Magonia 15, April 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.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 bad 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; the famous photograph from Salem, Massachusetts, 1952 has been explained by Hynek as a reflection of lights on a window; 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.
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. Almost all of the often quoted sightings by American astronauts have received very mundane explanations, and Hynek himself has admitted it. 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!). As a last example, the intricate French case of Taize in 1972, which had the honour of being published in FSR, 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. Let us also mention Alvin Lawson’s experiments: imaginary abductions induced by hypnosis gave the same details as the allegedly real abductions aboard UFOs; this is a good example of non-specificity.
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
Above all there was, for French ufologists, Bertrand Meheust’s book, Science fiction et soucoupes volantes, une réalité Mythico-physique. 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?
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.
I wrote some years ago that 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.
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 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 . 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.
This article was originally presented as a paper at the Anglo-French UFO Conference held in Brighton in February 1984.