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:


  • 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.


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.  


  • 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

It’s All In The Mind. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia 15, April 1984

This article was originally a paper presented at the second Anglo-French UFO conference held in Brighton, 30th March – 1st April 1984

It would appear that in certain quarters this magazine has gained the reputation of being part of the ‘it’s all to the mind brigade’, whatever that might menu. It seems worthwhile therefore to give a résumé of the sort of ideas about which Magonia Editors are speculating.

First, it must be realised that Magonia is not a monolith. Although we exchange ideas so much that it sometimes becomes impossible to say with certaintly who first thought of what, the Editors do have different views, and fit what follows I can therefore only speak for myself.

When I first became interested in the subject as a schoolboy in the early 1960′s I naturally supported the ETH, and was a hardcore supporter of the ‘nuts and bolts’ school. Having been weaned on Aimé Michel and Donald Kehoe I had no time for contactees. During these early years I read most of the old books on the subject, and swallowed most of the ufological clichés.

My parents were none too happy about my chosen hobby, and warned that many people who believed in ‘flying saucers’ were cranks. With the rashness of youth I disregarded their warnings; but when, in the autumn of 1968, I and a couple of school-friends joined the local flying saucer society I found my parents were right, and that many ufolologists were cranks!

My parents were none too happy about my chosen hobby, and warned that many people who believed in ‘flying saucers’ were cranks

Not only that, but I soon discovered that by reading a dozen or so books on the subject I had obtained as good, or better, a grasp on the subject as people who had allegedly been studying UFOs for 25 years. Many of the members appeared to have read nothing beyond George Adamski, and appeared to have been entranced since about 1952. It occurred to me that many seemingly impressive cases may actually have been investigated by people like this. My doubts grew. It was probably the Apollo 8 moonshot that destroyed my naive faith in the ETH. The idea of electromagnetic spaceships visiting the Earth seemed somehow absurd.My disillusionment made me increasingly open to the ideas of John Keel, whose articles had been appearing in FSR; and John Michel’s Flying Saucer Vision had reawakened an interest in folklore. It was in this climate that I encountered MUFORG Bulletin, and its successor, MUFOB. I was an instant convert!

By now I had also examined Fort’s data for 1904/05, which set UFO reports in a radically new context. I had also begun to take a serious interest in parapsychology, and I soon realised that serious psychic researchers thought along very different lines from the occult gibberish which circulated In UFO groups. The final synthesis was easy. Ufologists had argued that the UFOs had always been with us, and deeply involved with human culture, and acted like apparitions. The answer seemed simple. UFOs were created by people, they were products of the human imagination, and were hallucinatory, like apparitions.

I still thought along fairly radical lines, involving collective hallucinations, psi, idea patterns and a collective unconscious possibly able to alter the physical environment. Over the intervening years I have been forced to de-escalate hypotheses as it became clear that a far wider range of cases can he explained in ‘normal’ terns than was once thought possible.There are however still a fair number of cases among the 5000 or so in INTCAT which resist interpretation in terms of simple misidentification. These are cases in which an object (with or without humanoids) is observed in someone’s backyard for example, where if the record is a true one, and the report is not a hoax, then it must be either a subjectively real or an objectively real occurrence.

At this point it might be useful to lay aside one of the great red herrings which still crop up in such discussions; the notion that only the mentally ill have hallucinations. There is little evidence to support this idea, which has recently been resurrected by Ian Cresswell [1]. On the contrary, it is generally recognised that psychotic subjects tend to have auditory hallucinations [2], rather than visual.Though interpretation is a matter of dispute, there is no doubt that many people have apparitional experiences [see 3,4,5,6]. Similarly, there is no doubt that people have ‘out of the body’ experiences [see 7, 8] which are also best thought of as being hallucinatory in nature.

The hallucinatory theory of apparitions developed historically because ghosts wore clothes, and were sometimes accompanied by animals or artifacts. Also ghosts could sometimes be seen by one person but not by another. Clearly this tended to dispute the traditional idea of ghosts as temporarily materialised spirit forms, as spirit clothes and spirit carriages are most unlikely. Furthermore, anything actually perceived by means of photons reaching the retina would he visible to all ably sighted people in the vicinity. So if apparitions are not perceived by means of photons, they are by definition hallucinatory.

Various psychic researchers have tried to find ways of accounting for apparitions by non-hallucinatory means [9,10] but without success. On critical exarnination their theories turn out either to mean nothing at all, or to introduce hallucinations by the back door, albeit hallucinations of a rather particular kind.Everyone has one kind of hallucination – dreams, which can be intensely vivid. It is usually assumed that one can tell the difference between sleep and waking, but this might well depend on context. If one wakes up in bed, the previous out-of-context experiences can easily be judged to be dreams.Certain kinds of hallucinatory experience account for a high proportion of apparitional lore. The most common of these are hypnogogic and hypnopompic imagery, and false awakening. These experiences are discussed in the various works of Dr. Peter McKellar  [11, 12, 13].

They were perhaps first extensively treated in a ufological context by John Rimmer and myself in the study of ‘Miss Z’ [14]. The most complete exposition of hypnopompic and hypnogogic experiences in a UFO context is that by the Australian researcher Keith Basterfield [15]. Though Basterfield’s arguments are probably too compressed to convince those who have not closely followed the same lines of reasoning, they are still impressive.

Some critics of Basterfield have tried to argue that hypnogic and hypnopompic experiences are so fleeting that they could not possibly generate UFO experiences. However, an examination of both the standard works by McKellar, and the literature on apparitions, clearly suggests that some of these experiences can be quite prolonged. One critic has gone so far as to suggest, apropos of false awakenings, that people who can’t tell the difference between their dreams and bring awake are stark staring bookers – or words to that effect! Not having had a vivid false awakening, myself, I put this view to a friend who has. He was quite emphatic that the only was to distinguish a false awakening from ‘reality’ was by context. A false awakening was not a hazy dream, but absolutely realistic.

My friend’s false awakening, involved him getting up, shaving, having breakfast, going to work, exactly as in ‘real life’. Eventually he became able to recognise minute differences in a clock. He then realised he was dreaming, and was able to initiate a ‘lucid dream’. If such a false awakening had happened whilst he was sleeping in a chair, and the dream had ended with him ‘returning’ to the chair, there would have been no way in which he could have determined that it was in fact a false awakening.

