the follow up is totally without parallel in the literature and without clear precedent in either abnormal psychology or Fortean history. It might be possible; perhaps they all drank from a keg of something spiked with an hallucinogen and Gill became accidental guide, but it hardly seems probable. This approach seemed as clearly counter-indicated as the hoax and ETH ideas. In saying “BUT NOTHING ELSE”, Hendry seemed to close the book on the case and it would be hard to deny that assessment was completely fair. No other alternative was obvious. I can’t say it troubled me much. Unexplained means unexplained. It happens sometimes.

Last year [1994] I read a couple of papers by Paul Rydeen which compared UFO belief to cargo cults. [16] I’d seen the idea before, but they put me in the mood to acquire Lamont Linndstrom’s new treatise Cargo Cult to see if it might be a fruitful subject to explore. It was, but in a way I didn’t count on.

Papua was where cargo cults first sprung up. Cargo cult belief involved the expectation that ships sent by one’s ancestors would some day arrive bearing cargo that would make them as wealthy as European colonisers. The Europeans perpetually spoke of cargo shipments from their distant home that were running late. World War Two escalated and shifted cargo expectations because of the immense sea and air traffic involving American shipments of troop supplies. GIs had spread the wealth around during their stay. Cargo rituals soon involved planes, airstrips, control towers, and radios. Could this milieu have been involved in the Gill case?

Gill said there was initially no thought that the sightings involved extraterrestrials. It was felt to be “a strange new device of you Americans”. Critics tried to paint Gill as a believer because the phrase Mothership was current in UFO lore, but the phrase is older than that and was used as a term denoting the boat in a fishing fleet to which the catches of smaller boats were centrally relayed. The original field notes confirm Gill thought the figures were “human”. Besides their friendly demeanour, indicated by their waving at the witnesses, the activities of the figures resemble the normal work you would see on a ship deck. Drawings and verbal descriptions include the presence of portholes and railings like you’d see on a ship. Was this all some kind of Cargo vision? The emotions seemed suggestive:

We all thought it was going to land. We were hoping it was going to land. We were in a state of what you might call anticipation. They came down and then they seemed to stop… And spontaneously, almost, we started to wave, just as though – we’re used to waving at people, boats are coming in all the time, small craft, and naturally we’re used to waving at people on these craft… To our surprise and we really were surprised, these people waved back. [17]

This is consonant with the sentiments of cargo expectations, but it is rather explicitly normal everyday behaviour as well. It’s hardly proof.There are also blatant difficulties. Why should an Anglican priest get caught up in the enthusiasms of Papuan religiosity? A missionary ought to be immune to some degree to the influence of a competing faith. One could perhaps wave this off with appeals to empathy in Gill. Turn around the charge that the natives would be pliant to his will and say he was pliant to their charms and mass psychology.

gill-saucers-2
Sketch of the Gill UFO by Stephen Gill Moi (left), Ananias Rarata (centre), and Dulcie Guyorobo (right)

More troubling is the objection that Papuan expectations should have yielded an image more consonant with American aircraft. Aircraft don’t have deckhands roaming about topside. They don’t have railings. Where are the wings and tail section? Why is there this confusing mix of sea vessel and hovering aerial platform? form? Aerial platforms, moreover, were pretty much a theoretical fancy back then with a doubtful history in experimental trials. About the only source of the image in mass culture worth mentioning was the old Johnny Quest cartoon series and that came after the Gill case not before.

Then another oddity – Stan Seers reports a discussion he had with Gill about the shaft of light that emanated from the top of the craft. Gill “emphasised it was pencil thin and parallel, that is to say it did not spread, or increase in diameter as does an ordinary beam of light.” [18] Seers, writing in 1983, identifies this as a laser, which in 1959 was terrestrially unknown. Must be extra-terrestrial! He forgets, however, that laser light normally isn’t visible from the side without something to disperse it like particles or fog. It dawned on me then that this could make sense in the context of the other ship motifs. The 45° lines of light in the drawings of Gill, Stephen Gill Moi, and Ananias Rarata would simply be ship’s rigging, brightly illuminated. Yet that’s paradoxical if we are dealing with visionary construction of the image. Gill shouldn’t have been puzzled – it should be self-explanatory. Looking at the drawings again, Guyorobo’s branching legs suddenly made sense to me as also ship-related. They were fishing nets dropped into the water. But, same paradox, why wasn’t it self-explanatory if it was part of a vision? Solution: Forget about visions – this is a real boat!

But, that can’t be right. These drawings don’t look like the Flying Dutchman. Fishing boats don’t fly. Magonians are obliged to grant the idea of ships floating in the air is centuries old. Theorists in the field of meteorological optics have noted that the illusion of ships floating in the air is sometimes created by mirages. They are formed by light being bent and distorted in sea air which has stratified into layers of differing temperatures and thus differing refractive indices. Could that be the case here? I thought so for a while, but I bounced the idea off someone more knowledgeable about meteorological optics and was flatly told it was impossible. The problem is with the figures on the deck. The ship would have to be miles away over the horizon for the illusion to work and at that distance the figures could not be optically resolved. To the suggestion I made that mirages magnify images at times, he countered that mirages only stretch images in the vertical dimension. Looking at various drawings of mirage apparitions in the literature, it was clear this mechanism would not work. [19]

I put in some observing time at a nearby lake to double check the limitations of visibility of humans on ships. For Gill to be able to observe humans waving at him, the ship definitely had to be well under a mile in distance. Forget mirages.One of the days I picked for observing involved very calm conditions. The sailboats crept very slowly across my field of vision. The surface was close to mirror-like. The ship hulls doubled. The sails only partly doubled. This I expected and felt would explain the thickness of the saucers drawn by Guyorobo and Rarata. The sky’s blueness was mirrored in the water and I noticed the horizon was virtually invisible, so well did the colours match and nearly blend. At night, one could imagine the horizon completely lost. I also observed on this occasion discontinuities in the water that ran at a mostly horizontal angle to the real horizon. They were undoubtedly related to a slight wind. Some ran across the field of vision between me and a sailboat. One of these discontinuities was fairly close to the shore and seemed rather stable over the period of observation of roughly an hour. I am unaware of the precise reason for this stability – if it involved a miniature sea-breeze effect, water currents, or whatever. Move this into the night, illuminate it by boat light, and one might get the effect of a false horizon.

We do know that there is a type of night fishing that takes place in Pacific regions. Squid fishermen rig their boats with powerful incandescent lamps of many thousands of watts to lure squid up from great depths. [20] Such a boat could account for the observation “It was sending a bright white halo – throwing it up on the base of the cloud”. That’s hardly typical of Venus! Such a fishing vessel would also account for the slow drifting motion of the object and its long presence in the area. Other types of boats would have traversed such an area in a much briefer period of time.We have here, I think, most of the elements needed for an acceptably unparadoxical resolution to the Gill classic. It is basically a real-world example of one of those double-interpretation perceptual puzzles. Look at a drawing one way, you see a duck; look at it a different way and you see a rabbit. Look at the Gill saucer one way and you see a hovering saucer decked out in lasers, landing legs and windows. Look at it a different way and you see a brilliantly lit squid-boat with rigging, fishing nets draped in the water, portholes, and men too busy to do more than wave at the natives they see onshore. Nobody is hallucinating or lying or behaving stupidly. The situation simply invites two interpretations and Gill’s party locked into the wrong one, tricked by a false horizon which led them to think the image was hanging in the air.

Can we be certain this is what really happened? There are still things we might feel uneasy about. Could dozens of people really be fooled this way for hours without somebody on site tricking out the correct answer? How likely is it that squid-boats visit the region so rarely that Gill and everyone else never were able to put two and two together on a later occasion, like when wind conditions were different? Though I consider these unanswerable, my retort must be. “Well, do you have a better solution?” Hoaxes, Venus-induced hallucinations, and extraterrestrials seem a good deal harder to swallow than this scenario.

That this is a disappointingly unrevolutionary solution, I fully concede. It is also rather boring from a psycho-social perspective. My hope that Cargo belief would provide a key to the case was thoroughly dashed in the end. I almost feel obliged to apologise for what feels more like tying up an old loose end than the offering of useful insights into the nature of the UFO phenomenon. Still, it was history’s best close encounter. Excelsior, I suppose.

In Magonia 55, readers gave their views on this article.

REFERENCES

  1. STORY, Ronald D., UFOs and the Limits of Science, Wm. Morrow, 1981, p.23
  2. CLARK, Jerome, “Close Encounters: History’s Best Case”, Fate, February 1978, pp38-46
  3. HYNEK, J. Allen, The UFO Experience, Ballantine, 1972, pp.167-172, 270. HYNEK, J. Allen, Hynek UFO Report, Dell, 1977, pp.216-223
  4. The UFO Experience, op. cit., p.270
  5. VALLEE, Jacques, UFOs in Space, Ballantine, 1977, pp.156-159
  6. LORENZEN, Coral and Jim, Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space, Signet, 1966, pp.175-178
  7. HYNEK, 1977, op. cit., p. 217
  8. CLARK, ibid. HENDRY, Allan, “Papua/Father Gill Revisited”, IUR, 2, #11, November 1977, pp.4-7 and December 1977, pp.4-7
  9. KLASS, Phil, UFOs Explained, Vintage, 1976, pp. 277-289
  10. SAGAN, Carl and PAGE,Thornton, UFOs: A Scientific Debate, Norton Library, 1974, pp.148-163.
  11. SEERS, Stan, UFOs; The Case for Scientific myopia, Vantage, 1983, pp.48-49
  12. BASTERFIELD, Keith, An In-depth Review of Australian UFO Related Entity Reports, Australian Centre for UFO Studies, June 1980, p.21
  13. HENDRY, December, op. cit., p.5
  14. Ibid., pp.6-7
  15. CAMPBELL, Steuart, The UFO Mystery – Solved, Explicit, 1994, pp.66-67
  16. RYDEEN, Paul, “Cargo of the Gods”. Anomalist, 1 (Summer 1994), pp.83-88. RYDEEN, Paul, “UFOs and the Cult of Cargo”. Strange Magazine, 9, (Spring-Summer 1992), pp.6-9, 52-53
  17. BASTERFIELD, op. cit., p. 26
  18. SEERS, op. cit., p. 36
  19. CORLISS, William, Rare Haloes, Mirages, Anomalous Rainbows and Related Electromagnetic Phenomena, Sourcebook, 1984, and chapters in the Condon report.
  20. SHEAFFER, Robert, The UFO Verdict, Prometheus, 1981, p. 216.

 

Howden Moor: Roswell Meets Peak Practice. David Clarke

From Magonia 70, March 2000

  • Part One: Secret Truth, Myth and Madness

  • Part Two: A Summary of the Known Facts

  • Part Three: Fantasy and Fact: A Howden Moor Checklist

 


 

“This pattern… with a discredited case being tenaciously supported by an increasingly convoluted set of claims and counter claims has already been well-established in the Fortean world… If the following for such cases continues… it is likely that it is the needs of the audience rather than any persuasive arguments in the cases that keeps them alive…” – Neil Nixon [1]

 


 

Part One: Secret Truth, Myth and Madness

The folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, in his classic study of `new’ urban Legends, The Choking Doberman, refers to what he calls ‘The Secret Truth’ as a primary theme in modern conspiracy theories. It would, if revealed, cause panic among the population in a manner similar to that which is claimed to have followed the transmission of the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. Brunvand includes what he calls the most dramatic of the ‘suppressed truth’ stories in his collection under the title ‘the landed Martians.’ This is the seminal claim that a wrecked flying saucer was recovered by the US military at Roswell, New Mexico in July 1947. The ‘landed Martians’ were the bodies of the craft’s humanoid pilots which were subsequently shipped to a super-secret hangar in an isolated desert region of the USA. Those involved in the operation were ‘sworn to secrecy or lied to about the nature of their mission.’ Brunvand realised he was tiptoeing into dangerous territory when he dismissed the ‘evidence’ invoked as proof of the Roswell crash, adding: “I expect that I’ll get some angry mail for suggesting that this might be an area of modern legend” [2].

Hence the folklorist ventures into areas of faith and belief which at the turn of the second Millennium are defended with almost fundamentalist zeal.

As Curtis Peebles observed in his analysis of black project crash sites [3] the rapidly multiplying versions of the Roswell Incident cannot be regarded as evidence of a real historical event involving the recovery of an alien craft and bodies. Instead they should be viewed as an evolving narrative, a myth in the making. One of the dictionary definitions of ‘myth’ is that of a commonly held belief which is fundamentally untrue, or without foundation. Ufological myths are particularly tenacious creatures in the age of the World Wide Web and have a tendency to survive and reproduce themselves like a computer virus. Every day new rumours are transmitted, copied and moulded within the subculture of ufology. Once belief in a mythical event is established, others will seek to replicate its existence elsewhere.

In Britain, a collection of proto-’crashed saucer’ stories dating back to the time of the ‘foo fighters’ were produced by Nick Redfern in the third volume of his UFO trilogy, Cosmic Crashes, in 1999 [4]. Before this title appeared believers in Britain lacked any suitable claims which could be compared with the more detailed ‘crash-retrievals’ reported from the USA. The British Isles are distinctly lacking in the isolated desert regions favoured as the setting for some of the American ‘pickled alien’ stories. As a result a desperate search has been ongoing to identify a contender for status as ‘the British Roswell.’ A number of the incidents listed by Redfern are certainly based upon ‘real’ events, but as Andy Robert’s detailed investigation of the Berwyn Mountains case has demonstrated, their core can invariably be shown to have originated in events of a mundane nature. In this case an earth tremor which coincided with a spectacular display of fireball meteors triggered a police search of a Welsh mountain. The lights of the patrol as they met a group of ‘lampers’ produced an eyewitness account which became the basis of a ‘crashed UFO rumour’ twenty years later [5].

Following in the great tradition of Roswell ‘anomalous incidents’ are now being resurrected as ‘UFO crashes’ thirty or forty years after they occurred, a time lag which allows memory to fog and gives imagination and exaggeration a fertile breeding ground.

