UFOs and the Boundaries of Science – Boston Review

Aug 4, 2021

19 Min read time

Astrophysicist J. Allen Hynek displays a photo of a fake UFO at a 1966 press conference. Image: AP

This summer, a defense report and a new Harvard research project have renewed the public’s interest in UFOs. But neither are likely to change many minds.

On June 25 of this year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a brief report entitled “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.” It fulfilled a 2020 directive from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired at the time by Marco Rubio, which ordered the national intelligence director to publish an unclassified, public appraisal of the “potential aerospace or other threats posed by the unidentified aerial phenomena to national security, and an assessment of whether this unidentified aerial phenomena [UAP] activity may be attributed to one or more foreign adversaries.” The request came partly as a response to news reports that Navy personnel had, in recent years, filed a number of incident reports involving UFOs.

Since 1947, UFOs have been caught in cycles of periodic, animated interest from government officials, enthusiasts, and scientists. But results are always inconclusive.

In the lead-up to the report’s release, both believers and skeptics were abuzz with anticipation. Chatter on social media was lively, and the self-styled crusader for government disclosure about UFOs, former intelligence officer Luis Elizondo, announced he would run for Congress if the report seemed misleading.

In the end, the preliminary assessment proved a mixed bag. Enthusiasts could be buoyed by the government’s admissions that most reported UFOs were real objects, that only 1 in 144 could be definitively explained, and that fear of ridicule had thus far stymied witnesses and thereby inhibited effective inquiry. Debunkers, on the other hand, could point to the fact that most reports suffered from a lack of “sufficient specificity,” that the overwhelming majority of UAP demonstrated conventional flight characteristics, and that there remained a great many mundane explanations for the phenomena. All sides felt vindicated, all could claim victory.

And so, ambiguity reigns. To anyone familiar with the history of unidentified flying objects, this represents a familiar state of affairs. The first modern report of a UFO took place in Washington State in 1947, and since then the phenomenon has been caught in cycles of periodic, animated interest from government officials, civilian enthusiasts, and scientists. During such moments, it always seems that the riddle of UFOs is about to be solved. But the result is always inconclusive findings and a dispersal of interest, leaving few minds changed and everyone returned to their corners to await the bell for the next round. The seeming effervescence of our current moment notwithstanding, it’s doubtful we should expect anything different this time around.

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It’s easy to forget that, not long ago, the media was not giving regular updates on UFOs.

This most recent fanfare surrounding UFOs—or UAP, as those seeking distance from UFOs’ outsize reputation now prefer—began in December 2017, when the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Politico all published exposés revealing the existence of a secret government program which, between 2007 and 2012, had investigated UFOs. Then followed viral videos of Navy pilots encountering unusual objects (reported upon in the same outlets); a cable television series on the incidents featuring Elizondo and former Blink 182 band member Tom DeLonge; announcement of the first human-detected interstellar object to enter our solar system (’Oumuamua); and a highly publicized, though admittedly frivolous, attempt to storm Area 51 in Nevada. And in July, astronomer Avi Loeb announced the creation of a new project at Harvard University, called Galileo, that will use high-tech astronomical equipment to seek evidence of extraterrestrial artifacts in space and possibly within Earth’s atmosphere. This follows closely on the publication of Loeb’s book Extraterrestrial, in which he argues that ’Oumuamua might be an artificial light sail made by an alien civilization.

It’s easy to forget that, not long ago, the media was not giving regular updates on UFOs. On the contrary, during the past two decades, public discussion of UFOs has been limited. But interest in UFOs has cycled through a couple of phases of ups and downs. The 1960s ushered in a revival of the supernatural in popular culture that flourished throughout the seventies, eighties, and into the nineties. If you’re old enough—say, over the age of forty—you may still have memories of Leonard Nimoy narrating the occult and mystery TV series In Search Of (1977–82); of listening to interviews with telepathic spoon benders and alien abductees on the daytime talk shows of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Phil Donahue; or of browsing through the extensive paranormal section at your local public library or Waldenbooks. New Age philosophy, extrasensory perception, exorcisms, reincarnation, telekinesis, astrology, channeling, psychic healing, cryonics, Satanic ritual abuse claims: UFOs were sucked up into this paranormal wave and boosted by the lively syncretism of it all. The rising paranormal tide lifted all boats.