After a long drive the motorist will commonly report that at some point in the journey he ‘woke up’ to realise that he had no awareness of some proceeding period of time

Other circumstances in which hallucinatory effects can occur include driving at night, piloting a jet plane and watching a radar screen [16, 17, 18]; all circumstances in which UFO experiences are known to occur. ‘Highway Hypnosis’ is a recognised psychological description, as is the ‘time-loss’ which leads motorists to fear UFO abduction. As Graham Reed points out: “After a long drive the motorist will commonly report that at some point in the journey he ‘woke up’ to realise that he had no awareness of some proceeding period of time” [19, p.18]. Reed relates this experience to a loss of attention to surrounding scenery which tends to occur on long, straight stretches of road. It is not difficult to envisage this happening if the subject’s mind was preoccupied with other topics – a frightening UFO experience, say?

A very high percentage of close encounter cases involve people driving through rural areas at night, when conditions are just right for illusions, distortions of judgement, and hallucinations. Although very few such cases are publicised, conversations with motorists will often elicit details of a variety of hallucinatory / illusionary effects, including bizarre distortions of the landscape (compare with the Biet Bridge case), hallucinations of figures crossing the road, etc. No doubt the famous ‘phantom hitch-hiker’ of popular folklore has its origins in the ‘phantom companions’ experienced by fatigued drivers.

The nocturnal driver’s UFO experience is often initiated by a sense of either physical danger (‘a plane’s going to crash on me’) or social danger (‘the cops are after me’). In such situations an explanation in terms of ‘flying saucers’ can be a temporary relief. Since the publicity given to the Betty and Barney Hill story, however, the fear of abduction by space people has grown considerably, and may run in definite, media inspired, social panics.

As Allen Hendry has shown (20] the presence of multiple witnesses in closed groups can lead to mutually reinforced fantasies and panic. In many such cases the published summaries may obscure rather than illuminate the process of mutual reinforcement. An excellent example of this is provided by the Travis Walton case [21]. My interpretation of this is simple: I believe that Walton and colleagues saw some sort of light. Walton jumped out to investigate, whereupon the others, seeing a dash of light and Walton fall, drove off. They then began, probably unconsciously, to escalate the solidity and ominous nature of the threat, in order to justify their panic. By the time they reached the authorities they had no doubt convinced themselves that they had seen a detailed, structured object.

The explanation of Walton’s own experience, I would suggest, was rather similar. Clearly he received a shock of some kind and went into a fugue state, from which he recovered a couple of days later. The abduction sequence was probably a dream triggered by the same fears – though it was probably embellished and polished at a later date.

The emotional reactions encountered in the regression of ‘abduction’ victims is very closely paralleled by those who have undergone regression to ‘past-lives’ [22]. In both these cases such fantasies can generate real physical effects – weals, scars, etc.

Celia Green and Colin McCarthy, in their studies of apparitions, out of the body experiences and lucid dreams, connected these together as examples of ‘metachoric experiences’, in which the percipient’s whole environment is replaced by an hallucinatory one. It is interesting to divide these experiences into two types:

1. ‘Magonia’ intruding into the percipient’s real (apparitions, religious visions, CEIII’s)

2. Percipient intruding into ‘Magonia’ (OOB’s, near-death experiences, abductions, past lives).

The second type involves a much more complete break with consensus reality, and can generate profound symbolism and powerful emotional responses.If metachoric experience can be generated by external stimuli then we may have a clue to some of the truly extraordinary cases of misperception in which the moon and Venus appear to generate extreme effects. Could a misperception of the moon induce a metachoric experience in which all sorts of bizarre effects could be encountered? I think it highly probable that the ‘true’ UFO experience is this subjective experience which manifests itself along a continuum from misperception, triggered hallucination, metachorlc experience, dream, hoax, fiction.

If profound subjective responses can be generated by the moon or advertising planes, then they can equally be produced by plasmas, earthquake lights, or a wide spectrum of poorly understood phenomena

Before outraged readers object that this does not account for XYZ, let me make it clear that I am not placing any real limitation on the kind of phenomena both physical and psychological which might trigger such experiences. If profound subjective responses can be generated by the moon or advertising planes, then they can equally be produced by plasmas, earthquake lights, or a wide spectrum of poorly understood natural phenomena. If so, then scientific advance may be able to isolate further ‘core’ phenomena.

Nor can a discussion of mechanism really dispose of matters of ultimate causation. I cannot prove, for example, that demons are not giving people metachoric experiences, or causing them to misinterpret the moon as a spaceship; although I don’t think they are. Nor could anyone prove it: some areas are beyond rational analysis, and must presumably be taken as articles of religious faith.

It must be further emphasised that the UFO experience is not ‘all in the mind’ in the sense of being the product of the imagination of isolated individuals. It is a social and cultural phenomenon much more than a psychological one. The whole problem of the content of the kind of experiences I have been discussing is wholly unresolved. Why, for example, should hypnogogic imagery involve ‘faces in the dark’? What are the reasons behind the transcultural stereotyping in UF0 experiences?In recent years the interests of the Editors of this magazine have been increas-ingly concentrated, not on individual anomalous experiences, but on the social context within which such experiences take place, and which generates them. The experiences both condition, and are conditioned by, the beliefs of society by a process of mutual feedback. Within a social context many apparently ‘absurd’ beliefs and experiences have depth and meaning.

Research along these lines is still severely hampered because so many people in different academic disciplines remain ignorant of each others’ work and ideas. So long as this situation persists there will be a role for the non-specialist, who is not tied to a rota of routine professional reading, and who can speculate freely where academic reputations fear to tread.


  • 1. CRESWELL, Ian S. ‘Objections to the BT Hypothesis’, Magonia 11.
  • 2. WEST, Donald J. ‘Visions and Hallucinatory Experiences; a comparative appraisal’, International Journal of Parapsychology, Winter, 1960.
  • 3. TYRELL, G N M  Apparitions, Duckworth, 1953.
  • 4. GREEN, Celia and Colin McCREEERY, Apparitions, Hamilton, 1975.
  • 5. McKENZIE, Andrew, Apparitions and Ghosts. Barker, 1971.
  • 6. McKENZIE, Andrew, Hauntings and Apparitions, Heinemann, 1982.
  • 7. GREEN, Celia. Out of the Body Experiences, Ballantine, 1973.
  • 8. BLACKMORE, Susan. Beyond the Body, Heinemann, 1902.
  • 9. HART, Hornel, et. al.  Six Theories of Apparitions
  • 10. ROGO, D Scott  An Experience of Phantoms, Taplinger, 1974.
  • 11. McKELLAR, Peter. Imagination and Thinking Cohen A West, 1950.
  • 12. McKELLAR, Peter. Experience and Behaviour, Penguin, 1968.
  • 13. McKELLAR, Peter. Mindsplit, Dent, 1979.
  • 14. ROGERSON, Peter and John RIMMER. ‘Visions In the Night’, MUFOB, ns.4.
  • 15. BASTERFIELD, Keith. Close Encounters of an Australian Kind Reed, 1981.
  • 16. WILLIAMS, R. W. ‘Highway Hypnosis, an hypothesis’, International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 1965.
  • 17. LUWIG, Arnold M. In TART, Charles (ed.) Altered States of  Consciousness, Wiley, 1969.
  • 18. BROWNFIELD, C. Isolation: Clinical and Experimental Approaches, Random House, 1968.
  • 19. REED, Graham. ‘The Psychology of Anomalous Experiences Random House, 1968
  • 20. HENDRY, Allen. The UFO Handbook, Doubleday, 1979.
  • 21. BARRY, Bill. Ultimate Encounter, Pocket Books, 1978.
  • 22. WILSON, Ian. Reincarnatlon, Penguin, 1902.