As fertile seeds reproducing themselves within the subject, Redfern’s sample will soon become incorporated into the evolving UFO mythology. They will become ‘classic cases’ formed in the image of the ‘landed Martians’ but tailored specifically for the needs of a British audience eager for homespun versions of the ‘dark side’ theories of abduction, back engineering and secret deals between aliens and the Government. As part of this process we should expect the developing stories to absorb the newer beliefs circulated on the World Wide Web by the more fanatical elements of today’s conspiracy mongers. These include the elements added to the developing mythology during the course of last decade: the fashionable ‘Flying Triangles’ and their pilots, the sinister greys with their agenda of animal mutilation and human abduction. The more advanced and psychologically disturbed the storytellers become, the more we hear about implants, crossbreeding and the spreading of ME, AIDS and other horrendous viruses among the alien’s alleged victims.

One of these new stories, although not listed by Redfern, has played a pivotal role in the export of the US-based ‘crashed saucer’ mythology. It has been the subject of heated and vociferous exchanges on newsgroups which have divided ufologists into two camps with fundamentally different approaches to the interpretation of fact and evidence. Cleverly packaged and marketed upon the Internet by its creator Max Burns, it is a claim which has led to schism in British ufology of seismic proportions. The case has highlighted the fundamental dichotomy which exists today between the ‘scientific’ and ‘belief-driven’ approaches to the study of UFOs and illustrated the lengths to which the latter arc prepared to go to promote claims which are, as the dictionary defines myth. ‘untrue …or without foundation.’

Max Burns and ‘the Sheffield incident’

“…I believe the British Government are test flying a 30-50ft triangle around the Northwest of England – probably built with recovered ET technology. These [sic] larger triangular craft are I believe without doubt extra terrestrial in origin. As well as that I will go so far as to say that these triangles are being flown and controlled by the beings known as the Greys’…” – Max Burns [5]

Max Burns appeared suddenly on the British UFO scene during the mid-90s, claiming a long interest in the subject which stemmed from a childhood ‘abduction’ experience. At this time he worked as a disc jockey in South Yorkshire night-clubs and spent his spare time communicating with fellow ‘abductees’ and believers via the rapidly expanding UFO subculture on the Internet. Burns quickly endeared himself to those subscribing to the more paranoid and extreme belief systems with his investigation of what he began to call ‘the Sheffield incident’ and links he claimed to have discovered between symptoms suffered by ‘abductees’ and chronic fatigue syndrome or ME. Unlike many of the other Walter Mitty characters who are temporary attracted to the ufological stage Burns had the confidence to pursue his arguments to the bitter end, even after it became apparent that the weight of evidence was stacked overwhelmingly against him. His answer to critics who questioned his evidence and conclusions was simple: anyone who disagreed was part of the ‘cover up’ or was working for the Security Services. At one stage his plausible and garrulous manner was enough to persuade even cautious members of the UFO community, including the council of the ailing BUFORA, that he had a case to answer.

Late on the night of 24 March 1997 Burns had been alerted to an event on the Peak District moors west of Sheffield which was to become the turning point of his career in ufology and would ultimately prove to be his nemesis. What he was later to proclaim as ‘Britain’s answer to the Roswell UFO crash’ could have been lifted straight from a plot in The X-Files or one of the trashy satellite TV UFO ‘documentaries.’ The so-called ‘Sheffield incident’ – a misnomer as the events actually occurred above Howden Moor – appeared to have all the ingredients necessary for myth making: callers jamming police switchboards to report an unidentified aircraft on a collision course with the hills, military jets skimming rooftops, strange aerial explosions, a massive search operation which found nothing, claims that a cover-up was underway and the run-of-the-mill denials by the authorities.

The facts of the case and the fantasies which have been spun from its meagre strands are summarised elsewhere. It is sufficient to say that the original events stemmed from what South Yorkshire Police concluded were ‘a combination of circumstances that would lead people to believe a plane might have crashed.’ [6] These circumstances involved the sightings of a low-flying light aircraft which coincided with reports of an anomalous aerial explosion or sonic boom created by a military aircraft. At no stage were UFOs ever seriously considered by the authorities as having played a role in these events, although a covert military exercise was certainly suspected as a possible explanation by a number of senior police officers. Mysteries, however mundane, leave a vacuum which is easily filled by the imaginations of UFO believers.

When news of the mystery reached the media, the region soon became the focus of attention from assorted ‘investigators’ who immediately cried out: ‘Cover-up!
Among these early visitors was Max Burns, who seized upon the mystery explosions as a key part of his developing theory which sought to explain what really happened that night. In the short-lived newstand magazine Alien Encounters Burns posed the following question to readers in the summer of 1997: ‘Could this have been the UFO making a crash landing, or a Tornado crashing after being attacked by the UFO?” [7] Soon evidence was being collected to fit the theory: where this didn’t exist it was invented. Testimony and facts which did not support the UFO hypothesis were simply ignored, as passive consumers of the story on the Internet would not feel it was necessary to question Burn’s belief-driven version of events. By 1998 Burns felt confident enough to conclude the case was “one of the biggest UFO incidents in recent years involving a huge Flying Triangle … and evidence of a conspiracy on behalf of the civilian and military authorities to hide the facts from the public …” [8] In summary the ‘Sheffield incident’ had become the Secret Truth resurrected in a new form, suitable for a modern, unquestioning audience.

Burn’s claims did not involve the standard scenario of a crashed ET craft recovered by a covert military operation. Crashed ‘flying saucers’ and their Michael Rennie-like occupants were a thing of the past in ’90s UFO lore. In the increasingly convoluted logic employed to ‘sell’ the case, it was argued that a more fashionable triangular ET craft had been pursued across the Pennines by military fighter aircraft, which were either escorting the aliens or had been diverted from an ongoing exercise to intercept the intruder. A key element of the case were the sonic booms recorded by the British Geological Survey. They suddenly became the ‘evidence’ Burns was looking for. Following his logic, during the encounter at least one of the pursuing Tornado jets was ‘completely destroyed’ or captured as a result of hostile action by the pilots of the ‘triangle’ “because of the use of EM weapons while being in close proximity of the Triangle.” [9]

The ‘lost Tornado’ story has a long pedigree in the history of ufology and science fiction. Indeed, one of the strongest motifs in the UFO crash mythology is the belief which can be summarised as ‘one of ours was lost chasing one of theirs.’ Ever since the tragic death of US pilot Thomas Mantell during the pursuit of a ‘flying saucer’ over Kentucky in 1948 (which turned out to be a high altitude Skyhook balloon) there have been frequent claims of hostile mid-air encounters between the military and ET [10]. The Mantell case and a similar incident involving the loss of a Lightning over the North Sea in 1970 have recently been resurrected by ‘alien investigator’ Tony Dodd in a sensational and breathless account of his attempts to ‘blow the lid’ on the UFO cover-up. In 1987 attempts were made to link the crash of a Harrier jump-jet in the Atlantic with the mystery ‘crop circles’ over which the pilot allegedly flew before disaster struck [11]. The same kind of motifs can be traced in science fiction genre, from the era of War of the Worlds to the gung-ho battles between US pilots and hostile alien invaders depicted in the ’90s blockbuster Independence Day. Coincidentally, Burn’s claims about the ‘Sheffield incident’ appeared in the same year that the BBC screened the low-budget science fiction drama Invasion Earth which ironically began with a dogfight between an RAF Tornado and a UFO along the British coastline.

One of the elements of Brunvand’s ‘Crashed Martian’ folk legend concerns the setting of the alleged UFO crash in an isolated desert region, away from prying eyes. This tradition has also been developed effectively in science fiction films and programmes, in particular The X-Files, and has filtered down into UFO mythology. In the ‘Sheffield incident’ the covert operation took place above one of the few regions of Britain which might actually be termed a ‘desert.’ The High Peak District of northern Derbyshire was an ideal substitute for the arid regions of New Mexico. The story continued the tradition of a covert recovery operation in a remote area where acres of moor hid the ‘the secret truth’ from the public. In this case it was easy for Burns to depict the Dark Peak, above which the ‘incident’ took place, as being miles away from human habitation. Although conditions can be treacherous for those who venture into the mountains unprepared, the Peak District is in fact the most popular National Park in Britain with a staggering 20 million visitors in 1999. Readers of Burn’s case on the Internet will not easily appreciate that the area where the ‘Tornado crash’ supposedly took place is actually within walking distance of Sheffield city centre. The moors themselves, although lonely, are little more than 40 square miles in total area and cannot be described as ‘remote’ in the US sense of the word. Throughout the year the Derwent Valley is thronged with tourists, walkers and climbers who enjoy exploring every inch of the Dark Peak moors, which are sandwiched between two of the most heavily populated conurbations in the north of England. In addition, the region lies directly beneath an international air corridor used by airliners using Manchester’s Ringway airport, and is regularly used for low-flying practice by a number of military airfields.

To overcome these credibility problems Burns had to devise a scenario where he could claim that the police and civilian search and rescue teams had been directed away from the scene of the secret operation which he believes was launched to remove evidence of the Tornado crash. The sighting of ‘a military Land Rover’ and the activities of the ‘Aero Space Intelligence’ were invoked as evidence of the presence of a covert military retrieval team in the area that night. The AIS, according to Burns, ‘look like the CID’ and ‘drive twin-aerial cars during their missions to silence witnesses [12].

The `Tornado pilot’

The most ludicrous evidence of all was that provided by a young man who had been a passenger in a minibus which had been flagged down by a mysterious stranger on a deserted stretch of the A57 Snake Pass near the Ladybower reservoir. The stranger, clearly described as being ‘Asian’ or `Pakistani’ in appearance, smelled strongly of diesel or petrol fumes. He asked for a lift into Sheffield, but this was declined because the bus was full. The witness reported this ‘suspicious’ incident to the police and thought no more of it until he was contacted by Max Burns, who by now was desperate for a ‘breakthrough’ to shore up his collapsing theory. Burns – posing as `a journalist’ – could not believe his luck when the young man, who had since joined the RAF as a trainee night engineer, told how he was now certain the ‘diesel or petrol’ he had detected that night was actually ‘aviation fuel.’

Within hours the shocked engineer found himself being questioned by a reporter from the News of the World to whom Burns had tried to sell his story. He immediately realised his words had been taken out of context to promote a sensational UFO fantasy and demanded the story be dropped for fear of the effect it could have upon his reputation and his new job. It was too late now, for Burns had the initial conversation on tape and armed with this evidence and the subsequent retraction, now had the ‘proof’ he was looking for that a witness had been forced through fear or coercion to retract his statement. Here was clear evidence of the ‘cover-up’ he had suspected all along, for if the story was nonsense why go to all this trouble to stop the witness talking?

In his Sheffield Incident Burns uses this yarn to confidently proclaim that the mysterious stranger was “without doubt the co-pilot of the Tornado jet, who was soaked in aviation fuel and was making his way to the nearest metropolis to alert the military.” Having parachuted from the stricken aircraft, the crewman had walked four miles to the reservoir viaduct before trying to thumb a ride with a passing bus. Not surprisingly, even members of the pro-ETH camp found this claim particularly hard to swallow. Nick Pope summarised the conclusion shared by many when he wrote: “It’s ridiculous to suggest this has anything to do with the RAF, on the basis that a pilot from a downed jet would always stay at the crash site, waiting for the inevitable military search and rescue operation. He’d be wearing a distinctive green flying suit that even a layman would realise was military issue.” [131

The identity of the stranger was in fact already known to the Peak Park Ranger office and to Derbyshire Police, if only Burns had cared to ask. The report was investigated by the force as a possible suicide attempt and patently had nothing whatever to do with a 'crashed Tornado,' except in the imagination of a UFO buff.

In truth, if any military cover-up had been in evidence it would have been obvious to the 141 members of the civilian Mountain Rescue Service who spent more than 15 hours in freezing cold temperatures combing the moors for signs of an air disaster. They found nothing, and saw no one. So confident of his theory was Max Burns that he did not feel it necessary even to contact the MRS Commander Mike France to enquire if any evidence existed to support his theory. Questioned on the role of the Mountain Rescue teams on a live Internet debate on the case, Burns claimed they were 'not in the area of the crash' and had been 'sent off on a wild goose chase by the Government/authorities.' [14] Earlier he was forced to admit he had never spoken to any member of the highly experienced search and rescue teams and had no basis upon which to cast doubt upon their search and rescue skills which save dozens of lives every year.

Burns has repeatedly accused the Ministry of Defence of organising a massive cover-up of the ‘Sheffield incident.’ He claims they have changed their story at least four times in relation to the part played by the military aircraft reported over the Peak shortly before the alarm was raised. In March 1998 and on my behalf, the Labour MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, Helen Jackson, quizzed the MOD in a series of written Parliamentary questions relating to the role of the military in the events {15}. They admitted somewhat reluctantly that a ‘pre-booked training exercise’ did indeed take place above the Peak District on the night in question, with photo reconnaissance aircraft flying as low as 250 feet above the Derbyshire hills. Throughout this saga, the MOD have consistently denied the ‘incident was triggered by jets being scrambled from a front-line fighter base to intercept a UFO. There is no evidence to suggest their statements – provided in response to direct questions in the Houses of Parliament – are anything thing but correct. [16]

In point of fact the RAF regularly use the northern Peaks as a practice ground for low-flying training for its pilots which intensifies significantly during the build up to international conflicts such as the Gulf Crisis. This is in fact a tradition which dates back to the use of the Derwent Dam and Ladybower reservoir by the famous 617 ‘Dambusters’ squadron during the preparation for their attack on the German Ruhr in 1943. Since that time the Dark Peak east of Manchester has become a graveyard for more than fifty planes and their crews who have fallen foul of the unpredictable weather which prevails above this part of the hills. The tragic loss of these aircraft have added to the reputation of the Dark Peak among pilots and rumours have spread concerning a ‘ghost plane’ which has been seen skimming the surface of the reservoir and dams [17].

Sightings of the `ghost flier’ have triggered a series of fruitless searches by police and the mountain rescue service, the latest as recently as the summer of 1999. One Peak Park ranger has revealed how the service receives up to four reports of ‘crashing aircraft’ from visitors to the region on average every year. This information places the 1997 incident into context as one of many ‘false alarms’ caused by low-flying aircraft in this part of the Peak. Rangers and search personnel have become so accustomed to these alarms that they have begun to realise how many of the reports are based upon sightings of real aircraft, both military and civilian, observed under unusual conditions. Visitors unfamiliar with the Peak District often fall victim to an optical illusion whereby aircraft in their landing approach to Manchester appear to be at a dangerously low altitude as a result of the height above sea level of the observer. From the evidence available, there is no reason to suggest that the events of that spring evening in 1997 cannot be explained through a combination of misperception, misidentification and plain wishful thinking on behalf of the UFO myth-makers.