All this publicity surrounding the supernatural also gave rise to a revival of debunking, with prominent figures taking it upon themselves to call out erroneous claims and expose frauds. In 1976 a group of dedicated skeptics founded the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), headed initially by philosopher Paul Kurtz and sociologist Marcello Truzzi. At the organization’s inaugural conference, Kurtz expressed worry about the growing number of “cults of unreason and other forms of nonsense.” Noting the popularity of related beliefs in Nazi Germany and under Stalinism, he lamented the fact that “Western democratic societies are being swept by other forms of irrationalism, often blatantly antiscientific and pseudoscientific in character.” Skeptics needed to be decisive. “If we are to meet the growth of irrationality,” he insisted, “we need to develop an appreciation for the scientific attitude as a part of culture.” During the seventies and eighties, a number of well-known personalities associated with SCICOP—including aviation journalist Philip J. Klass, illusionist James Randi, and astronomer Carl Sagan—agreed and assumed the roles of public myth-busters.

Mudslinging over convictions is familiar to historians of religion, a domain of human existence marked by deep divisions over interpretations of belief. But science has often found itself engaged in similar debates and conflicts.

Over the last fifty years, the mutual antagonism between paranormal believers and skeptics has largely framed discussion about unidentified flying objects. And it often gets personal. Those taking seriously the prospect that UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin have dismissed doubters as narrow-minded, biased, obstinate, and cruel. Those dubious about the idea of visitors from other worlds have brushed off devotees as naïve, ignorant, gullible, and downright dangerous.

This kind of mudslinging over convictions is certainly familiar to historians of religion, a domain of human existence marked by deep divisions over interpretations of belief. But science too has found itself engaged in similar debates and conflicts over the centuries. Venerated figures and institutions have regularly taken it upon themselves to engage in what has been dubbed “boundary work,” asserting and reasserting the borders between legitimate and illegitimate scientific research and ideas, between what may and what may not refer to itself as science.

When scientists engage in boundary work, they are doing something more than saying “this is true” or “that is false.” Instead, they are setting up the ground rules for what will be considered acceptable questions, methods, and answers when it comes to doing science. In essence, they are saying, “this is a question we may pursue in science” or “that is an impermissible way of conducting an experiment.” And there are any number of examples of this in the modern world.

Take psychology, for instance. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, it was a subject that largely fell under the domain of philosophy. Then, during the second half of the century, some scholars interested in psychology took their cue from the natural sciences and started conducting experiments with animals and human beings. In this way, psychology began to establish itself as an independent social scientific field. That status remained contested, however, and psychologists had to defend their claims of being a legitimate science for decades. Boundary work was essential to this mission. So, when prominent researchers such as William James, Frederic Myers, and Eleanor Sidgwick argued that psychical research—the study of the power of mediumship, telepathy, clairvoyance, and life after death—should be included as part of academic psychology, many practitioners bristled. Experimentalist Wilhelm Wundt, Science editor James Cattell, and Harvard psychologist Hugo Münsterberg were just some of the influential figures to repudiate the phenomena as “nothing but fraud and humbug” and to bemoan research about them for “doing much to injure psychology.” Their judgments eventually won the day and, as a result, parapsychology was shifted from science to pseudoscience.

• • •

Boundary work has also been evident in policing the how and what of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). When SETI takes the form of astronomers using telescopes to seek evidence of intelligent radio signals and mechanical objects in outer space, it is accepted as a mainstream (though, admittedly, underfunded) academic pursuit. The study of UFOs, on the other hand, is brushed off as pseudoscience. UFO investigation has, consequently, been largely privately funded and conducted by committed individuals in their free time.