 Read this article in conjunction with Jacques Scornaux’s presentation at the same conference, ‘The Rising and limits of a Doubt’

The Rising and the Limits of a Doubt. Jacques Scornaux

From Magonia 15, April 1984

This article was originally presented as a paper at the Anglo-French UFO Conference held in Brighton in February 1984

Over the past few years a growing number of French ufologists have become increasingly doubtful about the existence of UFOs as a genuinely original physical phenomenon. I should like to analyse briefly the origins and limits of this doubt.

The first French ufologist to have said “the emperor has no clothes” was Michel Monnerie, in two hotly debated books. [1] He was until then a very classical ufologist, and a member of the editorial board of Lumieres dans la Nuit, the leading UFO magazine in France, from which post he was fired after publication of his second book. Monnerie’s reasons for doubting can be Summarized in two main arguments:

1. The non-specificity of the residue of unexplained cases – in other words the lack of distinction between explained and unexplained cases: exactly the same patterns and the same characteristics appear in both sets of cases. Indeed, cases with typical UFO effects have been explained: electro-magnetic effects, landing traces, humanoids, effects on animals, physiological effects, etc. I personally have investigated with friends a case which involved two witnesses, a burnt trace in a field and a howling dog – it was the rising moon: The unexplained cases have no unique peculiarities.

2. The continuity between the trivial and the extraordinary: for any phenomenon it is possible to define a set of median, or most probable characteristics (for size, colour, speed, etc.). But all these parameters are distributed about the median, and sometimes the appearance of a phenomenon is very far from the median, because of the inherent variability of the phenomenon, because of had sighting conditions or misrepresentation by the witness. It follows that the further the characteristics are from the median, the less will people be able to recognise the true nature of the phenomenon. For Monnerie, UFOs are situated at the ends of the distribution function, at the ends of a bell-shaped curve. They are thus ‘fringe phenomena’ of a larger set of phenomena, but their peripheral location is not perceived as such because ufologists remove the more central part of the curve, where the less strange phenomena are identified by the witnesses themselves or by the field investigators. Ufologists, Monnnerie says, arbitrarily call the minor misinterpretations ‘false UFOs’ and the major ones ‘true UFOs’, and do not realise that there is a perfect continuity between the two series, and that the difference between them is of degree not of nature.

But by what process does a well-balanced person (even sceptical ufologists accept that psychological cases are rare) interpret an unrecognised phenomenon as a high strangeness UFO? According to Monnerie, when there is a lessening of attention or if the witness becomes anxious, he lives in a sort of daydream. He distorts the observed phenomenon and transposes it through the unconscious influence of a rumour or myth. One of the great myths of our time Monnerie says, is the extraterrestrial concept, because it is so well suited to our scientific and technological civilization. But it must be emphasised that this type of serious misinterpretation is not pathological, and can happen to anyone. A physical support, a real object which is not identified, is always necessary; it is not a perception without object, it is not an hallucination.

Monnerie’s hypothesis was not exactly welcomed by French ufologists. But now, some years later, the situation has markedly changed. Why? It happened that as time went by an increasing number of allegedly “hard” cases – great “classics” of ufology – have been explained, not by sceptics, but by ufologists themselves. Let’s quote some examples: the well-know Leroy, Kansas, “calfnapping” case of 1897 has been explained by Jerome Clark as a hoax [2]; the famous photograph from Salem, Massachusetts, 1952 has been explained by Hynek as a reflection of lights on a window [3]; the very complex case of San Jose de Valderas, Spain, which involved two allegedly independent photographers and an object left on the ground by the UFO has been explained by Claude Poher and myself as a hoax [4].

There are serious doubts also about the renowned UFO accident case at Ubatuba – it might be an accident indeed, but involving a rocket launched by the Brazilian Army [5]. Almost all of the often quoted sightings by American astronauts have received very mundane explanations, and Hynek himself has admitted it [6]. The complex set of sightings in the north of France on October 3rd, 1954 was in fact caused by the moon (in one of these cases the moon allegedly landed, and later took off!) [7]. As a last example, the intricate French case of Taize in 1972, which had the honour of being published in FSR [8], has recently been explained by Bertrand Meheust as powerful lights around a house on the other side of the valley.

Apart from facts like these, more theoretical studies also reinforced sceptical attitudes. Several authors pointed out the many analogies of UFO sighting details with the occupations, the psychology and the fields of interest of the witnesses involved, or with traditional and classical symbols (9]. Let us also mention Alvin Lawson’s experiments: imaginary abductions induced by hypnosis gave the same details as the allegedly real abductions aboard UFOs (10]; this Is a good example of non-specificity [11].

Above all there was, for French ufologists, Bertrand Meheust’s book [12]. Meheust is not a sceptic, but the many similarities he points out between science fiction and UFOs in fact support the psycho-sociological hypothesis: almost all the UFO patterns were already present in SF novels before the Second World War (shapes, behaviour, types of entity, solid lights, physical effects, etc.). Why then search for an exotic explanation, if human symbolism and inventiveness are quite sufficient?

Firstly, it goes without saying, but goes even better for saying it, that the kind of doubt I am speaking about has absolutely nothing in common with the attitude of the lifelong sceptics

But this new and pervasive form of scepticism has its limits. Firstly, it goes without saying, but goes even better for saying it, that the kind of doubt I am speaking about has absolutely nothing in common with the attitude of the lifelong sceptics. The doubt of some French ufologists is only based on a thorough analysis of the facts and not on prejudice. No-one amongst these new French ufologists has any scientific or philosophical prejudice against the possible existence of extraterrestrial visitors or paranormal phenomena. I am certain that they are ready to reverse their attitudes if the facts require it.