Conclusions?

Fact, common sense and logic are unlikely to halt the development of the Howden Moor mystery into a fully fledged cause celebre of the ‘Roswell’ tradition. Facts and close scrutiny of the evidence may have solved the case to the satisfaction of the majority, but as with Roswell the ‘story’ will continue to live on in mythology. Simply because bizarre claims cannot be disproved, they must therefore have some basis in reality as part of the twisted logic employed by Max Burns and his apologists.

No amount of testimony or evidence will convince those who have made it their mission to defend the preposterous claim that human life was lost as a result of a hostile attack by UFO occupants.

Even if it were possible to account for the safety of each and every Tornado aircraft and its crew in service with the RAF and NATO, it would always be claimed that the ‘loss’ had been cleverly erased from official records by the nefarious agents of the omnipresent cover-up. Already the signs of madness have surfaced among promoters of Max Burns’ theory with the appearance of ever more bizarre beliefs, including claims that drinking water levels ‘fell dramatically’ in the Ladybower reservoir following the appearance of the ‘Flying Triangle’ or that a secret portal to another dimension lies hidden beneath the reservoir complex! The standpoint of believers cannot fail but to lead along a path on which madness and paranoia lurk around every corner. No final conclusion will ever be accepted except one bound up with conspiracy, cover-up and the elusive ‘secret truth.’

Unfortunately, there can be no real conclusion to the Howden Moors ‘crash’; no clean ending which will allow the case to be tied up and neatly filed away. That is, of course, unless Max Burns and his followers can come up with hard physical proof that a Tornado was shot down by a UFO. I predict this will never happen. The carcass of facts surrounding this case has now been picked clean by legions of believers in the literal truth of UFOs and the case now lives on, Jackanory-like, in the tellings and re-tellings of people who have chosen never to concern themselves with the primary and secondary sources of information. They have chosen which pieces of information and whose research best suits their beliefs and prejudices and are blind to the realities of the case. Worse still, I and other rational researchers associated with the case have been demonised as ‘agents of the Government’ in an attempt to divert attention from the truth at the heart of the matter.

The Howden Moors case has, like the Roswell Incident, a life of its own within ufology. All we can do now is chart its trajectory across the ufological landscape, smile sagely and wonder at the capacity of humans to create such a fanciful edifice from so very little.

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Neil Nixon, ‘They’re not all lunatics on the fringe,’ Fortean Studies 6 (London: John Brown Publishing, 1999).
2. Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman and other ‘new’ Urban Legends (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984).
3. Curtis Peebles, ‘The Hunting of Zel,’ Magonia 69 (December 1999).
4. Nick Redfern, Cosmic Crashes (London: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
5. Max Burns, ‘The Sheffield Incident, A Flying Triangle Incident’ (Internet posting, PUFORI website, 1998).
6. South Yorkshire Police Major Incident log, collated in David Clarke and Martin Jeffrey, ‘The Howden Moor Incident’ (independent UFO Network, 1999).
7. Max Burns, ‘Crash and Burns: Did a UFO crash outside Sheffield?’ Alien Encounters, summer 1997.
8. Burns, ‘The Sheffield Incident,’ op. cit.
9. Ibid.10. Tony Dodd, Alien Investigator (London: Headline, 1999).
11. Jenny Randles and Paul Fuller, Crop Circles: A Mystery Solved (London: Robert Hale, 1993).
12. Burns, ‘The Sheffield Incident.’ The twin-aerial car spotted by Burns belonged to another investigator, Martin Jeffrey.
13. Personal communication from Nick Pope, May 1999.
14. Max Burns on ‘Visitations’ live Internet discussion of the case, June 6, 1998.
15. Hansard, written questions, March 23, 1998; MOD written answers, March 25 and April 7, 1998.
16. Statement by MOD spokesman reproduced in David Clarke, ‘The Howden Moor Incident,’ in The UFOs that Never Were, ed. Clarke, Randles & Roberts (London House, 2000).
17. David Clarke, Supernatural Peak District (London: Robert Hale, 2000).

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The Howden Moor Incident: A Summary of the Known Facts

Emergency services were alerted shortly after 10pm on 24 March 1997 when reports are made to police that a low flying aircraft had crashed into an area of the High Peak moors near Sheffield. Two gamekeepers report hearing a loud aerial explosion at roughly the same time. Police and seven volunteer teams from the Peak District Mountain Rescue Organisation (PDMRO) organise a thorough search of more than 40 square miles of moor centred upon the Howden Reservoir. The operation begins at 11 pm and is called off at 2pm on 25 March.

The search was joined by a police helicopter at 11pm and a Sea King from RAF Leconfield. An Air Exclusion Zone is authorised by the CAA covering a 30 mile radius from the Howden Reservoir to enable the search to continue unhindered. Directed from the ground by the PDMRO, the helicopters use heat-seeking equipment specially designed to detect traces of a fire or body heat. No trace of any crash or wreckage is found. The Sea King returns to base at 2pm on 25 March. It represented the single military asset involved in the search operation.

200 personnel were involved in the ground operation, including civilian volunteers, search and rescue dog teams and police. During the latter stages the moors are visited by dozens of passers-by and camera crews from local TV and radio stations.

As a result of appeals on radio and in the local Press, the police receive more than 40 reports of low flying aircraft from a wide area. Two reports describe what appear to be ‘unidentified flying objects’. One of these describes a triangular-shaped object spotted from a moving train three hours before and almost thirty miles away from the search zone.

South Yorkshire Police conclude the incident was sparked by a series of unconnected events. These included a low flying aircraft and an aerial explosion which led people to believe a plane had crashed. Checks with civil airports found no reports of aircraft missing. The RAF stated that no military aircraft were operating in the area. The identity of the aircraft which triggered the reports remains unknown.

The British Geological Survey recorded a sonic boom in the Sheffield area on two seismographs and one low-frequency microphone at 10.06 pm on 24 March 1997. Checks reveal a second boom was recorded in the same region at 9.52 pm. The BGS conclude the readings are characteristic of the traces left behind in the wake of a military aircraft breaking the sound barrier. Supersonic flights over land are prohibited by the Military Flying Regulations.

One year after the events the Ministry of Defence admit in a Parliamentary reply to MP Helen Jackson that a low flying exercise involving military aircraft DID take place above the Peak District on the night of 24 March, but was completed by 9.35 pm, 30 minutes before the ‘incident’ which sparked the search operation. The planes involved in the exercise were Tornado GRIa photo reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Marham in Norfolk. The Ministry of Defence state in parliament and in correspondence that no reports of UFOs were received from military or civilian sources on 24-25 March. Reports received by South Yorkshire Police were classified as low flying aircraft as this was undoubtedly what they were!

An RAF Police investigation was launched into the cause of the sonic booms. A statement by Air Staff 2(A) at Whitehall said that officers “concentrated their enquiries on whether a military aircraft had been in the area concerned at the date in question. Once they had established that military activity was not involved they made no further enquiries to determine what might have caused the noise”. The MOD said it was “satisfied that on the date in question, there was no threat to the UK Air Defence Region from hostile military activity”.

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Fantasy and Fact: A Howden Moor Checklist

Max Burns’ case is centred upon the claim that a Tornado fighter aircraft was ‘lost’ with the death of at least one of its crew members during an encounter with an extraterrestrial spaceship over Sheffield and the Peak District on the night of 24 March 1997. Two years after what Burns has called the Sheffield incident he has not produced one single piece of evidence to support his theory. The ‘evidence’ mustered in support of the UFO claims is summarised below, with the facts in italics following each significant point:

There were five witness to ‘an enormous triangle’ over Sheffield and the Peak District. Three of these saw the triangle either being escorted or intercepted by six military jets. The triangle had been flying low to avoid radar detection.
Only two witnesses described seeing a triangle and just one of these reported the observation to the police. This related to a sighting from a moving train more than two hours before the events which sparked the search operation, almost 30 miles away from the scene! The second sighting also took place many miles from the search zone, and the witness is a close female friend of Max Burns. Her observation clearly related to the flight path of low-flying military aircraft.

A further six witnesses saw a ‘glowing orange’ UFO, military jets and ‘unmarked helicopters’. One pensioner who said she observed a cigar-shaped object really saw, according to Burns, the triangle from the side so that it would appear cigar-shaped.
RAF jets were involved in a low-flying exercise above the Peak District between 7pm and 9.35pm which accounted for the majority of the sightings before 10pm. An unidentified light aircraft was operating in the Sheffield area between 9.45 and 10.30pm, sparking the later sightings reported to the police as a plane crashing into the moors. Two search helicopters were flying sorties above the ‘crash’ zone from 11pm and would appear unmarked when seen in darkness!

The first air explosion (at 9.52pm) was not a sonic boom at all according to Burns. In reality it was the Tornado jet exploding as a result of hostile action by the crew of the Flying Triangle. The second boom, at 10.06pm was the UFO escaping from the area (14 minutes later?)
The British Geological Survey and aviation experts conclude that the recordings made that night are the characteristic ‘N-waves’ produced by a military aircraft smashing through the sound barrier (760 mph/1,220 kph at sea level). A senior seismologist gave his opinion the pressure wave was caused by an aircraft, probably a military aircraft, reaching supersonic speed possibly while performing a mid-air turn

The stricken Tornado jet crashed into the moors north of the Howden Reservoir or plunged into one of the nine reservoirs Northwest of the Ladybower Viaduct near the A57 Snake Pass road.
No trace of a wrecked aircraft was found either by the extensive ground search or from the air with the use of sophisticated heat-seeking equipment specially designed to locate fire and body heat from above. A Tornado jet would have left an enormous crater and burning debris scattered across a wide radius of the crash which could not have been missed. Teams of workers from Yorkshire Water checked the reservoirs but found no signs of the telltale wreck-age or oil slick which would have sparked a major drinking water pollution alert.

The co-pilot of the Tornado bailed out seconds before the destruction of his aircraft. Having parachuted onto the moors he walked three miles to the Ladybower viaduct whilst soaked in highly flammable aviation fuel. He was spotted at 11 pm by passengers in a minibus thumbing a lift ‘to the nearest metropolis to alert the military’.
This was the most bizarre theory used by Burns to support his claims. The incident it related to had in fact no connection at all with the ‘aircrash’ mystery. The man reported by the occupants of the minibus was an Asian motorist covered in petrol or diesel fuel, a fact confirmed by Peak Park and police officers. The case was investigated as a possible suicide attempt.

A radar operator with the Royal Signals at RAF Linton-upon-Ouse (North Yorkshire) told a friend early on the morning of 25 March that he had tracked a UFO on his screen over the Peak District for a ten minute period beginning at 9.55pm the previous night. Later he was warned not to discuss the case “as if I do I will be in breach of my national security oath”.
Operationally RAF Linton was closed on the night of 24 March. In any event, the base radar has a limited radius within the immediate area and is used as part of the training of rookie pilots in Tucano aircraft. No one has spoken to the mysterious radar operator other than a friend of a friend of Max Burns.

The Ministry of Defence made an announcement to the media that a Bolide meteor exploding in the atmosphere caused the sonic boom and was also responsible for all the reports of the crashed plane.
The MOD have never made any statement to this effect. Their position remains that the reports of the low-flying aircraft were a matter for the police and that the cause of the sonic booms remains a mystery.

The seven Mountain Rescue Teams were ordered to search a zone four miles from the area where the explosion was heard, and it wasn’t until 9am on 25 March that four men were sent to search Strines Moor, near the ‘crash zone’. According to Burns, the search teams were not in the area of the crash ‘and I don’t think they know any-thing.’ In summary, he claims the rescue teams were deliberately misled while a covert military team removed the wreckage of the Tornado jet from under their very noses.
Burns has never spoken to any of the PDMRO [Peak District Mountain Rescue] commanders to ascertain the facts and has used unreliable testimony from the wife of a gamekeeper who played no part in the operation. The highly experienced team of volunteers from the PDMRO were placed in charge of the search operation by police at midnight on 24 March and it was they who directed officers and helicopter crews from that point onwards, based upon triangulated sight-lines provided by the initial eyewitnesses. The commander, Mike France, said an extremely thorough search of the 40-50 square mile zone, including Strines Moor, was completed without any evidence of a crash being found. None of the mountain rescue personnel, police, fire fighters or media who were present saw any evidence of military activity other than the presence of the RAF Sea King which they had requested for assistance in the search.

An enormous cover-up was launched following the incident, designed to confuse the issue with ‘cover-stories’ (drug runners, ghost planes, Bolide meteors), a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign to discredit Burns himself and a D-Notice to prevent the Press from discussing the case.
The case has been discussed extensively in local newspapers, in TV documentaries on BBC 1 and Granada and on the Internet. No evidence has emerged to support the claim that a Tornado jet was lost, or that UFOs were ever involved in the incident.

Key witnesses in the case have been forced to retract their testimony or have changed their statements as a result of threats from MI5 and their agents, including the author of this article.
Witnesses have not changed their testimony, but have been deliberately misquoted by Burns and his supporters. One witness who Burns claimed had seen ‘a huge triangular object’ hovering over the moors denied ever having made such a statement when approached by two other independent investigators. Another ‘uncorroborated source’ named as having seen the RAF Sea King pulling body bags from a reservoir was never interviewed by Burns. This man denied having ever having made the claim. A third witness told investigators: “UFOs were never mentioned until Max came to the pub and started asking us about it.”

Max Burns was ‘set up’ with drugs planted by the Security Forces or M15 because of ‘what he knew’ about the Sheffield incident.
Burns was found guilty of possession and supply of Class B drugs by the majority verdict of a jury at the end of a four day trial at Sheffield Crown Court in September 1999. Burns did not use the claim that he was set up by M15 in his defence during the trial, but a former friend of the DJ told the jury Burns was ‘obsessed’ with UFOs and aliens.