This stark divide did not happen overnight, and its roots lie in the postwar decades, in a series of events that—with their news coverage, grainy images, celebrity crusaders, exasperated skeptics, unsatisfying military statements, and accusations of a government cover-up—foreshadow our present moment.

When astronomers use telescopes to seek evidence of extraterrestrials, it is accepted as a mainstream academic pursuit. The study of UFOs, on the other hand, is brushed off as pseudoscience. This stark divide did not happen overnight.

It all started in June 1947, when a private pilot, Kenneth Arnold, reported seeing a group of bat-like aircraft flying in formation at high speeds near Mt. Rainier. He described their motion to the media as moving like a saucer would if skipped across water, and an enterprising journalist had found his headline: he christened them “flying saucers.” That summer, flying saucers were reported across the United States, and the press began wondering what exactly was going on.

The thought that the objects might have been extraterrestrial visitors did not rank highly on the list of possibilities considered by most people at the time. A Gallup poll published just a few weeks after the Arnold sighting asked Americans what they thought the things were: while 90 percent admitted having heard of “flying saucers,” a majority either had no idea what they could be or thought that witnesses were mistaken. Gallup didn’t even mention if anyone surveyed brought up aliens. Ten years later, in August 1957, Trendex conducted a similar survey of the American public and found that now over 25 percent believed unidentified flying objects could be from outer space.

Three things had happened in the meantime that made this possible. First was media saturation. Newspapers and magazines across the world covered and outright promoted the flying saucer saga, especially after 1949. Then, what had begun as a distinctly U.S. phenomenon soon became a global one, as UFOs began to turn up in Southern Africa, Australia, Europe, and South America. By the mid-1950s, few in the world could say they had never heard of flying saucers.

Second was the rise of flying-saucers-from-outer-space promoters. In 1950, three influential books by pulp and entertainment writers—Donald Keyhoe’s The Flying Saucers Are Real, Frank Scully’s Behind the Flying Saucers, and Gerald Heard’s The Riddle of the Flying Saucers—hit bookshelves, each arguing that the overwhelming evidence showed that aliens were visiting, more likely than not in response to the detonation of atomic bombs. The authors provided the model for a new kind of public figure: the crusading whistleblower dedicated to breaking the silence over the alien origins of unidentified flying objects.

Third, some Americans were so curious about the phenomenon that they sought out like-minded others. Inspired by the development of science fiction fan clubs and newsletters in the 1930s and ’40s, enthusiasts beginning in the early ’50s organized local saucer clubs where members could meet to discuss the latest developments. By the end of the decade, some had grown into vibrant organizations, with national, even international followings and monthly newsletters which actively solicited contributions from members about their own sightings and theories.

So, by the end of the 1950s, flying saucers didn’t just make news; they had champions who helped make them news. Some enthusiasts, however, believed interest in UFOs needed to be channeled into something more than a hobby or pastime. The Air Force had been conducting its own investigations into the flying saucer phenomenon since 1947. Saucer groups, however, placed little confidence in the military and were especially frustrated by the secrecy surrounding its work. They believed it was time for civilians to seize the day and to begin investigating cases in a more thorough and open manner.

Keyhoe, Leonard Stringfield, Morris Jessup, and Coral and Jim Lorenzen were some of the leading pioneers in this effort. At first, most civilian investigators had to rely exclusively on newspaper and magazine articles for their source materials. By1965, however, the Lorenzens and Keyhoe were directing large organizations (the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization and the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, respectively) with national reach, allowing them to send members into the field to conduct interviews and examine sites. By 1972 the Lorenzens had put together a manual for field investigators, guiding them through the kind of equipment and procedures to use when going about their work.