Secondly, I and most of my colleagues continue to believe that there remains a small residue (although much tinier than we believed some years ago) of unexplained sightings (or perhaps we have to say more cautiously “not yet explained sightings”). But if explained and unexplained cases reveal the same patterns, what distinguishes these residual cases? Well, essential characteristics which are external to the phenomenon: number and quality of witnesses, multiple independent witnesses, psychological circumstances that exclude a hoax, or the absence of a suitable support for a misinterpretation.Let’s recognise that the reasons why we consider such and such a case as genuine are often difficult to make explicit: it is more a feeling than clear-cut reasoning. This is not to say that it is pure belief, but it may alas appear as belief to sceptics, for we have no real proof. Statistical evidence, as presented by Jacques Vallee, James McCampbell, or Claude Poher, is no longer valid, because many cases on which they are based have now been explained, and we often lack sufficient information on the remaining ones [13].

As I wrote some years ago [14], our ufological quest is a quest for the non-transmittable: although we may squire a personal conviction, we cannot pass this conviction on to ‘good faith’ sceptics (or at least not to many of them). All cases, even the ‘hardest’ ones, contain elements that legitimate a doubt. For instance, the famous Boianai, New Guinea, sightings appear at first glance to be very ‘hard’: many witnesses, object seen at short distance for some time, with humanoids and many observable details. However, Hynek had to concede that a doubt remained, because the position in the sky, and the time of disappearance of the main UFO fitted the movement of Venus [l5].

This continuing absence of really convincing proof (the problem is the same in parapsychology) is too general in this kind of phenomena to be merely bad luck. To me, it has only two possible explanations: either there is no new physical phenomenon – this is the psycho-sociological hypothesis described above – or we are faced with a phenomenon which deliberately escapes proof, that is, a phenomenon characterised by what my friend Bertrand Meheust called – in English in his French book! – “elusiveness”.

To try and solve this dilemma, I think that one of the most urgent tasks for ufologists is to attempt to determine whether the non-specificity is really total. Are there patterns which would be unique to the unexplained cases? Perhaps some details which do not appear in science fiction may be unique, like some types of physical traces, or sudden disappearances or the fusions and dislocations of UFOs. This is one of the main reasons why French ufologists recently launched the ‘Concreting Operation’, that consists of defining new and more severe credibility criteria for selecting really solid cases. Indeed it appeared that cases which figured high in the usual credibility scoring were nevertheless explainable.These new criteria, which are presently being developed by a small group of French researchers, fall into four categories: criteria concerning the phenomenon characteristics, concerning the sighting conditions, concerning witnesses, and concerning the field investigation.

More generally speaking, ufologists have now to think about the following question: what methods would allow us, on the basis of UF0 sighting reports and without prejudice about the solution, to distinguish phenomena relevant to behavioural sciences from phenomena relevant to physical sciences, and to distinguish, in the two subsets, known from new phenomena?

In any case, there is no reason to despair. I see at least two certainties in the present state of ufology: 

1. Ufologists are unanimous, even the most sceptical, on the fact that most UFO sightings have at their base a real physical stimulus that was genuinely not recognised by the witness. Hoaxes and hallucinations are rare.

2. In any event, UFO reports remain an unresolved problem and testify to the existence of at least one unknown phenomenon. Indeed, even if all the reports were triggered by the misperception of a known phenomenon (this is the minimal hypothesis) the distortion of reality would be so great and so frequent that this particular type of misperception would be in its own right an important new phenomenon, which would deserve a thorough study. This remains true even if there is a physically originated residue, because the numerous serious misrepresentations have to be explained in any case.

Because of this second certainty, ufology would not disappear if there were no new physical phenomenon. A psycho-sociological phenomenon of misinterpreted and distorted perception may be less appealing than an extraterrestrial or parapsychological one, but when it has the extent and persistence of the UFO phenomenon, is nevertheless revolutionary from the standpoint of present theories in the behavioural sciences. This, is clearly emphasised by the near absence of thorough studies of UFOs in the human sciences literature. Apart front Jung’s hook, there are practically no books, PhD theses or scientific journal articles about sociological aspects of UFOs [16]. This absence is quite strange in view of the rich study material UFO reports provide for behavioural sciences. Some sociologists even manage to write whole books on modern myths, of rumours in our society, without any allusion to UFOs! It is as if UFOs were put, as Meheust puts it, into “semantic-brackets”.

The extent and persistence of the UFO phenomenon, is revolutionary from the standpoint of present theories in the behavioural sciences

I think that this profound reluctance stems from the central dogma of the most influential school of thought in present day sociology, namely that man is an essentially rational being, whose behaviour is in most cases entirely predictable. The UFO phenomenon is an ideal case to point out the pervasiveness of myths, of irrational behaviour, even in our technological society (and to demonstrates the falseness of this dogma) because it is new (so new we can study its origin and development), frequent and perceptive (that is, based on a false perception, contrary to most myths and rumours which are based only on false reasoning and which can he qualified as cognitive). For these reasons it is also ideal for understanding the function that myths fulfil in our society. This is really revolutionary, but perhaps more in a political than a scientific sense, because both capitalist and Marxist theories are based on the assumption that man is rational. Both give a pre-eminent role to economic causes in human behaviour, and economic reasons are essentially rational.

Thus we ufologists are in any event revolutionaries! However, let us not exaggerate our power: of course we cannot seriously shake the rationalist or “economistic” dogma of our society, but we may and must be watchers, collecting and preserving as much information as we can, in the hope that sometime in the future mankind will be sufficiently adult to study these data without any prejudice in either direction [17].

References for this article will be added shortly

An Account of Experimental UFO Hoaxing. David Simpson and Ken Raine

From Magonia 75, July 2001


It was interesting to read Magonia 74’s Editorial Notes about the 1970 Warminster photographic hoax, twenty five years after publication of Experimental UFO Hoaxing in MUFOB New Series 2, and we thought that some background information, plus details of a couple of other UFO hoaxes might be of interest for the Hoax Special edition. As recorded in MUFOB [1] the photographic hoax was designed “…to provide those watching on Cradle Hill with a simple visual stimulus, to introduce photographic evidence inconsistent with the stimulus and to observe the effect this evidence had on subsequent investigation, recording and publicity” – in other words to test the investigators who got involved.

The motivation and plan came after about two years of investigation by members of the Society for the Investigation of UFO Phenomena (SIUFOP), which formed in 1967 at a time when such groups seemed to be forming frequently – due the high level of interest in the subject in the mid-1960s. It all seems very naïve now but the society started with about ten members, with an average age around 19 years. Like most of the other groups at the time, its members were aware of frequent press reports which, if taken literally, meant that there certainly were odd things to be seen in the sky – there could not be smoke without fire we believed.

We set about finding and interviewing witnesses, the first near the South Downs in Sussex. They turned out to be interesting but clearly not the most impressive of observers, with stories that got more elaborate with each telling. Nonetheless we still believed, from the sheer number of sightings being reported, that something really was flying around the skies. So strong was this feeling that we decided to spend a night watching the sky from Chantry Hill, a nearby vantage point on the Downs, with a tripod-mounted camera at the ready. Apart from a few satellites, nothing was seen but we appreciated that statistically it might take more than one night to see something! Undaunted by sub-zero temperatures, four members returned the following evening for a second night of watching. Tired but full of youthful enthusiasm, we drove to the same spot.