Sources:

  • Max Burns, The Sheffield Incident: A Flying Triangle Incident. Internet posting, PUFORI website, 1998. Live Internet discussion featuring Max Burns on `Visitations’, 6 June 1998.
  • Lecture by Max Burns to BUFORA in London, June 1999. David Clarke, ‘The Aircrash that Never Was’ UFO Magazine, spring 1998.
  • David Clarke and Martin Jeffrey, The Howden Moor Incident, (Independent UFO Network, 1999).
  • David Clarke, Jenny Randles & Andy Roberts, The UFOs that Never Were (London House, 2000); chapter 2, ‘The Howden Moor Incident‘.

 

 


 

 

The American Way: Truth, Justice and Abduction. Thomas Bullard

From Magonia 34, October, 1989

A parting of the ways between American and European ufologists has continued for a long time, but probably nothing has widened the separation as much as the abduction phenomenon

Americans have turned a deaf ear to social and psychological explanations for UFO phenomena, by and large. Magonia and its predecessors have long provided a voice for these ideas, a voice the editors must have felt was crying in the American wilderness, unheeded for these many years. Times have changed. The editors can take cheer that their magazine now provokes almost as many grumbles among American ufologists as the Skeptical Inquirer. The past two issues alone (Nos. 31 and 32) caused uproars when Edoardo Russo and Gian Grassino berated Americans for their attention to Gulf Breeze, crash retrievals, abductions, and bedroom intrusions; when Manfred Cassirer and Martin Kottmeyer not only proposed a psychological explanation for abductions, but even dared to do a good job of it; and when Hilary Evans sinned the great sin of praising Phil Klass and his abduction book, a well-nigh mortal transgression.

To be fair, Europeans and Magonia can claim no monopoly on opposition to the extraterrestrial hypothesis. Many articles published in the leading American UFO journals opt for alternatives, as people are thinking and the forum is open. At the same time these authors may feel like honorary Europeans – or exiles – for all the attention their ideas receive. No one over here could doubt for a moment that the ETH dominates among the rank and file, as well as among most active researchers. Thanks in part to abductions, this hypothesis is enjoying a revival among the most serious ufologists. As thoughtful a researcher as Jerome Clark has rejected his Jungian musings from The Unidentified to write instead of ‘The Fall and Rise of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis’. [1]

A parting of the ways between American and European ufologists has continued for a long time, but probably nothing has widened the separation as much as the abduction phenomenon. True to form, Americans have found aliens yet again, whereas Europeans and other followers of the left-hand path have regarded these increasingly fantastic stories as evidence for a modern mythology of psychological origin. Do the extraterrestrialists have a rational leg to stand on? For the sake of international peace and understanding, I will assume the role of apologist and answer in the affirmative. The belief in abduction by extraterrestrials has a firm rational basis, whether that belief is right or wrong.

Opposition to alien abductions follows two general strategies: one focuses on witnesses and explains their reports in psychological terms; the other focuses on report content and doubts its objectivity by pointing out its parallels with other phenomena.

The least systematic of the witness-oriented explanations blames hypnosis, general familiarity with abduction ideas, and confabulation between an impressionable subject and an over-zealous, true-believer ufologist as sufficient reasons to account for abduction stories. Largely external influences make an abductee in this view. The boundary-deficit and fantasy prone personality theories postulate a distinctive personality type which predisposes some people to altered states of consciousness, vividness of imagination, and confusion of the real with the unreal. An interpretation on a deeper plane introduces psychological constants as a potential source of abduction sights and events. One possibility is birth trauma imagery, another is psychic symbolism based on archetypes of the unconscious functioning in a psychodrama of personal transformation. Even more exotic proposals include the efficacy of thought to manifest physical or quasi-physical objects, the induction of abduction visions by the electromagnetic energy from tectonic stress in rocks, or intervention by unknown powers to alter our habits of thought and behaviour for reasons beyond our ken. [2]

What the literalist approach offers is a largely self-evident reading of the reports. In a few cases where witnesses invoke religious or other ideas out of step with modern beliefs, interpretation is sanctioned, but seldom needed. Many reports conform to the ETH outright. They describe encounters with alien beings who arrive in spaceships and kidnap humans for purposes that include physical examination. The craft is clearly a product of advanced technology and the examination shows proper signs of scientific curiosity. Hints of planetary disasters and an interest in reproduction suggest that a pragmatic survival motive underlies these visits. The beings seem to control their captives by some form of mental influence, and this control may carry over beyond the abduction as major life changes follow in its stead.

No opponent denies that the ETH account of abduction stories is superficially plausible. The literalist reading certainly offers a self contained answer. What opponents seem to reject is the naivety of that reading. It simply takes too much at face value without cracking a smile at how close such an explanation comes to science fiction mythology or how much the stories resemble old lore in modern guise. Deaf and blind to all parallels or similarities, the ETH proponents exist in a vacuum. Since Americans seem to preserve this vacuum with a will, their adherence to the ETH looks to an outsider like a fool’s errand instead of a rational choice.

A case can be made that the literalist view is less naive than it seems, and subjectivist sophistication is equally debilitating to rational decisions. Taking witnesses at their word may seem rash. Yet it is just as rash to reject their stories simply because they are fantastic. Some investigators of extraordinary experience narratives, such as David Hufford in his work with Old Hag encounters, break with received wisdom to conclude that witnesses sometimes describe such events with remarkable fidelity. [3] Experience may give rise to belief, rather than belief to experience. Ufology offers many good reasons to doubt eyewitness testimony and demonstrates that presuppositions can exert remarkable influence over observations and reports. An anomalous event may be subjective in origin and culturally influenced in description, but this outcome is not inevitable. The literalist looks with sympathy on abductees as the people closest to a strange event, and looks askance at the subjectivist who takes their error for granted.

Much blame has fallen on hypnosis as the real cause of abductions. This is well founded. Expert opinion is unanimous that, hypnosis throws open the door to fantasy and confabulation, so that hypnotic testimony can combine fact and error into an inseparable, plausible unity. The risk is clear, but is it realised? If hypnosis truly shapes and distorts abduction testimony, some evidence of this influence should remain. Most critics ignore the reports that have emerged without use of hypnosis. They make up a substantial minority, and compare so favourably with reports obtained by hypnosis that almost no differences in form or content appear. If the hypnotist influences witnesses with his own beliefs, each investigator should leave some distinctive mark on the cases he investigates. Again a comparison shows that the cases of various investigators are all pretty much alike.

The trump card against hypnosis has been the experiments with non-abductees described by Alvin Lawson. Under hypnosis these non-abductees told stories very much like those of ‘real’ abductees, so the subjectivity of the reports seems sure. In fact these experiments convict neither hypnosis nor abductions. In a comparative test the accounts of non-abductees differed considerably from the accounts of real abductees, a difference best seen in descriptions of the beings. None of the experimental subjects reported the same type of being, but populated their narratives with a varied array of ‘aliens’. The range of variety compares with that of the real cases, but the frequency of each type corresponds to chance distribution, and in no way approximates the regularity with which small grey humanoids appear among real cases. The similarities are of the more obvious sorts and assertions that the two bodies of reports are alike express more hope than reality. [4] Americans may keep the faith with hypnosis for all the wrong reasons, but in fact there are sound reasons for that faith.

As Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke

The same distrust applies to Jungian theories. They are beguiling, and Dennis Stillings can sweep up much of the abduction story into the Jungian scheme, but his argument remains unconvincing. The present world situation is supposed to be so dreadful that a salvation myth emerges into our consciousness, but when has the world ever not been in dreadful shape? If abductions seem too real to be dream-like, Stillings has the answer – they are not ordinary dreams but archetypal dreams. If abductions have a physical component, he has an answer for this eventuality as well – the psychic and physical realms become one and indistinguishable.[5] Joseph Campbell’s myth of the hero follows a pattern of separation, initiation (ordeal, assimilation, and adoption), then return of a wiser, improved person. This pattern clearly fits abductions, but it just as well fits the life of a youth who goes off to college. As Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a good smoke. An interpretation of abductions in terms of symbols and psychodrama is quite possible, but what makes it compelling? This psychological theory is broad enough to encompass almost anything, as speculative as the ETH, and little better credited by establishment science. In a standoff of faith against faith, little wonder that Americans reject the ornate schemas of Jungian thought for the simplicity of aliens.

The more down-to-earth psychology of predisposition to fantasy is far more believable, but also far from proven. We understand all too little about abductees as individuals. What their personality traits and life circumstances may contribute to the story remains an unknown quantity and our scant knowledge impressionistic at best. Yet abductees seem to be a diverse group, not obviously prone to fantasy or boundary deficiency except by the circular argument that they report an abduction experience. A psychological profile of Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker shows no inclination to fantasy. [6] The Slater study of nine abductees is cited by Kottmeyer as evidence that these subjects display boundary deficit symptoms.[7] A sample of nine is sufficient to refute the charge that all abductees are psychotic, but hardly adequate to demonstrate that many of them have boundary deficit personalities. In fact the description of these individuals as ‘distinctive, unusual, and interesting’ suggests that they are more different than alike.

June Parnell, whose doctoral work under Leo Sprinkle included personality testing of some 200 participants in his annual ‘contactee conferences’, found significant evidence for creativity and fantasy among subjects who reported communication with aliens, but no significant evidence among subjects reporting various UFO encounters. Considerable care must be taken in interpreting her work, since these subjects are not all classical abductees by any means. Of those subjects I read as most likely to be abductees, their ‘fantasy’ scores are actually among the lowest, no higher than scores for people reporting only lights in the sky. In any case the expected hierarchy of scores fails to appear – there is no increase in fantasy indicators as the strangeness of UFO stories increases. [8] Alexander Keul and Ken Phillips seem to find enhanced creative and artistic abilities among UFO reporters in general and not just among abductees. [9] Any conclusion must be of the most tentative sort, but the meagre and oblique evidence available suggests no radical psychological departure of abductees from narrators of less fantastic UFO stories.

The search for parallels is dear to the hearts of folklorists who have engaged in it for decades on the premise that world-wide likenesses in narrative reflect a similarity of psychological experience among all humans, not a similarity of literal experience. A list of parallels between abductions and other cultural phenomena is impressive, including diminutive beings, kidnap, torture, enchantment, changelings, and a subterranean other-world. Probably no other discovery gives as much pause to proponents of literal abductions.

In comparing folklore and abductions, many features fit but at the same time many do not. The temptation is strong to call attention to the successes and ignore the failures. No reliable standards say how many hits against how many misses justify a comparison, but abduction reports differ in many ways from the cited parallels. Fairies do not fly space-ships or use eyelike scanning devices, for example. When abstracted to general terms, the features of the abduction story can match folklore or symbol systems with impressive fidelity. Yet the truth is, we have traditions for all occasions. Whatever the abduction story described, whether the beings roasted their captives on a spit or played pinochle with them, an equally appropriate tradition could be found and the parallel would look just as impressive.

The case for literal abductions stands on its merits as well as on the short-comings of its adversaries. Multiple witnesses report some abductions, a significant criterion for objectivity. The explanation that shared fantasy or influence of one witness on another is responsible for these reports founders in as prominent an example as the Hill case, where Barney’s experience took an independent course and complemented Betty’s account without duplicating it. Accounts sometimes claim physical evidence in the form of bodymarks, implants, residues, vanishing pregnancies, and landing traces. Appeals to alleged physical evidence are hackneyed in ufology. Critics are right to complain that such evidence has much in common with a mirage, but they must admit that proving the validity of some small physical sample would be difficult even with objects of truly alien origin.

One of the more impressive arguments for literal abductions is the considerable coherency in form and content of the body of reliable reports. This coherency reaches down to certain minuscule details and squares with shared experience better than with personal fantasy or cultural learning. Multiple witnesses, physical evidence, and coherent narratives make an influential case for real abductions. Arguments for subjectivity appear lame against this sort of evidence, while its apparent tangibility, even if illusory, appeals strongly to American sensibilities.

What if abductions are literally true? Then the entire story falls into place without need for intellectual gymnastics. The ‘Oz Factor’, missing time, floating sensations and all other surreal aspects of the reports make sense, not as dreamlike events but as consequences of mental control exercised by aliens. They are advanced beings capable of interstellar travel and quasi-magical technology. The rounded, uniformly lighted interior of their craft is no womb image but just the place it seems to be, an examination room. Something has gone wrong with their planet and captives sometimes see it as devastated, dark or subterranean. This motif reinforces the claim that the beings use us for
genetic materials in some vast project to save themselves, a project which includes implants into captives for monitoring purposes. These surreptitious purposes mesh in turn with motifs suggesting that the aliens are deceptive and secretive to a degree, most concerned with their examination and extraction procedures but pretending a concern and friendliness they do not feel, if indeed they can feel as we do. Learning our emotional makeup is part of their project. Piece by piece the puzzle appears to fit together.

Once accepted, the ETH can absorb almost any objection. Michael Swords has argued quite forcefully against the hybridisation hypothesis. The genetic makeup of true aliens would differ so enormously from ours that easy combination could not occur, while aliens with the technology to overcome this difficulty would have no need to turn kidnappers. They could get the result they want with less trouble by starting from scratch. [10] David Jacobs counters that we do not know enough about the aliens to evaluate their capabilities and limitations. What seems reasonable to us may not apply to them at all – and witnesses continue to describe hybrid babies.’ A correspondent of mine unites several threads of the story when he suggests that the aliens had to jump into their ships and flee a sudden catastrophe, escaping with advanced transportation but only fragments of their former biotechnological expertise. Historical circumstance accounts for the odd mixture of advancement and backwardness we see in the visitors. Jenny Randles finds that British abductions are more likely to include human-like aliens than grey humanoids. [12] Apologists have proposed different races of aliens or screen memories to hide the true humanoid appearance.

Faith in literal abductions may signify a failure of critical thinking, but not a failure of reasoning powers.

Such responses are shamelessly ad hoc rationalisations. Yet in light of the ETH, these excuses make sense. The abduction story itself is so fantastic that it necessarily exasperates unbelievers. It is simply too pat, too heedless of the difficulties aliens would face and the question of why ufologists should uncover so easily the best-kept secrets of these other-world conspirators. Again the same answer applies – never mind the whys and wherefores, the extraterrestrial explanation works. It satisfies believers with a systematic, internally rational account of the abduction phenomenon, all for the price of buying a single premise: alien origin. This notion has long been popular with Americans, at least American ufologists, and Swords has shown that the ETH of ufology is a natural extension of the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life. [13] Faith in literal abductions may signify a failure of critical thinking, but not a failure of reasoning powers.