The first generation of ufologists was buoyantly optimistic. They saw themselves as trailblazers who, though now dismissed, would one day be vindicated when ufology was established as a legitimate research enterprise.

In this way, a new field of study was born—“ufology,” as it was dubbed. That first generation of ufologists was buoyantly optimistic. They saw themselves as trailblazers—it was not uncommon for comparisons to be made to Galileo—who, though now dismissed by the establishment, would one day find their endeavors vindicated when ufology was established as a legitimate research enterprise.

Major scientific associations and most academic scholars saw matters differently. They considered ufology yet another example of a pseudoscience. While some went about publicly debunking its methods and findings, most academics opted to simply pay ufology no heed.

By the mid-1960s, however, a few scientists working at major U.S. universities had reached a different conclusion. They believed that UFOs were genuine physical phenomena that warranted serious scientific study. Northwestern University astronomer J. Allen Hynek was one such figure. Hynek was the scientific consultant to the Air Force in its investigations into unidentified flying objects. At first skeptical about the claims of witnesses, he grew puzzled by the growing number of cases that seemed to defy conventional explanation.

In the early sixties, Hynek began holding UFO discussion meetings in his home with interested colleagues—at first from Northwestern, but then from other universities as well. The group included French computer scientist Jacques Vallée, who would go on to become a leading voice in ufology. Soon, Hynek was referring to the circle as The Invisible College—a reference to the secretive group of seventeenth-century natural philosophers who had touted experimental research and defied church dogma. The name stuck, and continues to be used to refer to academics who study and exchange ideas about UFOs but do so clandestinely for fear of hurting their careers.

Another ufologist who rose to prominence in the 1960s was James McDonald, an internationally respected atmospheric physicist at the University of Arizona. An expert in cloud physics and micrometeorology, he had begun privately looking into UFOs in the late fifties and joined a leading UFO organization. In 1966 he suddenly went public as an outspoken advocate for the position that UFOs were, as he put it, “the greatest scientific problem of our times.” Though a latecomer to the scene, McDonald was a constant public presence, making the case for the scientific study of UFOs in press conferences, public lectures, and TV and radio interviews. He railed against what he considered the Air Force’s incompetence in handling the matter, and he took it upon himself to interview hundreds of witnesses.

Though widely acknowledged to be accomplished and eloquent, many of his fellow scientists found McDonald to be dogmatic and abrasive. So when it was announced in October 1966 that the University of Colorado at Boulder had agreed to serve as the home for a scientific committee funded by the Air Force to study the UFO phenomenon, McDonald was not invited to serve as a member. Like Hynek and Vallée, McDonald instead was asked to consult now and again with the committee, but all three were left out of the group’s day-to-day activities and deliberations.

The project’s director was nuclear physicist Edward Condon, who had spent decades working in and with the government dating back to the wartime Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. His involvement with the military, however, hadn’t stopped him from criticizing it for being too secretive. After the war, he was also a leading voice insisting that civilian authorities be put in control of atomic energy, and he had to face down accusations before the House Un-American Activities Committee on several occasions. Here, then, was a no-nonsense academic, who was not easily intimidated and despised government secrecy. He seemed the ideal choice to head up this first-ever funded scientific study of UFOs by academic researchers.

The Condon Committee began its work in November 1966. Excitement and anticipation surrounded the start of the project. Ufologists, UFO enthusiasts, members of the Invisible College, the Air Force, and the general public all expressed high hopes that the world would finally have an answer to the riddle of the flying saucers. Their enthusiasm was soon quashed. While some ufologists were asked to make presentations before the committee, word inside the Colorado group was that Condon considered the possibility of alien visitors to be preposterous. Disgruntled insiders reported that researchers were being steered toward concluding that the UFO phenomenon had a psychological explanation.

Condon came to consider his involvement in the study of UFOs “the biggest waste of time that I ever had in my life.”