A sighting!

SIUFOP Newsletter reported [2]: “No sooner had we reached the top of the hill than the driver pointed excitedly to a point of light a few degrees above the horizon. We all saw it. It was a light of a kind that we had never seen before. It moved slowly upwards, across, then disappeared. Two appeared from behind the horizon in the same place as the first was seen, drifting upwards, across, and then darting a little. Up to six were seen dancing around together in a random pattern changing colour from time to time. Time exposure photographs ranging between 5 and 20 seconds were taken. After an hour and a half or so, the dancing lights appeared less frequently and we had run out of film.

Convinced that the film contained images of world-shattering importance we rushed home in the early hours to develop it but were puzzled and disappointed by what we saw. We were expecting up to six line-traces to have been recorded on each image (lines caused by photographing a moving light with a long time-exposure) but the images all looked roughly the same with no more than two line-traces per frame. The lights were only a fraction of one degree above the visible horizon too, much lower than thought. A week later we were back at Chantry Hill, no longer tired or so fired-up with faculty-dimming enthusiasm, and observed car headlights on a distant hill – a hill that had not been visible in the weather conditions prevailing the week before.

To this day the lights can be seen there; they look so obviously like car headlights it is difficult to believe that tiredness and enthusiasm could have warped our observational skills so much. We had converted the simplest of white lights, moving mostly horizontally, into variously coloured, multiple objects moving vertically. Reasonably good photographs had made analysis possible and were it not for them we would still be retelling stories of the strange lights in the sky; if asked whether they might have been car headlamps we would surely have rejected the possibility.

It wasn’t the only time we fooled ourselves either. At around the same period three members of SIUFOP were walking along a dark, frosty, lane surrounded by trees, illuminated only by moonlight and in an area where umpteen odd lights had been reported. They were heading for an interview with a witness but noticed the silhouette of a tall object through the trees to one side. Fully spooked by the circumstances they thought they had stumbled on a landed machine of some sort. Falling over a fence to get a better look they were alarmed to see a red glow at its base and presumed it was about to take off again. They prepared to retreat in haste, although not before taking a photograph with a flashbulb (it was before electronic flashguns were commonplace). The illumination from the flashbulb was enough to identify a sand-washing machine sitting in a quarry; there was also an inhabited workman’s caravan near its base with red curtains in its windows! The photograph is still amusing.

Earlier Warminster photographs

Undaunted – we presumed that others had not been so easily fooled – in February 1968 a party set off for Warminster where, according to reputation, we stood a better chance of seeing the real thing. There we met none other than Arthur Shuttlewood who showed us his collection of photographs, supposedly of lights in the sky over the local hills. They consisted of white lines wandering across a black background; some were single, some dotted and some showed multiple images of wiggly lines.

On returning home we successfully replicated the three broad styles of the photographs. One had resembled the dotted lines produced by photographing tumbling earth-orbit rocket casings as they passed overhead, periodically reflecting light downwards. Most others were clearly not satellites but the second style could be closely imitated using a small neon bulb (similar to those sometimes fitted to the back of 13 amp plugs). Waving it in a dark room, in front of an open-shuttered camera, gave just the characteristics [3] seen in the Shuttlewood collection. The third style of photograph could be produced by moving the lamp slowly in front of a mirror, again in a dark room in front of an open-shuttered camera. This produced three wiggly lines ‘flying in perfect formation’. The first and brightest image was that of the lamp seen directly by the camera, the second brightest image was a reflection of the lamp from the aluminised (or silvered) back surface of the mirror, and a much fainter third image was a reflection of the lamp from the mirror’s front glass surface.

We even developed techniques to help analyse other white-line type photographs. Using an optical microdensitometer [4] made it possible to differentiate between gas-discharge lamps, filament lamps, ‘beam chopped’ lamps and also the nature of their power supplies. Unfortunately we were never allowed to borrow any negatives!

Scepticism set in

We had found out how easy it was for us, and presumably anyone else, to be fooled by simple earthly lights, including plenty of non-car-headlight example [5]; we had seen what we were expecting or wanted to see, and did not observe objectively. Few of our interviewees or other investigators, however, seemed to give much credence to the idea that such misperceptions might be commonplace; there was always a let-out “…but he was a trained airline pilot!” or more commonly “…Ah but you haven’t explained this one…”

Attending lectures organised by the British UFO Research Association did nothing to stem our increasing belief that, whilst UFOs had undoubtedly been observed by lots of people, scientific evidence that they were observations of something unearthly appeared to be non-existent. Most ufologists disagreed with this viewpoint, siding instead with the then fashionable Extra Terrestrial Hypothesis, claiming that there was plenty of good evidence to support it if scientists would only snap out of their pre-conceived beliefs and take the evidence seriously. Several SIUFOP members were, or were training to be, scientists and felt that such views could be put to a scientific test – ufologists should be tested for their observational and investigational abilities. We thought that the best way to do this was to give them something to see and then observe how they investigated the sighting; in other words to conduct a hoax with scientific intention.

First hoax

On 15 July 1968 BUFORA held a National Skywatch, with twenty nine watching points across Britain. One was at Pewley Downs in Surrey; it was organised locally by the Surrey Investigation Group on Aerial Phenomena (SIGAP) and SIUFOP ensured they saw something whose origin was certain. Just before midnight a parachute flare was launched about 3 miles from Pewley Downs in the direction of Godalming. The watchers saw it but no one took a photograph – no one even had a camera ready. Therefore, to be sure that there was at least one photograph of it, David Simpson had to get his own camera out and take it.

Unknown to us, George Hughes, of Amateur Photographer, had been a visitor to the skywatch. He reported [6]: “I wanted to see how such groups carry out there investigations, and to what extent photography was being used. Sadly, it wasn’t; or hardly at all.” Richard Beet, secretary of SIGAP, responded indignantly [7], pointing out that “… a photograph of a red object was taken by a skywatch official, Mr David Simpson”, giving him instant promotion.

On inspecting the photograph Geoffrey Doel, of BUFORA, commented that it could be of a firework. At the following BUFORA meeting, however, the National Skywatch organiser, Edgar Hatvany, dropped this suggestion when he elevated the photograph’s status by proudly waving it saying, “Last year we had a sighting, this year a photograph; next year we will have it in the bag!”

“Last year we had a sighting, this year a photograph; next year we will have it in the bag!”