A venerable genre of American literature is the ‘Captured by the Indians’ story. Many such accounts appeared in print from the 17th to the 19th centuries, and served such purposes as propaganda against the Indians, examples of God’s providence, and exciting entertainment. Some narratives are pure fiction, and some of them are true. Most are a little of both. To complicate matters even more, narrators learned the tradition of this genre and cast their stories inits mould, adapting even personal experience to the form and stereotype of prior examples until distinctions between truth and fiction blurred beyond recognition. Theories, methods and comparisons can identify the rhetoric and formulas or point up the art and artifices of the genre. but the central dilemma remains unresolved: Is the story true or false? Any text can claim to be true, and if the only evidence is a text, fiction counterfeits truth to perfection. Theoretical positions suggest probabilities, but gain little purchase to separate the true from the false in any definitive way. If any one approach was always reliable, philosophy of science scholarship could fold up, but it stays a healthy enterprise.

We know the complexities surrounding the Indian narratives. Most of the abduction evidence is again in the form of texts, and non-literal interpretations have paid almost exclusive attention to this frustrating class of evidence. Abduction stories carry an added burden because we do not know if even one of them is true. Rival theories can flourish because no one has an infallible, all-conquering answer. Each solution has its strengths and weaknesses but none has proof, so choices may rely more on temperament than epistemological soundness.

Mark Rodeghier pointed out recently that different styles characterise European and American ufological enquiry. [14] Europeans tend to work from the top down, starting with fully articulated, highly abstract theories and methods, seeking a place for the subject phenomenon within a broad scope of meanings. The phenomenon is secondary to the theory. It orders knowledge of many phenomena and neither stands nor falls on its success with any one of them. Success itself seems to have an aesthetic dimension, so that elegant integration of a phenomenon into the architecture of the system counts for more than close adherence to the facts. This primacy of the theory justifies taking a few liberties with the evidence, selecting bending or abstracting it until the result is an idealised phenomenon matched to the theory, but perhaps no longer an accurate reflection of the original sources.

Americans reverse this order and work from the bottom up, wallowing in facts, often content just to accumulate and enumerate them. Explanations follow as an after-thought, on the grounds that the evidence speaks pretty much for itself. Suspicious of abstractions that range very far from the empirical base, Americans often feel satisfied to cobble together a few unsystematic generalisations and prefer to isolate phenomena rather than relate them. In European eyes this approach is narrow and intellectually unadventurous. American devotion to the ETH looks like an urge to impose an outworn idea on abduction reports, an unimaginative literalism that downplays their fantastic character and refuses to give serious attention to alternatives.

To American eyes Europeans are too impatient with evidence. They rush off in unseemly haste to abstract, theorise and debate theories without ever confronting the factual base on its own merits.

All right, while being true to their inclinations Europeans choose psycho-social explanations and Americans the ETH. Can we leave the matter there? I think not, because these choices have consequences. If any criterion of preference can be found between the European way and the American way of looking at abductions, that criterion lies in the treatment of evidence. Americans start with the more complex assumption when they opt for the ETH, and thereby violate the principle of parsimony; but Europeans enter a labyrinth of theoretical arguments where the phenomenon itself gets lost all too easily. The lure of comparisons and symbolic interpretations leads theoreticians into the errors of ‘stewpot thinking’, which Budd Hopkins has warned against. [16]

Right or wrong, an ETH interpretation of abductions keeps attention on the reports themselves. Some Europeans complain that abductions are largely an American phenomenon. Can they honestly say that they have actively sought abductees, or that European abductees would know where to turn for a sympathetic hearing of their suspicions or stories? Failure to find abductions may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Respect for the ETH assures hat investigators will welcome, value and seek out reports, whereas other assumptions may stifle enquiry and redirect research efforts toward sterile infighting over theoretical stances.

Given our present state of knowledge, recognising the tentativeness of any explanation is necessary on both sides of the physical and intellectual Atlantic. The reasons against the ETH are also many, but more diffuse and subtle, and poorly served by the plethora of unpersuasive alternatives raised thus far. Too often these proposals appear even more naive than the ETH in their treatment of texts, testimony and comparison. If taking witnesses at their word sets the literalist belief on a foundation of shifting sand, that base is still firmer than the thin air of theoretical speculations.

Ask any red-blooded American!


Read Dennis Stilling’s response to this article: http://magonia.haaan.com/2009/american-way/


REFERENCES:

  • 1. MUFON 1988, International UFO Symposium Proceedings, pp.59-72.
  • 2.KLASS, Philip J. UFO Abductions. A Dangerous Game, Buffalo, NY, Prometheus Books, 1488, 51-63; BAKER, Robert A. ‘The Aliens among us: Hypnotic Regression Revisited’; Skeptical Inquirer, 12, 1987, 147-162; Q: Are UFO Abduction Experiences Real? A: No, No, a Thousand Times No! Journal of UFO Studies, 1, 1989, 104-110; BARTHOLEMEW, Robert E, and BASTERFIELD, Keith, ‘Abduction States of Consciousness’, ‘Abductions: The Fantasy-Prone Personality Hypothesis , IUR, 13/2, 3 (March-April, May-June, 1988), 7-9, 15, 9-1; KOTTMEYER, Martin, ‘Break a Leg! The UFO Experience as Theatre’, Magonia, 27 (September 1987), 3-6; LAWSON, Alvin H., ‘Hypnosis of imaginary UFO Abductees’ in FULLER, Curtis (ed), Proceedings of the First International UFO Congress, New York, Warner Books, 1980, 195-238; ROGO, D. Scott, ‘The Abduction of Sammy Desmond’, IUR 12/4 (July-August 1987, 11; GROSSO, Michael, ‘The Secret Symbolism Behind UFO Abductions’, UFO Universe, November 1988, 44-45, 62-63;  DEVEREUX, Paul, ‘Earthlights’, in SPENCER, John and EVANS, Hilary (eds); Phenomenon, New York, Avon Books, 1988, 316-328; KEEL, John; The Eighth Tower, New York, Dutton, 1975; VALLEE, Jacques; The Invisible College, New York, Dutton, 1975; EVANS, Hilary; Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians, Wellingborough, Aquarian Press, 1987
  • 3. HUFFORD, David J., ‘Ambiguity and the Rhetoric of Belief’‘, Keystone Folklore, 21, 1977, 11-24.
  • 4. SMITH, Willy, ‘A Second Look’, Magonia 6, 1981, 3-5; ROGO, D, Scott, ‘Imaginary Facts: The Case of Imaginary Abductions’, IUR, 10/2, March-April 1985, 3-5 BULLARD, Thomas E, ‘Hypnosis and UFO Abductions: A Troubled Relationship’, Journal of UFO Studies, 1, 1989, 3-40.
  • 5. STILLINGS, Denis, ‘Missing Time, Missing Links’, Magonia, 28, Jan. 1988, 3-6.
  • 6. HICKSON, Charles and MENDEZ, William, UFO Contact at Pascagoula, Tucson, Arizona, Wendelle C. Stevens, 1983, 245-260;
  • 7. Final Report on the Psychological Testing of UFO ‘Abductees’, Mount Rainier, MD., Fund for UFO Research, 1985; KOTTMEYER, Martin, ‘Abductions: The Boundary Deficit Hypothesis’, Magonia 32, March 1988, 3-7.
  • 8. PARNELL, June O. Personality Characteristics on the MMPI, 16PF, and ACL of Persons who claim UFO Experiences, Laramie, University of Wyoming (dissertation), 1986.
  • 9. KEUL, Alex, and PHILLIPS, Ken, Assessing the Witness’, in EVANS, Hilary (ed.); UFOs 1947-1987, London, Fortean Tomes, 1987, 230-237.
  • 10. SWORDS, Michael, ‘Extra-terrestrial Hybridization Unlikely’, MUFON UFO Journal, 247, November 1988, 6-10.
  • 11. JACOBS, David, ‘Hybrid Thoughts’, MUFON UFO Journal, 250, Feb, 1989, 10-11.
  • 12. RANDLES, Jenny, Abduction, London, Robert Hale, 1988, 51-93.
  • 13, SWORDS, Michael D. ‘Science and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis in Ufology’, Journal of UFO Studies, 1, 1989, 67-102.
  • 14. RODEGHIER, Mark, Review of UFOs 1947-1987, in Journal of UFO Studies, 1, 169-172
  • 15. HOPKINS, Budd, ‘Stewpot Thinking: Obstacle to Science‘, MUFON UFO Journal, 251, March 1989, 8-9, 12.

The Media and the Paranormal; A Sceptic’s View. Dr. Christopher French

This essay won the second Roger Sandell Memorial Essay Competition, and was published in Magonia 70, March 2000. Dr French is the Head of the Psychology Department at Goldsmith’s College, London.

Introduction 

A few years ago, I took part in a Study Day organised by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) on the topic of “The Paranormal and the Media”. As the publicity material for the session pointed out: 

“The relationship between the media and psychical research has always been rather ambivalent. On the positive side, the media provide a valuable means of educating the public, a useful source of anecdotal material, contact with potential psychics and the opportunity to do experiments with a large number of subjects or to conduct surveys. On the negative side, the need for the media to entertain rather than conduct rigorous investigations often produces a somewhat sensationalised view of the paranormal, and this can be frustrating for the serious researcher”. 

I agreed to present the sceptic’s perspective on this relationship, as I am one of a few British sceptics who appear fairly regularly on the media commenting upon paranormal and related claims. This essay is largely based upon my presentation to the SPR. In the first half of the essay, I will consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of the roles of believer and disbeliever in media contexts. In the second half, I will discuss the issue of bias in the media, with particular reference to the series, The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna.

I should begin, however, by outlining my own personal perspective on the paranormal. I am generally unconvinced by evidence put forward in support of paranormal claims. However, I cannot deny that most people do believe in at least some aspects of the paranormal and a sizeable minority claim to have had direct experience of the paranormal.

As a psychologist, therefore, I am faced with a challenge. Why do so many people believe in the paranormal and what might underlie ostensibly paranormal experiences if in fact paranormal forces do not exist? One possibility is that certain situations may wrongly be perceived by the observer as only being interpretable in terms of paranormal forces where in fact normal physical and psychological explanations may be quite adequate. This is clearly only a working hypothesis, but it is one which I feel is much more powerful in explanatory terms than is generally appreciated. Whether it is powerful enough to account for all paranormal claims only time (and further research) will tell. It might come to pass that parapsychologists will establish beyond all doubt that paranormal forces do exist. Perhaps the autoganzfeld studies are an important step in that direction (Bem & Honorton, 1994; but see Milton & Wiseman, 1999). I will wait and see. In the meantime, I will continue to investigate plausible non-paranormal explanations for ostensibly paranormal experiences. If it turns out that I am wrong and paranormal forces really do exist, I do not feel that the approach I am taking will have been invalidated. There is no doubt at all that the majority of experiences which people explain in paranormal terms are in fact nothing of the kind, as most serious parapsychologists would readily acknowledge. If my research helps parapsychologists to sort the “real thing” (if there is such a thing) from the convincing illusion, then it will have served a useful purpose.

I do not believe that it is possible to approach paranormal issues “without prejudice or prepossession”. We all, whether we admit it or not, approach such issues with our own preconceptions.

My research interests fit reasonably well with the declared purpose of the SPR which is to “examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis.” I say “reasonably well” advisedly. I do not believe that it is possible to approach paranormal issues “without prejudice or prepossession”. We all, whether we admit it or not, approach such issues with our own preconceptions. Indeed, one of the central topics of my own research is the effect that belief and disbelief have upon the interpretation of ostensibly paranormal phenomena. On paranormal issues, as with other issues, our beliefs bias our interpretations in predictable ways. This does not mean that our beliefs cannot change of course. In my own case, I have moved from unquestioning belief to extreme scepticism and slightly back again. I would like to feel that I am now best described as a moderate sceptic although I am sure that I struck many members of the SPR audience as anything but moderate. I would put that down to the biasing effect of their beliefs of course! 

I believe passionately that the best way to decide the issue of whether or not paranormal forces exist is by carrying out scientific research under tightly controlled conditions. Although not perfect, this is the best means that we have of controlling for our own inevitable biases. Therefore, I strongly support good mainstream parapsychological research. 

Many of the issues that I have just raised are relevant to a discussion of the relationship between the media and the paranormal. There is little doubt that the media play an important role in influencing the level of belief in the paranormal. In general, I will concentrate upon the role of television and radio in dealing with the paranormal, but many of the same issues are relevant to the treatment of such matters in newspapers and magazines.

There are various types of programme to be considered. Probably the most frequently broadcast are the audience participation programmes such as, in Britain, Kilroy, Vanessa, Esther, and The Time, The Place, and those regional programmes aimed primarily at the late-night viewer who has just returned from the pub, with titles like Late and Live. The level of debate on the latter can be summed up by the fact that the programme-makers themselves will often openly tell you that they are aiming for something like “Oprah Winfrey on speed”. It is clear that such programmes cannot hope to provide any serious in-depth treatment of paranormal topics. The nearest radio equivalent to this type of format is the phone-in with a few experts in the studio. In my experience, the latter is often an altogether more civilised affair and can even be quite productive if enough time is devoted to a topic. The problem is that the only time that a couple of hours will be devoted to a paranormal topic is likely to be between midnight and the early hours – not exactly peak listening times.

Then there are the serious documentaries. Given the nature of the paranormal, these may fit into either the scientific category, such as Equinox or Horizon, or the broadly religious category, such as Heart of the Matter and Everyman. In my opinion, these types of programme often provide the best treatment of paranormal and related issues. This probably reflects the fact that the programme-makers are able to devote more than a couple of days to making the programmes and those involved are often proud of the generally high quality of their programmes. Furthermore, the issues are considered with respect to broader scientific or religious contexts, adding depth to the treatment.

