Looking Back And a Couple of Rants

Peter Rogerson
'Northern Echoes', Magonia 45

Looking back over 25 years of reporting and commenting on the world of UFOs, we can see the changing face of fashion and craze: flying saucer detectors, the Allende Letters, ancient astronauts, electronic voice phenomenon, metal bending, the Bermuda Triangle, remote viewing, MIB, the UFO-Bigfoot connection, folklore and fairies; right through to our modern fads of earth lights, MJI2, crashed saucers (the biggest comeback since Lazarus), abductions, psychic questing and crop circles.

Of course, many supposedly new ideas are not that at all. Are the modern abductees really that different from the old contactees? (In a future Magonia article I will argue no.) Isn't one of the differences that ufologists now will actually listen to the strangest tales, whereas a generation ago they shook their heads and said "That's old Mrs Stoatstrangler out into the wide blue yonder again"? Can you be sure now that your memory isn't playing tricks when you fancy recalling that strange woman in the room filled with the smoke of exotic cheroots [But I didn't inhale of course Ed.) was saying that 'they' had taken her baby, or that the couple in the beads and bells said something about being teleported from a mandala in a Warminster field to the Norfolk Broads. After all, you were too busy reading the latest John Keel article to be bothered listening to the obvious nutters.

Some fads' pedigrees can be traced: modern tales of psychic questing pale into banality compared with the extraordinary Snettisham story, and elements of psychic questing can be found in the Scoriton story; to say nothing of the saga of the Contactee, the Moon Rock and the Telephone Box for which the world is still not ready; or the strange saga of Mr A and the tunnels. Ufology was so full of those stories that one never really got to hear of properly, just hints.

Break for Rant No. I: Unfortunately, psychic questing is in grave danger of reversing the old adage of things starting in tragedy and ending in farce. While questing for Queen Cartimandura's golden chamber pot might be all good fun, the latest manifestation of questing in my northern neck of the woods taking a grief stricken mother at the very end of her tether on a psychic quest for the body of her murdered daughter, unsuccessfully, of course, and with all the sensitivity of the Pig and Whistle's annual treasure hunt leaves one speechless at least under the constraints of the laws of libel, obscenity and incitement to violence, and a with strong desire not only to take out life-membership of CSICOP, but to petition for the reintroduction of the Witchcraft Acts.

Another 'new' idea which ain't is 'witness led ufology'. Given that about 50% of the membership of BUFORA joined because of their own UFO experience, this is happening already. In fact what is meant is total acceptance of everything the witness says. Nothing so viciously cynical as an actual investigation - just the sort of thing we had with dear old Arthur and the great Warminster circus. When you examine from where some of these calls come, one sees that the demand is for what we used to know as (before the invention of social-worker jargon) contactee groups, or even contactee cults. The charismatic contactees are surrounded by a bunch of fawning acolytes, who stroke them and assure them what wonderful, special people they are. There were plenty of these in the 60s, too.

It was expression of attitudes like this, and the publication of various articles critical of the aforementioned Arthur Shuttlewood, which earned MUFOB (and its prehistoric predecessor MUFORG Bulletin) the reputation of being 'cynical'. The criticism was wide of the mark. 'Cynical' would be to have believed not a word of it, but to have published all sorts of nonsense, because money or a kind of fame could be made from the credulous punters who gobbled it up. MUFOB/Magonia has always been upfront in its scepticism, and all I can say is that Magonia has never had to backtrack on its scepticism, and its 'sceptical' attitude has, years after any controversy, become the routine verdict of mainstream ufology; but I feel that some of my less sceptical contributions are rather embarrassing looked at from this distance. For example, my less than dismissive review of Clive Harold's The Unidentified, although at the time even that was criticised for being too sceptical!
Magonia has never had to backtrack on its scepticism,
and its 'sceptical' attitude has, years after any controversy, become the routine verdict of mainstream ufology
One of the persistent irritations between Magonia and our critics, is our belief that human motivations are much more complicated than some are prepared to accept. Many ufologists seem to think that any witness who does not actually dress as Napoleon, or wear a striped jersey and carry a bag labelled 'swag', or have a bottle of meths to his lips, must be a decent, upright citizen. This naivety has led to some ufologists getting involved with some very dubious characters, and into sticky situations with often disastrous personal consequences. At times it seems extraordinarily good fortune that ufologists have escaped serious physical injury.

And a pause for Rant No, 2: Just now we have an excellent example, with the willingness of a number of our fellow UFO editors to include adverts, or distribute leaflets, for the bizarre Wembley Arena conspiracy rant. OK, maybe they don't have the political awareness and background in conspiracy theory research of Roger Sandell, but they might have wondered why one of the speakers included the words "protege of Ezra Pound" in his description. If they knew anything, or looked up anything, about Pound, they would have realized that any 'protege' of his was unlikely to blame the Conspiracy on the Dagenham Girl Pipers.

When we hear that the organiser of this affair (described by David Barclay as a "true ufologist") claims that "a new world order power elite" can create storms and earthquakes, we see a true revival of medieval antisemitic superstition and witchcraft beliefs. She is also pushing the ideas of Lyndon LaRouche, a sinister American who promotes, amongst other ravings, the conspiracy theory that the world's drug cartels are headed by the British Royal Family. Not all barmpots are harmless.

The main problem with ufology is that it has taken the attitude that everything should be assumed to be mysterious, unless proven otherwise. As proving a negative is often impossible, almost everything is, by this logic, actually mysterious. Often sceptics have fallen into the trap, going to extreme lengths to 'explain away' events, sometimes discrediting their own case by the attenuation of their arguments. The correct sceptical response should be "as I wasn't there and in the witness's head, I don't know what happened, but that doesn't mean that something anomalous actually happened". The onus should be on those who propose anomalies to find some way of proving their existence.

In a recent Northern UFO News, Jenny Randles writes "[ufologists] know the UFO phenomenon is real. We know that it is not all down to assorted misperceptions." In one sense this is true enough, because some cases are clearly hoaxes, and others are what I have called 'virtual experience' abductions and many occupant cases fall into these latter categories, as do, I suspect, a larger proportion than is often suspected of less dramatic incidents. So if we rephrase Jenny's claim to mean are we certain that there are any cases which are neither misperceptions, virtual experiences or hoaxes, then I think the answer must be 'No'. That doesn't mean that I am certain that no UFO cases have ever been generated by uncatalogued natural phenomena or something even more anomalous, just that the null position is as reasonable as any in our present state of knowledge.

If you doubt this, recall that a few years ago most ufologists would have said that the best evidence of some ufo logical anomaly was the Day film solemn committees were convened to examine the film in detail: this was to be The Answer. There are indeed many cases in which the events happened exactly as the witness's narrative implies they did, still we are faced with major puzzles, given what we know about perception, memory, description, and even the mental images the witness's narrative conjures up in the minds of the investigators. Ultimately, can any number of mere eyewitness testimony really resolve the issue? There were several thousand eyewitnesses at Fatima, and we still don't know what happened there.