One year later

In June 1969 SIUFOP went to Warminster, on BUFORA’s next national skywatch day, equipped with some plastic bags and balloon gas (crude helium). The aim was to launch a number of brightly lit torch bulbs and batteries under a single helium-filled plastic bag from Sack Hill, opposite the watchers on Cradle Hill. Our estimate of the bag’s inflated volume and hence buoyancy were not very accurate, however, and it did not take off until we had removed four of its ten battery/lamp packs [8]. It then rose slowly into the sky, drifting silently with the just perceptible wind, crossing the nearby army range at tree-top height.

Even we were particularly surprised by the stunning brightness and spectacular image of the small bulbs against a clear black sky, even when a mile or more distant. (It was in the days before small quartz halogen bulbs were available and we powered 2.5-volt bulbs with 4.5-volt batteries, making the bulbs very white for a short while.) The watchers on Cradle Hill were even more impressed, and it was generally rated the best sighting ever seen there. A second balloon was launched a while later on the western side of Cradle Hill and it drifted much closer to the watchers than the first balloon. Excitement on the hill was electric and emotional. Telepathic communication was claimed with the light bulb, which was said to be as bright as a searchlight and also to be metallic with portholes.

We were all surprised and almost shocked by the reaction. A few simple components had provoked what seasoned watchers were describing as the best sighting ever made. What did that suggest about the credibility of the other sightings in one of the world’s most famous UFO hotspots?

Over the next few weeks we revisited Cradle Hill – it was invariably populated on a Saturday evening – to listen to the gossip. One SIUFOP member had been less than discrete soon after the hoax, letting it be known what had happened. Oddly this explanation was not generally accepted; apparently the objects had changed direction against the wind, so they could not have been lights on a balloon! Also, another sighting was made by three people the following evening where “…the object appeared just like those of Saturday night…” raising the question “Why should any UFO-rigging pranksters hang around Cradle Hill area on Sunday, long after BUFORA members had left?” [9]

BUFORA’s Research Bulletin acknowledged the balloon theory [10] and indeed described it accurately but the consensus was against it.

The Warminster Photographs

Thus we designed a new hoax, to be less deniable, and hence the ‘Warminster Photographs’ came about. In summary, during March 1970 a ground-based purple light was shone from the hill opposite Cradle Hill, a colleague appeared to photograph it, a bogus UFO detector sounded and the film was handed to a stranger who agreed to get it developed. The film had been pre-exposed to show frames of airborne UFOs much stranger than the purple light but they also contained enough serious inconsistencies to allow any competent investigator to question their authenticity. The most experienced investigators in the subject, however, repeatedly pronounced the photographs genuine and failed to spot any of the built-in clues.

At a BUFORA meeting some time later David Simpson publicly pointed out that the case was full of anomalies which probably meant it was a hoax. Ivor McKay and John Cleary-Baker, both BUFORA stalwarts, argued otherwise, confidently pointing out that if it had been a hoax the hoaxer would not have made such mistakes; the very presence of the anomalies apparently made it more certain that the case was genuine. A classical heads they win, tails we lose. John Cleary-Baker then launched Project Warminster and unfortunately asked us if we would investigate the Warminster photographs on behalf of his Project. Soon afterwards he sent signed documents giving us all sorts of authorisations; we didn’t do the job very well.

“The trouble with this SIUFOP lot is they never come down here to see for themselves”

One evening Arthur Shuttlewood was talking to a group of people on Cradle Hill, unaware that we were there; he was moaning about our ‘disbelief’ in the Warminster photographs; “The trouble with this SIUFOP lot is they never come down here to see for themselves” he complained.


It was satisfying to have confirmation of what we suspected was probably going on but it was also disillusioning to find out just how poorly investigations were carried out. We had, after all, started out by presuming that there may be something in the sightings. We repeated the experiments with one or two more UFO hoaxes – repeating experiments is a necessary scientific practice – using kites instead of balloons, and single (hence easier to lift) bulbs that were coated on one side so they would appear to flash irregularly as they rotated in the wind on a suspension thread. Electronic timers were added to delay switch-on until the apparatus was well clear of the ground (to stop the hoaxer being illuminated!) and we became expert at flying kites in the dark.

BBC Nationwide

In the summer of 1972 there was considerable publicity concerning a forthcoming BBC visit to a skywatch on Cradle Hill. We reverted to balloon technology, albeit much smaller ones than the originals, each carrying just one torch bulb. By then we knew that a single over-run bulb was still an impressive sight at a range of one mile or more against a dark sky. But this time we added photographic flashbulbs to the payload, timed to flash after about 2 minutes.

Two balloons were launched, as usual in complete darkness, about 1 minute apart. The weather was perfect – clear and with just the faintest wind blowing – and the balloons carried their winking lights majestically and in tandem across Salisbury plain. We could see across to Cradle Hill and immediately noticed a row of torches, pointing in the direction of the balloons, being flashed on and off. More torches appeared and they were quickly joined by more powerful lights as motorcyclists upended their machines to use the headlamps for even better signalling.

The watchers were thus looking directly at the little points of light in the sky when one of the flashbulbs was triggered. Presuming this to be a response to their signalling they flashed even more enthusiastically and were rewarded when the second flashbulb ignited shortly afterwards.

The BBC interviewed the watchers who again claimed it to be the best sighting they had ever made, some saying that the UFOs had been communicating with their “random yet intelligent” flashings and that the “explosion of light” was in response to the rows of flashing torches and motorbike headlamps.

“These were obviously lights on a silly little balloon that did not and could not replicate the complex flying pattern seen the week before”

After the story was broadcast, on BBC Nationwide, we owned up and were subsequently given a studio interview alongside ufologist Rex Dutta. We showed examples of the plastic bags and torch bulbs etcetera but he refused to believe that he had been hoaxed and the BBC therefore asked us to stage a re-enactment. This we did the following weekend, albeit in rather poorer weather conditions. On seeing the balloon-suspended lights for a second time Rex Dutta declared them to be nothing like the lights of the previous week. “These were obviously lights on a silly little balloon that did not and could not replicate the complex flying pattern seen the week before”. He had been investigating these things for 19 years and “any fool could identify a balloon when they saw one”.


Our experiences and hoaxes of 30 years ago were very interesting, stimulating and disillusioning at the same time but they also demonstrated to us something useful as well – that human beings tend to see what they want, or expect, to see. Very simple stimuli had provoked an astonishing range of entirely imagined attributes including shapes, sizes, colours, motions and other false effects which tended to grow in order to stop a particular belief being disproved. Most disappointing of all was the low calibre of the investigations being undertaken, partly due to a lack of technical knowledge, no desire to be rigorous and a marked tendency to select only those bits of evidence that most suited a particular belief.