Over recent years, in Britain, we have been deluged by a host of series devoted more or less exclusively to the paranormal, including: Michael Aspel’s Strange but True? (with its ever-so-unbiased question mark at the end of the title), Schofield’s Quest (in which members of the public were asked to help solve paranormal mysteries), The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna (about which, more later), Secrets of the Paranormal (produced, surprisingly, by BBC2′s Community Programme Unit), and Mysteries (presented by the ubiquitous Carol Vorderman). Needless to say, sceptics get a little annoyed by the generally uncritical treatment of the paranormal in such programmes. In some cases, even when sceptics are featured, the presentation can still be somewhat biased as I will show later.

The fact that programme-makers have bothered to contact informed sceptics at all is an indication that they wish to give at least the appearance of balance. It is clear that some programme-makers have either never approached informed sceptics or else completely ignored their advice. A case in pint would be the Beyond Belief programmes hosted by David Frost, Uri Geller and Matthew Manning. As Polly Toynbee commented in the Radio Times, “Beyond Belief was a well-titled programme, but here its merit ceased”.

In contrast to the numerous pro-paranormal series that have been broadcast recently, I can remember only one series ever with a decidedly sceptical approach to the paranormal and that was James Randi: Psychic Investigator, broadcast in 1991. There have been a few memorable one-offs, such as the excellent Equinox programmes on The Guru-Busters and Secrets of the Psychics, and a superb Horizon on the Bermuda Triangle many years ago, but the fact is that such programmes are few and far between. 

Believers vs. Sceptics 

So, what then are the relative advantages and disadvantages of being presented in the media as either a “believer” or a “disbeliever”? One clear advantage that the informed sceptic has over the informed believer is that of rarity value. Quite simply, there are very few people who are deeply interested in things that they do not believe in, but usually several dozen available informed believers for each paranormal topic. For me, paranormal claims are worth studying whether or not they are valid. If they are valid, then this is of profound importance in that it suggests that the current scientific world-view is mistaken or at least incomplete in major respects. If they are not valid, then study of such claims can tell us a great deal about the human mind, in the same way that studying the perceptual errors produced by visual illusions can tell us a lot about visual processing in general.

Because of the relative scarcity of informed sceptics, one can find oneself presenting the sceptical perspective on a wide range of issues, from angels to zombies. OK, I admit that I’ve never done a programme on zombies, but I’ve done yetis so that gets me most of the way through the alphabet. I did consider at one stage having some cards printed with “RENT-A-Sceptic” printed on them (with the emphasis on “RENT”). I considered adopting the slogan, “You name it, I’ll doubt it”, but I thought that some people might think I was being serious. It is largely thanks to our rarity value that informed sceptics appear as frequently as we do on the media. Thus when I arrived to present a lecture on my own research to the SPR, I was greeted at the door by a distinguished SPR member with the somewhat sarcastic comment, “I thought you were dead. I hadn’t seen you on TV for three days.” 

A problem which is faced by the sceptic but not by the believer is what one might call “tokenism”. By this I mean the tendency of some programmes to feature a token sceptic for whatever reason. This can take a variety of forms. On occasions I have taken part in programmes which were essentially PR jobs for various psychics with little attempt at any critical evaluation of the claims presented. Such programmes are dominated by the psychics, who are given star billing up on the stage, with the help of a supportive presenter. The opportunity to express any doubts from one’s seat in the audience can be very limited. I have also taken part in programmes where there was simply no need for an informed sceptic as the psychic claimant being featured was clearly deluded. I do not see it as my role to ridicule such individuals whose claims are unlikely to impress even the most fervent believer. Such programmes leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. The subtlest form of tokenism is that where every effort is made to give the appearance of an unbiased presentation but where there is in fact definite bias. The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna is a case in point which I will deal with more fully later.

Sceptics and believers often come across as stereotypes on TV programmes. This is partly because the stereotypes are true to some extent. If I am doing a discussion programme on astrology and I learn that I will be sitting next to Professor X, an astronomer from the University of Y, I can be fairly sure that he will be on my side. If I find a place name with a single, often exotic, name, such as Zelda or Darius, I can guess which side they will be on. Their flowing robes and crystal amulets are also something of a give-away. 

Depending upon the presenter, sceptics may find themselves cast in the positive role of “the voice of reason” (with the totally unjustified implication that anyone who believes in the paranormal must be a little bit crazy). On the other side of the coin, the sceptic can be presented as cold, scientific and uncaring. Believers in the paranormal are often embodiments of New Age thinking. They are emotional, intuitive and warm. They really are (usually) very nice people. Once again, there is some truth in these stereotypes although like all stereotypes they can be overplayed. The belief system of the true believer is usually rather more positive than that of the sceptic. The basic message is that we all have amazing powers and that the soul will survive bodily death. In contrast, the standard sceptical position is that we are all made of essentially the same stuff as everything else in the universe and death is simply the point at which biochemistry turns into chemistry. In terms of emotional appeal, there is simply no contest. 

I sometimes find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to argue against the possibility of life after death to an audience containing many individuals who sincerely believe that they are still in touch with their dear departed. Whilst this is not a position that I enjoy, the bottom line is that science is about truth not happiness – and it seems quite likely to me that our true position in the scheme of things is not necessarily one with which we would be very happy. 

Although the world-view of the believer is in general more emotionally appealing than that of the sceptic, there are important exceptions. For example, one might assume that most people would prefer a world which did not include alien abductions or poltergeists. In my experience, however, it is often the case that claimants in such cases are very unwilling to consider even the possibility that their experiences might have a non-paranormal explanation. There are several possible reasons for this, but one fairly important one is probably that such individuals are likely to feel special as a result of their experience, even though they may genuinely be frightened by it. After all, they would not have got to appear on television without it. 

The presenter of the programme is usually the most important factor in determining which side appears to have the best arguments. Often the presenter will remain resolutely neutral, but not always so. If the presenter is rather sceptical, one’s job is made very easy. If the presenter is a true believer, the sceptic will have a hard time. I remember on one occasion doing a programme on UFOs and being told just before I went on that the presenter was a keen UFO spotter. Predictably, I had a hard time. 

I will usually try to emphasise the fact that most responsible parapsychologists will readily admit that most claims are best explained in prosaic terms

If a presenter is biased towards the believers’ position, there are various ways in which the sceptics’ position can be undermined. For example, the believer has one very real advantage over the sceptic which the presenter might emphasise in various ways, and it is this. Just because someone believes that some paranormal claims are true does not mean that they therefore accept all paranormal claims. The believer can therefore often be presented as someone who judiciously weighs the evidence in each individual case before coming to a conclusion. I have yet to meet a believer who did not claim that they themselves approached each case critically. They are hardly going to say “Me, I just believe everything I’m told”, are they? The sceptic, on the other hand, starts from the working assumption that all cases have non-paranormal explanations. It is not hard to see how this can be presented as pure prejudice on the part of the sceptic. Partly to counter this, I will usually try to emphasise the fact that most responsible parapsychologists will readily admit that most claims are best explained in prosaic terms. The cases where disagreement arises between sceptic and believer are therefore a very small minority. The difference between the two sides is that the believer accepts those few cases as proof of the existence of paranormal forces, whereas the sceptic believes that there will inevitably be some cases where human ingenuity is not capable of figuring out the true explanation. 

Another way in which an audience can be made to feel hostility towards a sceptic is by setting the sceptic up as some arrogant know-it-all who is dismissing experiences that they have never themselves had. The point here is that informed sceptics are rarely rejecting the alleged paranormal experience itself, they are questioning the interpretation of that experience. Just because a person who has had a near-death experience genuinely feels that it was the most real and profound experience of their lives does not prove that their soul really left their body as they believe. Psychologists are all too familiar with cases of delusional belief systems of the most bizarre kinds that are all held with absolute conviction. 

Another problem faced by the sceptic is the reliance in such programmes on numerous anecdotal accounts as opposed to any considered appraisal of well-controlled studies. The latter is clearly not going to attract the same viewing figures as lurid personal accounts. I am often surprised at how weak the accounts presented on discussion programmes are given that they have been selected from dozens of people telephoning the programmes in response to an appeal for suitable cases. When faced with such personal accounts, one has to simply assert that one cannot really comment on them as one has usually only just heard of them. In most instances, no proper investigation has been carried out by anyone. Sometimes, of course, one might be reminded of a similar claim which was properly investigated and accounted for. Many programmes will include a couple of cases which have been investigated and pronounced genuine, in which case one should try to do one’s homework in advance, in order to find out if the case is really as strong as it appears. Often it is not. 

A problem faced by both the sceptic and the believer as one that might be referred to as the “with-friends-like-these” syndrome. there are times when I shudder to hear the comments of other sceptics featured in these programmes. There is no doubt that the strongest evidence in support of paranormal claims deserves to be taken seriously and is not easily dismissed. It is all too rare for this type of evidence to be included in discussion programmes but when it does crop up, it does the sceptics’ cause no good if some uninformed bigot simply rejects it on the grounds that “It’s just not possible!” The other type of sceptic that I dread is the kind that has a blanket explanation for all paranormal claims, e.g., all claimants are liars, all claimants are mad, all claimants are stupid. This is clearly not the case and such a sceptic is merely demonstrating their own ignorance. Unfortunately, most sceptics are very uninformed regarding the paranormal. Another kind of sceptic that worries me is the type who will believe any non-paranormal account, no matter how far-fetched and unsupported by the evidence, rather than consider the possibility that paranormal forces might actually exist. I imagine that my feelings towards such sceptics are somewhat similar to those of the parapsychologist who receives the support of some audience member who asserts that they know that telepathy exists because that is how they communicate with Zog, the pan-dimensional being that lives in their fridge. 

The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna

At least with live programmes one does not have to worry about the role of the editor. The way that a programme is edited can, potentially, completely distort what actually happened. I want to finish by giving several examples of biased presentation from the series The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna. My reason for focusing upon two programmes from this particular series is that I took part in both programmes and was disappointed, although not altogether surprised, by the final product. 

The first of the two programmes in question to be broadcast dealt with telepathy. One of the demonstrations featured Albert Ignatenko from the Ukraine who demonstrated a so-called “psychic punch”. The sequence of events as seen by the viewer at home involved the presenter, Paul McKenna, asking for a volunteer from the audience. From the raised arms, one individual was invited to take part. Mr McKenna explicitly asked the volunteer to confirm that he had not met Mr Ignatenko before that day which he did. Mr Ignatenko moved the young man gently forwards and backwards in order, he claimed, to prepare him to receive his psychic energy. he then walked away, stopped, raised his arm and the volunteer fell back onto a mat. 

This demonstration, on the surface, might look impressive to some. It appeared that a volunteer had been more or less randomly chosen from the audience and within a couple of minutes a complete stranger had used some kind of influence, perhaps psychic, in order to make this healthy young man fall over. For those of us in the studio for the rehearsals, however, a rather different version of events was apparent. The same young man had taken part in the rehearsals earlier in the day. he had spent an unknown amount of time with Mr Ignatenko during the day. For all we know, he may have been selected for his high level of suggestibility, in much the same way that stage hypnotists select volunteers. To ask for a volunteer from the audience when you know in advance who is going to be picked and to then get that person to confirm that they had not met the psychic before that day might reasonably be seen as intentionally trying to create a false impression in one’s audience without actually lying. It may also be worth noting that Paul McKenna’s main claim to fame in the UK is as the country’s most popular stage hypnotist. 

Also in the programme, Pam Smart from Lancashire and her dog Jaytee were featured. Jaytee, it was claimed, knows when Pam is about to return home even if no one else in the house knows and the time is randomly determined. Jaytee moves to the window at the time when Pam sets out on her return journey and sits and waits for her. A film clip featuring Jaytee contained several errors, all of which resulted in the claim appearing to be more impressive than it actually is. I am grateful to Richard Wiseman for drawing these to my attention. The programme showed a clip from a test of Jaytee carried out by Austrian TV, in which Jaytee is clearly seen moving to the window seconds after Pam sets off for home. 

As Richard pointed out on the programme, it is important to see the rest of the film to know how many times the dog goes to the window anyway. When Richard raised this issue during rehearsals he was informed by Paul McKenna, perhaps relaying information from the production team, that the rest of the tape had been viewed by the programme-makers and that the dog had not moved to the window previously. In fact, no one had seen the footage. 

Furthermore, the voice-over said the dog is always correct. It isn’t. The voice-over also said that Pam was six miles away from the dog at the time of the test. In fact, she was down the road, between half and three-quarters of a mile away. This caused Pam considerable embarrassment when facing her neighbours all of whom recognised the locations featured. The voice-over also incorrectly stated that she had been away for five hours. Richard’s source for this information was Pam Smart herself, who was fed up with the way the claim was portrayed. Since that programme, Richard and his colleagues have tested Jaytee in a controlled manner – and found no evidence for canine paranormal powers (Wiseman, Smith & Milton, 1998). 

The other programme that I featured in dealt with psychic detectives. The programme included pieces about Dorothy Allison, the New Jersey psychic, and the British psychic Nella Jones, famous for her apparent accuracy in coming up with information relating to the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. All of my specific criticisms of Dorothy Allison’s claims were edited out. The criticisms were generally in terms of the need to look not only at the apparent hits of the psychic detectives but also at their failure rate if one is to stand any chance of reliably assessing their true level of performance. 

I had made similar points against Nella Jones when we both appeared on the chat programme, Esther. I pointed out that she had claimed that Peter Sutcliffe could and did pass himself off as a woman. She simply denied this, attributing these claims to the late Doris Stokes, another British psychic. I was somewhat wrong-footed by this – I seem to remember a member of the audience shouting “Get your facts right!” – although, with presenter Esther Rantzen’s help, we did finally get Nella to admit that she had only ever drawn the Yorkshire Ripper as clean-shaven. In fact, he had a full beard throughout the period of the murders (which would make passing himself off as a woman slightly problematic!).

Subsequently, with Mike Hutchinson’s help, I was able to track down the actual piece in the Psychic News where Nella had indeed made the claim she later denied. I had the piece with me when I went along for the McKenna programme and I asked the programme-makers if they would let me confront her with it. I thought it would make good television. They didn’t. The final version of the programme was basically nothing more than good uncritical PR for Nella. 

