A Science of Ufology
In 1979 James Oberg won the New Scientist/ Cutty Sark Whisky prize for the best research on UFOs with an essay entitled The Failure of the 'Science' of Ufology. He argued that ufology "refuses to play by the rules of scientific thought". Here I want to present the view that the main problem in ufology is not a failure to follow certain logical and methodological procedures of the kind outlined by philosophers of science, but the fact that it has a social basis in popular culture, rather than the elite culture of science.
From this basic problem of its position in popular culture, a number of factors follow which influence its attempts to become scientific.
Firstly, there is limited finance available, this being confined to the funds of ufologists themselves, instead of government or institutional budgets. A situation which severely circumscribes the type of research which can be carried out.
Secondly, the lack of funds means that ufologists have to pursue their research in the spare time they have left after earning a living. This means that ufology is affected by the demands of work and family life which limit the amount of time which can be spent on research by of the membership of UFO groups in Britain
There is no clearly defined role for ufologists: some see themselves as scientists, but others see their role as closer to that of the social worker, providing help for those disturbed by UFO experiences, and yet others model themselves on the police investigator or detective. Also there is no uniform training procedure; there are no standards to which ufologists must conform (although ethical guidelines and training programmes are emerging). There is not even a clearly defined body of ufological literature for people to be socialised into: the boundaries of ufology are not at all clear.
The result is that ufologists view the subject in widely differing ways: some treat it as a hobby, others as an entertainment, of as a form of religion, as well as those who wish to study it scientifically. In any case, most ufologists have had little scientific training and so they are not aware of the covert practices of science. That is, tacit knowledge, such as how to present research, set arguments in context, show a knowledge of respected references, etc.
There is no coherent body of knowledge in ufology: information is drawn from a wide variety of areas. This is partly due to overlap with the 'cultic milieu' that area of popular culture concerned with metaphysics, the occult, new religions, the unexplained, etc. This milieu has grown considerably since the mid-1960's and has well developed social networks making it very easy for ufologists to come into contact with such subjects as astrology, ley-lines and occultism, once they begin research.
Not only that, but there is the social movement which has grown up around UFOs and which appears to be fundamentally suspicious of science. The original literature on UFOs was concerned with the failure of science to investigate UFOs in an adequate manner. The link between science and the government (in the USA predominantly) in a conspiracy to conceal information about UFOs, and general distrust of government and science following the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War 11. The suspicion of science which lies at the heart of the UFO social movement is likely to hinder those attempting to develop scientific research on UFOs.
4. Information Distribution.
Ufologists have little control over their image in the press, so that UFO reports are frequently treated as 'human interest stories' rather than hard news. Also there are no clearly defined spokespersons for the subject which means that fringe people get access to the media and are portrayed as representative of ufology.
In addition, ufologists have little access to scientific journals. This is partly due to the exclusiveness of science which, in order to maintain its own boundary, associates rejected subjects with magic and occultism, and defines them as 'pseudo science'. It follows from the preceding points that if ufology wishes to become more scientific, it must:
a. Detach itself completely from the social movement that has grown up around UFOs, and keep itself separate from the 'cultic milieu'.
b. Obtain some control over the way the subject is portrayed in the Press, establishing clearly defined media spokespersons. c. Gain access to scientific journals by connecting UFOs to existing problems in the various areas of science and through the recruitment of scientists.
c. Gain access to scientific journals by connecting UFOs to existing problems in the various areas of science and through the recruitment of scientists.
d. Establish a clearly defined social role for ufologists, make sure new members are properly trained, and restrict recruitment to those who wish to treat the subject as a science, rather than a hobby or entertainment.
Of course, ufologists may not wish to attempt to become acceptable to orthodox science by adopting the above procedures of institutionalisation and professionalisation. Instead they may wish to attempt to change science in some way, and it could be argued that the best way to achieve this is by opposing orthodoxy.