Science and scientists

At the time, UFO sightings were argued to be evidence of extraterrestrial visitations (and still are in some parts of the world). Science and scientists, we were repeatedly told, should be more open minded and look into this possibility. What seemed to be constantly bypassed though was an appreciation of what constitutes a scientific claim. To demonstrate that a scientific conclusion is valid, testable evidence has to be provided and the quality and repeatability of the evidence required is related to the significance of the conclusion being drawn. To conclude that UFOs represent evidence of extraterrestrial visitations is a very significant claim and this requires correspondingly high quality, rigorous and testable data as evidence. But instead we had (and have) a loose array of unrepeatable sightings which, when scaled against the observational uncertainties and investigative confusion clearly demonstrated by hoaxes, come nowhere near to providing adequate evidence.

It is often pointed out that maybe 90% of UFO sightings are explainable if an investigator looks hard enough but that science should concentrate on the unexplained remainder. This is a false argument; the fact that they remain unexplained does not make them better evidence. The point was well illustrated by Alan Hendry [11] in his UFO Handbook. He had good statistical data to show that, apart from them remaining unidentified, there was nothing about the unidentified cases to differentiate them from the identified ones; they had just the same mixture of characteristics.

Non-UFO hoaxes

We were aware that our hoaxes were illustrating the characteristics of an existing subject and in the mid 1970s thought that it would be interesting to measure just how easy it might be to create an alternative self-sustaining myth, perhaps triggered by a few pump-priming hoaxes. A while later crop circle stories took hold and again we were confronted with strangely illogical statements like “this circle is too accurate to be a hoax” from the investigators. Just like ufologists they argued that hoaxers (who appeared to be able to replicate any circle on demand) merely got in the way of serious investigations. We were certainly accused of being involved but can say that we did not think up the idea or participate at all!


Hoaxes have been a useful tool for testing observational skills and the investigational abilities of ufologists. They have clearly illustrated that humans see what they want to see and that the quality of UFO investigations is generally very poor indeed.


Notes and references

1. Simpson, David; Experimental UFO Hoaxing, MUFOB New Series 2, March 1976
2. Simpson, David; SIUFOP Newsletter, 1, March 1968
3. The intensity of the light from such gas discharge lamps increases and decreases in time with the alternating mains voltage powering them – essentially going on and off 100 times per second. The human eye cannot see this cycling but if the lamp’s image is moved quickly across a photographic emulsion it is easily recorded. A tell-tale characteristic of this technique is the ‘bunching’ together of the recorded dots as the arm of the waver changes direction from left to right; the slower the arm movement the closer together the dots become. This bunching was certainly evident in Arthur Shuttlewood’s photographs.
4. Densitomer: an instrument which allowed the optical density of negatives to be measured by scanning a narrow beam of light across them.
5. Including searchlights from a film studio reflecting on clouds, aeroplanes at sunset, being in a car ‘followed’ by the moon, and even a spider’s web unusually illuminated by the sun.
6. Hughes, George; Are Ghost Pictures Real?, Amateur Photographer, 136, 31, 24 July 1968
7. Beet, Richard; Reader write: Investigating UFOs, Amateur Photographer, 136, 34, 21 August 1968
8. The six remaining lamps were suspended close to each other and from a distance appeared to be a single source of light.
9. Arthur Shuttlewood; Root Out These Stupid Hoaxers, BUFORA Journal, 2, 12, Summer 1970
10. John Clear-Baker; Editorial comment, BUFORA Journal, 2, 12, Summer 1970
11. Hendry, Alan; UFO Handbook, New York, Doubleday, 1979

A Note on the Battelle Institute Study. Manuel Borraz

Published as a letter in Magonia Supplement 30 August 2000

I would like to say some words on a certain often repeated argument that goes: ‘The results of the Battelle Memorial Institute study showed that the better the sighting, the more likely it is to be unexplainable in terms of known phenomena, hence true UFOs do exist’. This study, commissioned by the USAF in the fifties, found that ‘excellent’ reports contained a higher percentage of ‘unknowns’ than ‘poor’ reports (besides ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’, there was a separate category for ‘insufficient information’ reports, so that couldn’t be counted). But can we really draw any conclusion from such heterogeneous data, such disputable criteria and so many factors playing their roles?

The usual assumption underlying the argument is: “If there were no true UFOs, the most reliable cases would have the lowest percentage of unexplained” I’ll try to show that this is dubious, at best.

The Battelle analysts divided the sightings into reliability groups, based on the quality, completeness and self-consistency of the report and upon the quality and experience of the witness. We can argue about how can this evaluation be accomplished in practice and about its true relevance, but this is not the point that I want to make here.

If we focus on the report side of this concept of reliability, it seems reasonable that the cases considered most reliable are the least likely to have erroneous data or to be incomplete in their descriptions and hence should have the least percentage of unknowns if there were no true UFOs. But what if we focus on the witness side?

  1. We’ll assume that the most reliable witnesses are the least prone to experience misperceptions/misinterpretations that could lead them to report UFOs.
  2. Let’s suppose that most, if not all, UFO cases are explainable, most of them as misperceptions/misinterpretations (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll set aside delusions, hoaxes, etc. ).
  3. The key point is that the most reliable witnesses will report the least number of cases resulting from to misperceptions/misinterpretations, but that those reported will be in the class of those most difficult to explain, since they are not easily fooled by most stimuli, at least under normal conditions.
  4. Therefore, after the analysis, the group of cases with the more reliable witnesses will show the larger percentage of unknowns. Note that in any group of less reliable witnesses, besides these difficult cases we’ll find many cases of misperceptions/misinterpretations more easily resolvable after analysis, that will count as knowns, so lowering the percentage of unknowns.
  5. Finally, this trend will also appear in the overall analysis of cases vs. reliability, since witness reliability is one of the pillars of the general concept of reliability handled in the study. Hence we conclude that the cases considered most reliable should have the higher percentage of unknowns if there were no true UFOs!