I was also in the studio during the rehearsals for the programme on psychokinesis. This included one demonstration in which the audience was asked to use their combined psychic ability in order to influence a random event generator which would determine how two computer-scrambled pictures would unscramble. The final outcome would be either a picture of a tiger or an astronaut. Given that there was a 50:50 chance of either outcome, this was clearly not going to say much one way or the other regarding the audience’s PK ability. The audience chose to concentrate on trying to make the astronaut appear, but after a couple of minutes the picture of the tiger appeared. Amazingly, it was decided to simply have another go! On this occasion, according to my recollection, the astronaut appeared fairly quickly. To no one’s great surprise, the viewers at home only got to see the successful outcome. However, it appears that some clever editing has been used to combine the start of the first trial with the end of the second. The overall impression is that the audience had managed to use their combined will-power to produce the desired outcome even though it initially appeared to be going in the wrong direction. 

I hope by now I have given enough examples to illustrate the bias in this particular series. In addition to all these specific examples, as so often happens, the tests carried out on psychic claimants were generally poorly controlled and extremely limited in terms of the conclusions that could be drawn from them. It is for reasons such as these that sceptics are often cautious in accepting at face value presentations on television. TV producers have to be concerned about viewing figures and therefore are often more concerned with entertainment value than careful critical analysis. There is a general consensus amongst programme-makers that I have met that pro-paranormal programmes are more entertaining than sceptical programmes. I am not sure that they are right, but they are the ones who decide what kind of programmes get made. I think that moderate researchers on both sides of the debate would welcome programmes that dealt with strong evidence for the paranormal with the seriousness that it deserves. But given the over-riding importance of viewing figures, I do not think that this will happen very often.  

 References

  • Bem, D.J. & Honorton, C. (1994), Does psi exist? Evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer, Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4-18
  • Milton, J. & Wiseman, R. (1999), Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer, Psychological Bulletin, 125, 387-391
  • Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (1998), Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the “psychic pet” phenomenon, British Journal of Psychology, 89, 453-462

Variation Enigmas; Folklore Rules. Thomas Bullard & Hilary Evans

In Magonia 41, November 1991 American folklorist Thomas (Eddie) Bullard questioned earlier suggestions that the level of  ‘variation’ in abduction reports was not of great significance. He felt that there was a limit to the variations between dufferent reports and this led to the suggestion that there was an objective source behind them. 


Variation Enigmas, by Thomas Bullard

Dennis Stillings writes (Magonia 39) that “concerns about variation … seem to me to have only peripheral significance when dealing with abduction accounts.” He adds that variation has no bearing on the central meaning of folklore, while personal, social and cultural modifications are irrelevant to the underlying experience. He objects that I have taken both variation and lack of variation in abduction reports to support a case for genuine aliens. I regret that my remarks have been vague and confusing, because I consider the issue of variation has a great deal to do with our understanding of abduction reports. Let me try to explain again why:

Stillings says “it is the mysterious central meaning or experience that we are trying to get to”, and here we agree. Only the professional sceptics know what abductions are a priori, the rest of us have to rely on evidence. Most abduction evidence is anecdotal, the claim narrated by an alleged eyewitness. We outsiders have to evaluate that claim and decide if it is truth, fiction, fantasy, lie, error, or some mixture of these possibilities.

A test for authenticity often comes down to comparisons: is the abduction story unique, or suspiciously uniqueness-starved?

Martin Kottmeyer has demonstrated that science fiction parallels abduction on many counts. Other writers have demonstrated the likeness of these reports to folklore, religion and mythology. For example, the pattern of shamanic initiation experience compares step-by-step with abductions: The candidate separates from his usual environment (missing time), suffers symbolic death and rebirth at the hands of powerful unfriendly beings (examination by aliens), gains knowledge and powers from friendly beings (implant, conference), and returns with a magical vocation (psychic powers and a mission). An abduction story that is too much like cultural influences or psychological patterns more probably represents a fantasy based on those sources than a record of genuine alien kidnap.

Case closed and game over? Not quite. If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple. There is no escape. As long as abduction reports are psycho-social phenomena such as fantasies, lies, errors, or whatever, with a basis in borrowed form and content, these stories share a likeness in kind with other folklore and should obey its rules.

Where folklorists’ methodologies apply, so must their cautions. Over 150 years of experience has made clear to folklorists how easy it is to misuse comparison, and they are no longer eager to charge into a search for origins or deep meanings on the basis of appearances alone. The same pattern of shamanic initiation is also broad enough to cover the student who leaves home for college, dies to old friends and gains new, loses cherished beliefs and learns higher truths from professors intimidating or nurturing, then emerges with a head full of implanted knowledge ready for a new life. No one would conclude that the college student is a fantasy because the initiation pattern fits, but many people would condemn abductions on no better evidence. Now, that’s cheating. We all know beforehand that college students exist, whereas abductions are very much in question and cannot be denied by such double standards for evidence. 

Demonstration of the similarity of abduction to folklore in terms of form and content is necessary but far from sufficient to prove a relationship. If abductions are folklore, in the full sense of narratives based on other narratives or composed from belief, then abduction reports should act like other folk narratives. Herein lies the significance of variation. Folk narratives vary with exuberance, they adapt not only to locale and narrator, but interchange parts until every imaginable permutation of content appears in circulation. Whole new cycles of a given story evolve, with the pattern adapting different content, or the same content outfitting a different story framework. This rapid and vigorous change is the nature of real folklore. Too many people are unaware of this central property of folk narratives, since most people are still victims of the ‘storybook fallacy’ – the misconception that the printed text of the narrative is the only ‘right’ version. Nothing could be further from the truth. That printed text represents the work of the folkloric taxidermist, who stuffs the narrative as it lived for one moment only and shoves a stale carcass in the reader’s face as if to say here is the alpha and the omega, the narrative as it was, is and will be.

Abductions contrast with the expected course of folk narratives by remaining relatively constant from narrator to narrator over decades. Yes, the stories differ here and there. The aliens are not always dwarf greys, or the ships of similar design, or the narratives of equal length. Yet these loosely constructed, complex and bizarre stories have potential for florid variation if they are indeed fantasies feeding off cultural influences. The media have taught us many possible space adventures: the episodes and the events of abductions could change places without harm to the story. It should change all the more if the narrators are gifted fantasizers. Instead, these people curb their imaginations and stay within narrow bounds, never realising the potential of their subject matter, seldom even forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do. Abduction reports violate the folklorists’ expectations even when such extenuating circumstances at hypnosis and media influence are taken into account.

The dramatic pattern common to many folk narratives would be served just as well with different content in the same dramatic roles, so this pattern cannot account for the peculiar stability of the reports. Something is clearly peculiar here.

Similarities are important in science, but so are differences. Anomalies signal that something is wrong with our conceptual paradigm, and abduction reports flash that signal to the folklorist by their stability. What I expect is variation; what I see is the opposite. Here at last is some unambiguous evidence. It tells me that these reports do not act like folklore. That may not sound like much of an answer, certainly not the answer I want, but I can hold on to it with confidence.

I too would like to reach into the heart of the mystery and know its meaning, but I must approach by steps and not by leaps. This step does not answer the question of meaning or the nature of the experience, but evidence must come before meaning, and at least now I know something important about the nature of the evidence available to me.

I know that abduction reports do not act like normal folk narratives. This finding weighs against the hypothesis that these reports are psychosocial products in the same class as other folklore. On the other hand, if abduction reports begin in experience and reflect a common experience with some accuracy, then the stability makes sense. So does a degree of difference. Two people seldom describe the same experience in exactly the same way, and abduction reports would only mystify us further if narrators broke this rule too. A modicum of variation reassures us on that account. This is what I mean by some variation being proper for real experience, but the more striking fact is that great potential for change goes unrealized. The narrow variations in abduction reports operate within a remarkable framework of unexpected stability.

Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore

The psychosocial solution for abductions requires that the reports be folklore in some sense. Advocates of this idea point for support to the parallels between abductions and other lore, but these advocates cannot play the game by half the rules. They must acknowledge the folklore process as well as the product. An artificial separation of the two equals self-delusion not evidence. In fact the personal, cultural and social modifications are essential parts of that process, integral to its reality and necessary to its understanding. Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore. These variants are an empirical fact that theory must accommodate or die trying. Archetypal roots do not abolish the profusion of variety in folk narrative, nor the mystery of too little variety in abduction reports.

I do not claim to know the ultimate nature of the reports, whether the answer comes up aliens or something else. I admit that the consistency of the reports may be an artefact, a quirk of error in my study or the investigations-on which it was based. Maybe cultural influences or the media are to blame, maybe folklorists underestimate the capacity of some narratives to stabilise. I won’t deny these possibilities, but I will doubt them. So much of the abduction evidence is slippery, elusive and ambiguous that a firm anomaly, even indirect in its implication, makes a welcome addition to the argument. Variation – or rather the lack of it – offers one small foothold in a sea of spectacular maybes. I cannot ignore it; those who do are more determined to sink than swim. 

After all, a platypus also looks like a duck here and there, but it doesn’t act like one. The original solution to this problem was to ram the reprobate into unsuitable categories, or dismiss it altogether. Are we ready to break with old tradition and learn at last from past mistakes.


 In the following issue, Magonia 42 March 1992, Hilary Evans responded vigorously to Bullard’s argument:

Folklore Rules; OK?  

The trouble about Eddie Bullard, he’s such a nice fellow, we all want to help him in this distressing situation he’s in: the situation, that is, of not sharing the same view on abductions as the rest of us. He’s such a reasonable fellow, we feel, surely we have only to murmur a few reasonable words to have him come over to our way of thinking? And when he doesn’t, we tell ourselves it’s only because he keeps bad company. Left to himself…

Should we bother? Why don’t we leave him with his delusions, if he’s happy with them? Except he obviously isn’t; it clearly distresses him to see the rest of us so wrong-headed in our ideas. And we, for our part, if we are honest (and we are, chaps, aren’t we?) we ask ourselves: if someone so fair-minded as Eddie Bullard doesn’t share our ideas, could our ideas just possibly be mistaken?The fact is that, irrespective of our concern for Eddie Bullard’s peace of mind, he is the perfect object to bounce our ideas off and see if they come back to us intact.

What Bullard believes:

Bullard’s argument can be summarised as follows:

  • 1: those who favour a psychosocial explanation for the abduction experience (‘PS-proponents’ from here on) refuse to accept the abductions-are-real hypothesis (AAR from here on) because of the parallels with folklore.
  • 2: their argument is invalid, because it does not conform to the rules of folklore.
  • 3: therefore, in the absence of any reasonable alternative, the AAR-hypothesis is the more probable explanation

I think he is mistaken on three counts:

  • First, I don’t think there are any such rules.
  • Second, even if there were, I don’t think we would be obliged to respect them.
  • Third, PS-proponents do not base their position solely on the parallels with folklore.  

Rules? What rules? I see no rules…    

It doesn’t surprise me that Bullard, as a professional folklorist, wishes to think of his subject as possessing what, if it lacked them, might leave him feeling improperly dressed: namely rules. So he wags his finger at the PS-proponents, accusing us of seeking to ‘play the game by half the rules’. But from what I can see of folklore, it is the most amorphous, least defined of subjects. School-of-thought after school-of-thought has sought to impose its scheme of things on the subject, and to no avail. Folklore remains a free-for-all field where hardly any two players are wearing the same shirts.

We can see this in a matter particularly relevant to abductions, the question of diffusion: how does folklore – myth, rumour etc. – proliferate? Do they spread by some subtle contagion? Do they manifest spontaneously here and yon triggered by some Jungian archetype mechanism? Is some Sheldrakean process at work?

In her classic work, Mythes de Guerre, Marie Bonaparte presents us with a shoal of foaftales from WW2, showing how the same stories (with variations) arose – seemingly spontaneously and simultaneously – on both sides of the line. She is inclined to account for both the synchronicity and the variations on psychoanalytic grounds; others will prefer to think that some kind of diffusionist process is at work; yet others will have yet other suggestions. The point is that as things stand, it’s anyone’s guess how myths are created: the field is wide open.

And so it is, I suggest, with the similarity con variazione which so disconcertingly distinguishes the abduction experience. There is no user’s guide which presents us with a handy set of rules. 

On not having too much respect for the rules

Even if there existed a set of rules bearing the imprimatur of the Folklore Society or some such recognised authority, it is by no means certain that we could, or even should, respect them. Folklore, as Bullard recognises, is a constantly developing thing; and even if rules could be derived from past experience, they might well need to be modified in the light of later experience.

This is especially likely to be true of abductions, because for all the parallels with folklore, they display many features which have no precedent in the past. Bullard concludes this is because abductions are not folklore at all, but real experience. But this conclusion is not the only one possible. There are at least two valid alternatives. Abductions may not conform to traditional folklore for either, or both, of two reasons: first because they represent a new development in this constantly developing field of study; and/or second, because they are not just folklore, but folklore-plus, and it is this plus which is responsible for their unprecedented character.

Goodbye Goodwife…

“Something is clearly peculiar here,” says Bullard in the course of his paper, bothered by the ‘peculiar stability’ of the reports. Indeed it is. But couldn’t it be that abductions – even to the extent that they are folklore experiences at all – are not the kind of folklore Bullard is used to? He speaks of the abduction experient as ‘seldom forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do’ (my italics) – conjuring up an image of the old goodwife in the chimney corner sending the young ‘uns at her knee to their beds trembling at the tale of Johnnie Rimmer’s hairbreadth encounter with the Mersey Devil…But suppose abductees aren’t like that? Suppose they are telling their stories not as spine-tingling winter’s tales but out of some gut-churning inner need? Why should we expect them to do as ‘most ordinary storytellers’ do?

See, once again, the pitfalls into which Eddie-Head-in-Book is liable to trip if he doesn’t look up from his How To Be A Folklorist manual. For when he says ‘these reports do not act like folklore’ what he is really saying is ‘these reports do not act like the folklore I’m used to’.

Not just folklore, but folklore-plus

But Bullard is on the wrong foot anyway if he supposes the PS-proponents interpret abductions solely in terms of folklore. This of course is nonsense, and I can’t believe Bullard really thinks so. But what other conclusion can we draw from his definition of what he supposes to be the PS position:

If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple.