McDonald was careful to cultivate contacts within the Colorado project. His personal papers, now housed in the archives at the University of Arizona, show that he received surreptitious updates from Boulder on an almost daily basis. As he did, he became more and more frustrated by what he saw as Condon’s attempt to stop any serious consideration that UFOs might have extraterrestrial origins. In early 1968 he, along with several people serving on the Condon Committee, confronted Condon with evidence that he had no intention of conducting a legitimate scientific investigation into unidentified flying objects.

The move outraged Condon, who fired the committee members for dereliction of their duties. McDonald went to the media, finding a journalist at Look to write an exposé chronicling what was portrayed as Condon’s incompetent and imperious management of the project. And with that, all bridges had been burned. Ufologists dismissed the work of the committee even before it had released its report in January 1969. McDonald demanded a new scientific study be conducted. The Air Force formally shut down its UFO task force. And Condon came to consider his involvement in the study of UFOs “the biggest waste of time that I ever had in my life.”

• • •

The Condon Committee’s final report did not mince words. “Our general conclusion,” it stated, “is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge”—this despite the fact that around a third of the cases examined remained unexplained. No one was terribly surprised, least of all people in the UFO community. Rather than settling the matter of UFOs for good, it simply escalated the mutual mistrust between believers and skeptics, between amateur ufologists and academic scientists.

Was the Condon Committee a failure then? At first glance, it would appear so. Without question, it fell victim to the political machinations of bad actors such as McDonald. Nevertheless, one has to wonder if any study at the time could have resolved the matter. If the 2020–21 UAP task force found itself confronted with ambiguities and a lack of information, this was surely even more the case in the 1960s.

And it must be said that both back then and today, there are many people for whom the mystery is the matter. UFOs may well be far more interesting to ponder than to actually solve. And fittingly, the decades that followed saw the rise of the UFO as mystery, with increasingly bizarre stories of alien abductions capturing the attention of readers and TV audiences between 1975 and 1995. Yes, there had always been outlier abduction reports dating back to the ’50s and ’60s. But now the floodgates opened, and with them a new generation of UFO advocates.

Chief among them were artist Budd Hopkins, horror writer Whitley Strieber, historian David Jacobs, and psychiatrist John Mack: each came onto the scene in the 1980s and ’90s insisting on the veracity of those claiming to have been kidnapped, examined, and experimented upon by beings from another world. The ufology of investigating the nuts and bolts of unidentified flying objects gave way on the public stage to these new missionaries who simultaneously played the role of investigator, therapist, and advocate to their vulnerable charges.

There are many people for whom the mystery is the matter. UFOs may well be far more interesting to ponder than to actually solve.

In many ways, it was Mack’s involvement that signaled both the culmination and end of the headiest days of alien abduction. A distinguished Harvard psychiatrist, when Mack began working with and publishing accounts of abductees—or “experiencers,” as he called them—in the early 1990s, he lent the study of extraterrestrial captivity an air of legitimacy it had been lacking. A five-day conference at MIT in 1992 on the alien abduction phenomenon, followed by a book on the subject two years later, brought him the affection of many in the UFO community and the scorn of many of his colleagues. The Harvard Medical School initiated a review of his position; he retained tenure, but after, as review board chairman Arnold Relman later put it, he was “not taken seriously by his colleagues anymore.” Claims of alien abduction have continued since then, but one would have to search far and wide to find a clinician of Mack’s stature who would go on record saying they believed them.

And so here we are a quarter century later, and we are again hearing some rumblings from within the scientific community. Some scientists involved with SETI have publicly called for the interdisciplinary study of UFOs. And now Loeb (another Harvard professor) has announced the Galileo Project. With an initial private investment of nearly $2 million with which to work, the Galileo Project will certainly have access to equipment qualitatively better than what existed in the fifties and sixties. Will this make a difference? Many of Loeb’s colleagues are skeptical about the prospect. If history is any guide, it’s questionable a project like this will succeed in persuading diehard believers and skeptics to rethink their positions.



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