Obviously, this is not to say that the Battelle results prove that there are no true UFOs. What I intended to show is that they don’t admit a straightforward interpretation as many ufologists think. I hope the examples below will help to clarify all this. Let’s start with a group of so-called “reliable witnesses” and another of average people. Now imagine that individuals from both groups experience the following situations:

  • a) At night, in a secluded place, members of a sect perform a silent procession, holding torches and wearing black clothes. Casual observers are surprised by strange lights moving in circle near the ground for some minutes.
  • b) An unusual red light (in fact, Venus) seems to approach the witness’s plane and keep pace with it for a while before disappearing at a fantastic speed. Later, the witness will report a wrong date for the event.
  • c) Witnesses observe a landed “flying saucer” and, afterwards, an ascending green light, all arranged by sophisticated pranksters. Observers in both groups report the three sightings above as UFOs. Subsequent analysis fails to solve them and they remain as unknowns.
  • d) A plane brightly illuminated by the sun makes an odd display in the twilight sky.
  • e) A cloud in the upper atmosphere resulting from a ballistic missile secret test is taken for a mysterious nearby phenomenon by some observers. Again, witnesses in both groups report these sightings as UFOs. But this time, subsequent analysis finds the right explanations.
  • f) One night, an observer from the ‘average’ group discovers the hovering lights of a phantom airship. A nearby reliable observer recognizes Venus and Jupiter, very close in conjunction.
  • g) A yellowish disc follows the car of a witness of the “average” group for many miles and, finally, it seems to land behind some trees. Shortly after, a ‘reliable’ observer experiences the same, but when he stops the car to better observe he quickly realises he has been watching the moon. In these two last examples, only observers from the second group (less reliable observers) report seeing UFOs. Analysis comes up later with the correct identifications.

To sum up, the resulting proportion of unknowns in the ‘reliable witnesses’ group is 60% (3 out of 5), while in the ‘average witnesses’ group it is about 43% (3 out of 7)! Hence, even if there were no true UFOs, the cases with most reliable witnesses would have the highest percentage unexplained.

Manuel Borraz, Barcelona, Spain


Ridicule and Ufology. John Rimmer

Originally published in Magonia Supplement, no. 19 September 1999

shipWhat is it that makes someone a sceptical ufologist? Could it be that after becoming interested in the subject through reading popular books and magazines, then studying more detailed reports, serious books and specialist journals, they then decide that the evidence they have uncovered is not enough to justify the belief that UFOs have an extraterrestrial origin? And there are certainly some sceptics who have already made up their minds before studying the topic in any depth. They may have a rigid and dogmatic view of science, and look only at evidence which confirms their existing viewpoint.

But now we learn that there is another type of sceptic. These are people who are sceptics because they are frightened. Frightened of what? Well, in a long Internet discussion recently on UFO UpDates, Jerome Clark has declared that such people are frightened of ridicule. Apparently some UFO sceptics become so upset if people criticise them that they adopt – perhaps subconsciously, Clark suggests – a sceptical attitude that signals to those in the know: “Hey guys, we really don’t believe this stuff, we’re just like you scientific types”.

When this remarkable discovery was posted on UpDates I replied that, yes, some people may trim their ufological views so as not to offend others, but that probably this was confined to people in academic positions who didn’t want to prejudice their jobs or funding. John Mack is someone who has been in this position, although no one could accuse him of adopting a policy of ridicule avoidance during his dispute with Harvard University. However, I couldn’t see that this would apply to your normal, common-or-garden amateur ufologist. Clark would have none of this: “You seem, absurdly, to have reduced us all to the sum of our financial interests!” He continues: “Look to your soul my friend. Magonia and the larger PSH (Psycho-Social Hypothesis) crowd of which it is a part are always going on and on about unconscious motivations of which witnesses and non-PSH theorists are unaware but which nonetheless, according to you guys, drive them to certain experiences, actions and behaviors”.

If we were afraid of ridicule, we wouldn’t be in ufology in the first place; what ridicule there is starts at the moment you profess an interest in UFOs.

Warming to the theme he claims that UFO sceptics and Magonia types “go bonkers” if anyone suggests that they also might have their own unconscious motivations. Now I don’t know about my own unconscious motivations – well I wouldn’t do, would I, because they’re unconscious – but looking around at the sceptical ufologists I know personally, people like Peter Rogerson and Andy Roberts, I don’t notice any great fear of ridicule. A point I made to Clark, which I have had no comeback to, is that if we were afraid of ridicule, we wouldn’t be in ufology in the first place. What ridicule there is starts at the moment you profess an interest in UFOs. Most people outside the field are unaware of the distinctions between ETHers, New Ufologists, Sceptics, Skeptics, Paraufologists, Military Ufologists or whatever. Moving from one group to another is far too subtle to ward off any ridicule from the laity.

I’m reminded of the old political joke:

“You can’t come into the country, you’re a communist.”
“But I’m an anti-communist!”
“I don’t care what sort of communist you are, you still can’t come in.”

Clark is concerned that by adopting a “pelicanist” position (new word for sceptic – too complicated to explain here) Magonia has “effectively ensured that you are not one of those iconoclastic ufologists who question the conventional wisdom on the matter, and thereby have immunised yourselves from ridicule”.

So we must assume that according to Clark the people who are “iconoclastic” and challenge conventional wisdom are the ufologists who promote the ETH, or at least some form of hitherto unknown actual physical phenomenon. But is this so? One person following the Internet exchange wrote to me directly rather than to the mailing list, challenging this assumption. He wrote:

“I would also like to add that the argument could be made that someone who suggests a relation between incubi/succubi attacks and alien abductions, or sleep paralysis and alien abductions, or other dimensional visitations vs hardware in the sky, or spiritual/demonic phenomena, or for that matter attempts to relate the UFO phenomena to the paradigm emerging from quantum physics, is just as likely, if not more likely, to experience raised eyebrows or hostility, as someone suggesting visitors from Alpha Centauri, to a population that believes in UFOs.”

Clark’s response to this, apart from a snide comment about a mis-spelling, was that it shows that anyone who suggests a non-conventional explanation for UFOs is liable to ridicule. So as the topics mentioned by my correspondent cover most of the issues raised by PSH ufologists, presumably they also are liable to ridicule, so there is no particular advantage in being an ETH ufologist if you want to avoid ridicule. Which is of course what I said in the first place.

Like all Internet debates a great deal of other relevant and totally irrelevant material was thrown in including a historical sidetrack on the fine town of Canby, Minnesota, and the delightful neighbourhood of John Dee Cottage. A more relevant contribution from Jenny Randles pointed out that the opinions of friends and co-researchers were liable to influence an individual’s opinion more than some sort of vague “establishment” viewpoint. I agree. I can well imagine walking into The Moon on the Square in Feltham one Tuesday evening and announcing to John Harney that I was going to write a piece for Magonia on UFO propulsion systems – the uneasy silence, the moving to the far end of the table and the sudden interest in the framed local history photographs of old Feltham – and I probably would feel the icy blast of ridicule.

There certainly is ridicule heaped on the UFO subject. Probably the people who suffer from it most are the UFO percipients themselves, and perhaps some of the ridiculous ideas put about by some researchers only adds to this. But are UFO researchers themselves influenced by this? I doubt it. The Internet debate threw up no evidence of it despite dark talk of it influencing us on an unconscious level, and my only advice to ufologists who fear it – ETHers, “Pelicanists”, Sceptics – is if you can’t stand the ridicule get out of the kitchen.