Neither Vallée nor Méheust – to take the two most prominent exponents – has ever offered or would ever offer so simplistic an interpretation.Rather, folklore is to them as to all PS-proponents just one of several realms of experience which contribute to our understanding of abduction stories. We look also to other forms of communal fantasy. Méheust’s first book, after all, was about flying saucers and science fiction, an avenue which Kottmeyer too has explored with convincing results. Science fiction has much in common with folklore, but it cannot possibly qualify as folklore despite the obvious links and relevancies.

Other parallels have been drawn with witchcraft, with convent hysteria, with the convulsionaries and the visionaries, with demon possession and revivalist epidemics, with all kinds of communal fantasy.

So – and I think I speak for all who prefer some kind of PS explanation, however much we may diverge as to which particular form of it we may espouse – the abduction experience is never simply folklore: it is always folklore with an admixture.

‘swarms of variants’ (?) 

Bullard states – and surely we all agree – that ‘swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore’. It could hardly be otherwise: for what is folklore, but the accumulation and distillation of lots and lots of bits of individual lore. From a host of one-of-a-kind instances, the individual elements are filtered out and the shared elements retained, so that a stereotypical communal experience can be abstracted and defined. But this stereotype is no more than a convenient fiction: it is a Platonic ideal, which never exists in its pure form except in the minds of those who fabricate it, never more than a part of the overall experience – the ‘highest common factor’ as we were taught at school.

Each abduction is at once a shared ‘story’, broadly conforming to a pattern, and an individual experience, whose relevance is only to the individual’s needs, preoccupations, hopes and fears. To suggest that the individual abduction is a ‘folklore experience’ would be nonsense – but then no one is making any such suggestion. What the PS-proponents are suggesting is that the composite abduction experience – the depersonalised and sanitised abstraction – can be paralleled with certain folklore themes, and that this can help us understand what is happening in individual instances.

In the section devoted to the PS approach in his Encyclopedia of UFOs, Jerry Clark was both fair and perceptive. It is an excellent position statement, particularly since it is made by someone who does not share that position. But he makes a fundamental error – which Bullard also, albeit only implicitly, seems to be making: Clark speaks of the PS hypothesis, but this is as much an abstraction as the stereotype abduction.

What there is, is a psychosocial approach: but though there are many who favour that approach, there are probably as many PS-hypotheses as there are PS-proponents.

As I see it, the abduction experience is an admixture of ‘folklore’ – in the form of a shared myth – with a deep and often very serious individual need. The individual draws on the folklore themes to give his private experience the necessary public ‘credentials’. By creating a fantasy scenario whose broad outline will be recognised by the consensus as ‘an abduction story’, he obtains a degree of legitimacy for the experience as a whole – and therefore for those elements which are purely personal to himself: just as in other forms of behaviour such as seeing visions, dissociation of the personality, trance communication and channeling, stereotypes have come into being, which serve as sustaining structures for individual experiences which lack the strength to stand on their own. 

A choice of scripts

Some see visions, some are possessed by demons, some are abducted by aliens. Each of these behaviours is chosen, subconsciously, because it is felt by the individual to be an appropriate way of externalising an internal dilemma, crisis or whatever. And it is this internal, personal core which causes the variations, so the abduction experience of Kathie Davis will conform to the folklore model only so far as it is necessary for it to qualify as something that others will recognise (or, it may be argued, where she herself can feel justified in distancing herself from the experience, in effect saying it wasn’t me, it was THEM).

If the PS approach is correct, what we would find is that all abduction experiences tend to share a number of common factors, and to differ in individual details. Which is just what we do find.

This doesn’t by any means imply that the PS approach is correct. There are still other problems: for example the remarkable specificity of some details which, it is argued, could not by any reasonable explanation have been known to the individual, and which can therefore only be the result of a real experience. If this is so, it is a formidable challenge to those of us who question the AAR position: but such extraordinary claims need to be supported by something more convincing than the Gee-Whiz assertions of the Believers.

If such support should be forthcoming, many of us might have cause to rethink our positions, just as we would do if a UFO were to touch down in Mortlake churchyard. Bullard may turn out to be justified in his AAR belief. But if so, it will need to be on stronger grounds than by appeal to the rules of folklore. 

As Phil Klass reminds us, abductions are a dangerous game: one of the greatest dangers comes from those who play the game thinking they know the rules.

 Bending the rules

As Phil Klass reminds us, abductions are a dangerous game: one of the greatest dangers comes from those who play the game thinking they know the rules. Hopkins tells us he has consulted a number of leading psychologists, and one and all have assured him there is no known psychological model for abduction behaviour. Therefore, according to the psychological rule-book, no psychological explanation can be valid; therefore – the reasoning goes – abductions must be real.

But psychology, like folklore, is concerned with drawing communal conclusions from individual experience: and while it can formulate helpful guidelines in respect of what is communal, what is individual defies formal rule-making – which is why, even after 100+ years of psychology as a formal field of study, we have on-going controversies about psychoanalysis, about hypnosis, about possession, about multiple personality. Hopkins’s touching faith in the psychologists’ faith in their rule-book has led him into the AAR cul-de-sac: Eddie Bullard’s similar faith in the folklore rule-book has led him into the same dead end.

But there is more to abductions than the rule-books know of. Seen en masse, it may look as though a huge communal game is in progress on the abduction playing-field. But look more closely, and you will see that each player is playing a little game of his own, and if there are any rules, they are of his or her own making. 


 

Seeing Things. Patrick Harpur


From Magonia 42, March 1992

I have always felt uneasy about the complacency with which ufologists repeat the assertion that 90% (or 95%) of UFO sightings are misidentifications of ordinary aerial objects such as stars, planets, birds, clouds, aircraft, etc. (I don’t believe in weather balloons); or else of natural phenomena such as patches of light, optical reflections etc. (whatever they are). I don’t like the superior air which creeps into reports of UFOs which turn out to have one of these simple explanations. It reminds me of a school seniority system: the scientists look down on the ufologists for believing in UFOs, and the ufologists, who want to become (of all things) scientists, look down on poor benighted passers-by who mistake simple weather balloons (or whatever) for what they are pleased to call genuine UFOs.

At a Magonia conference in Mortlake some years ago, we listened briefly to a radio phone-in on UFOs which happened to coincide with the conference. How we all hooted when Val of Peckham rang in to say that she had been disturbed by a weird light in the sky! It had seemed to be watching her, it was definitely intelligent, she had come over all funny, etc. It was obvious from her description that the light in question was a planet. John Rimmer, our kindly host, quelled the derision by reminding us that Val’s experience was in a sense the very stuff of ufology — indeed, that many of the eminent ufologists present had been seized by the subject through just such an encounter, mistaken or not. We were suitably chastened. 

And so we should be. After all, if I may lapse for a moment into fancy existentialist talk, Val had been confronted in her fallen inauthentic condition with a sense of the uncanny. This idea plays a key part in Heidegger’s philosophy, for uncanniness is the hallmark of those moments in one’s life when, as he says, angst brings Dasein (being-there) face to face with its terrible freedom — either to dwell in inauthenticity or to make a bid for self-possession. (More particularly, the uncanny is the summons of conscience, at which we experience a primal guilt — Schuld– at the fact that the source of our being is a nothingness or, rather, that our being necessarily implies the possibility of non-being. Guilt, then, may play a part in people’s reluctance to report uncanny experiences, usually put down to simple fear of ridicule… ) 

However, I didn’t get you here to show off my profound grasp of existentialism. I just want to suggest that Val had the kind of experience we all have at some time, especially as children: that of seeing a world we had been told was dead, as alive, intelligent, watchful (we all remember the sinister dressing-gown, up to no good on the back of the bedroom door). In other words, that way of seeing the world, and being seen by it, which has been derisively labelled ‘animism’, is not the prerogative of poor benighted primitives (or even of children), but an experience of reality which can strike at any time, just as it struck a couple (one of whom was, of all things, a scientist) who were driving from Shropshire to Cheshire one night in October 1983. They were lengthily and systematically hounded by an aerial object which shone menacing beams of light into their car, terrifying them. In a state of shock, and after much thought, they reported it to (of all things) the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, who passed the report on to Jenny Randles, who kindly wrote it down for us. It turned out that the couple had misperceived the moon. 

Perhaps ufology should be less concerned with the nature of the object than with the nature of perception. Here, for instance, is another well-known case of misidentification: 

“…do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea? 0 no, no, I see an Innumerable Company of the Heavenly Host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”‘

The percipient is of course the visionary poet and artist William Blake. The ‘disk of fire’ is the sun. Blake insisted that his poems were not mere figures of speech but true accounts of the natural world, transformed (invariably personified) by the power of the creative imagination. He could see the sun perfectly well as everyone else does, as a golden Guinea; but he could also see its deeper reality as a heavenly host. He distinguished between seeing with the eye and seeing through it.

I’m not saying that there are no such things as visual errors. We’ve all seen lights in the sky which might have been UFOs, but which on closer inspection turned out to be aircraft lights or whatever. But even such simple misidentifications are not wholly neutral or without significance. They are like visual equivalents of Freudian or, more accurately, Jungian slips: they point for a moment to the Unknown which lies both in our depths and in the heights of the sky. Even when we see with and not through the eye, as it were, we are already imagining what we see. Blake’s description of the normal sun is already embroidered by a simile, ‘like a Guinea’. The whole world is an imaginative construct. There’s no such thing as a simple unadorned perception, nor a simple misperception — let alone Val of Peckham’s sighting, charged as it was with potentially frightful significance.

Was Val satisfied with the explanation that her sighting was ‘only a planet’? Was she not made to feel a little foolish, even a little cheated? And what of ‘Mrs A’ of Hollington, West Sussex, who was watching television on 4 October 1981, when she felt ‘compelled’ to go to the window, only to see a large bright yellow object in the sky? Joined by her daughter-in-law Janette, the two women watched astonished for half an hour as the object wobbled, pulsated and repeatedly changed shape. Several times, as an aircraft passes nearby, the object emitted smoke and hid itself behind a cloud. Janette saw lights on, and structural sides to, the object. Both women suffered severe recurrent headaches over the following weeks — a sure sign of a close encounter — and Mrs A experienced a 14-hour blackout four days after the sighting. The witnesses were convinced they had seen a spacecraft piloted by aliens. Investigation revealed that the object had been the moon. 

william-blake-portrait

If Blake had been running the phone-in when Val of Peckham rang in, he would not have told her that she had misidentified a planet; he would have said she was privileged to have glimpsed the awesome form of foam-born Venus rising in splendour from the sea of night

The usual ‘explanation’ for such lunatic experiences is ‘projection’. The term, derived from Freud and the early Jung, is taken to mean that images from the unconscious are thrown forward, by-passing consciousness, on to the world or on to objects in the world (the night sky makes a particularly handy screen) where they are perceived as something external. This has come to mean that the images are ‘only subjective’ but are wrongly seen as objective. (Jung became much more equivocal about projection as a result of his alchemical studies.)

However, as Lee Worth Bailey, among others, has argued (in ‘Skull’s Lantern: psychological projection and the Magic Lantern’, Spring, 1986), the idea of ‘projection’ is a metaphor drawn from the model of the magic lanterns which caused so much excitement in the 19th century. While the common people were astounded and terrified by the slide-shows which tended to project images of ghosts and demons, experts and debunkers delighted in exposing the ‘fraudulence’ of these images. Scientists like David Brewster (d. 1868) published widely read descriptions of how the magic lanterns worked and went on to claim that all so-called visions and apparitions were attributable to them. He asserted that ancient priestcraft employed similar devices to trick people into believing that gods and daemons exist when they were, in fact, only projected delusions.

This notion was to influence Freud who deprecated visions as ‘nothing but projections’. And, naturally, just as we tend to model the psyche on our own machines (it’s computers now), so it was not long before the magic lantern became the model for our own heads out of which subjective images were projected on a soulless world of objects. The psyche became restricted to the skull, and any of its images encountered outside became delusions which had to be withdrawn back inside. Thus the autonomous myth-making imagination was reduced to a kind of cine-projector which mechanically threw out fraudulent visual, images — and to hell with the powerful affecting visions of poor benighted bystanders.

I suggest that the idea of projection won’t wash. It’s simply the corollary of Locke’s equally erroneous description of the mind as a ‘blank sheet of paper’ which passively receives the stamp of external sense impressions. We should rethink our epistemology along the lines of a Blake, understanding that our primary mode of perception is imaginative. We simultaneously see and transform the world. As the ancients knew, the moon is not just a barren planet but a dangerous goddess liable to induce delusions or revelations, madness or mystical experience; and if my two examples are anything to go by, she potentially still is.

We have been brought up with a literal-minded world-view. We demand that objects have only a single identity or meaning. We are educated to see with the eye only, in single vision. When the preternatural breaks in upon us, transforming the profane into something sacred, amazing, we are unequipped for it. Instead of seizing on the vision, reflecting on it — writing poetry if necessary — we react with fright and panic. Instead of countering like with like, that is, assimilating through imagination the complexity of the image presented to us, we feebly phone scientists for reassurance. We are told we are only ‘seeing things’ and so we miss the opportunity to grasp that different, more primordial order of reality which lies behind the merely literal.

I’m not suggesting that we strive only to see the world as visionaries. To perceive all aerial objects as angels — to see only the heavenly host sun and not the guinea sun — leads to the madhouse. It is just as literal-minded as seeing a light in the sky as only a ball of hot gas or a barren planet, or an extraterrestrial spacecraft. This, too, is a kind of madness, albeit established and called normal. The remedy is to cultivate a sense of metaphor which, as its etymology suggests, is the ability to ‘carry across’ — to translate one view of the world in terms of another. Sanity is the possession of what Blake called ‘double vision’, which allowed him, for example, to see “with my inward eye … an old man grey / With my outward a thistle across the way.”

If Blake had been running the phone-in when Val of Peckham rang in, he would not have told her that she had misidentified a planet; he would have said she was privileged to have glimpsed the awesome form of foam-born Venus rising in splendour from the sea of night. She might then have been emboldened to prise wider that momentary crack in literal reality and to enter that other, imaginative Reality which alone infuses the world with beauty and terror. We don’t need to see UFOs in order to enter that Reality because, to the poetic imagination, everything in the sky –stars, birds, clouds, balloons — is a UFO whose final reality can never be known.