Tracing the Traces

Maurizio Verga
Magonia 16, July 1984

Traces (i.e. imprints, marks and residues on the ground and/or vegetation) ought to provide physical proof of a tangible phenomenon interacting with our reality. Indeed, it is probably the one aspect of UFO study – with the possible exception of photographs – which has enabled the ufologist to refute an interpretation in purely psychological terms; for traces imply that the phenomenon is not something perceived subjectively, belonging only to the senses of the witness, but truly something with physical attributes.

This physical ‘proof’ has been put forward by the ‘extraterrestrialists’ as support for their contention that material UFOs – ‘spacecraft’ – exist. The ETH is plainly on the decline, and its proponents rely heavily on physical trace evidence to keep its tenets alive.

Physical traces are often a very difficult problem for any conceptual theory. We have had, for example, the proposition of an ‘interdimensional entity’, able to assume physical characteristics; and the adoption of paranormal phenomena such as poltergeists and psychokinesis to explain the mechanics of trace creation. It is almost impossible to consider the phenomenon in terms of a hypothesis without taking account of the physical trace evidence.

Trace evidence is one of many aspects of the phenomenon with a clearly contradictory nature. These contradictions may be used as a basis to propose a multiple origin for the phenomenon; that is, several different manifestations as a specific function of specific conditions. It is enough in this context to consider those cases where a UFO is seen on the ground, and yet apparently leaves no traces – in practice certain UFOs leave physical traces, others do not. Even when we bear in mind that we are always dealing with witness accounts, often poorly investigated and without recourse to the psychology or perception of the event, it would still seem that the phenomenon (if objective) does not display strict or consistent criteria. On the contrary, its criteria are highly changeable, probably because of a completely unknown ‘something’, which may well be linked to the individual characteristics of the witness.

Of course, if UFOs did have an entirely subjective origin, then the problem would immediately take on a new dimension. Apart from traces which were outright hoaxes, the remainder would presumably be made unconsciously, and absence of traces would be explicable in terms of witnesses inability to manufacture them, perhaps because unconsciously he is unaware of his need to give evidence of his subjective experience. This hypothesis is admittedly improbable, although the belief that UFOs do produce traces is deeply rooted in the popular belief.We can question the opinion that traces provide proof of the material nature of the UFO phenomenon in two ways: firstly by considering natural phenomena capable of producing traces, secondly by considering the facts and figures, as well as the standards of practice, of present day field investigations.
In nature there are several causes able to produce remarkably strange trace marks under certain circumstances. These include fungi, plant and grass diseases, lightning, animal habits, whirlwinds and other weather conditions, helicopter slipstreams, defoliation and so on. Furthermore the action of man on the environment can also result in ambiguous traces – cars, carts, agricultural equipment, fires, etc. Discovering such a trace after a local UFO sighting can easily lead to their connection with ‘alien activity’. Even is situations where no UFO was seen, the appearance of a trace, especially when circular, can reawaken distant memories in the collective conscious of stereotyped flying saucers and their alleged effects.

Both material (e.g. notoriety) and psychological (stimulation by a flap in the vicinity) factors may come into play. The existence of concrete evidence tends to make any case more credible, no matter how spurious it may in fact be. Traces often are unusual, even if quite explicable. The cultural belief systems and possibly emotional states can soon lead to the creation of abstruse hypotheses and speculation, even on the basis of naturally or artificially produced explicable phenomena.

These points are critical, and must be carefully borne in mind. The discovery of a ‘trace’ tends to set the witness thinking in terms of a UFO; and of course, if there is a type-I sighting at the root of the discovery, he will often go to the area where he saw the UFO (either on the ground or low down) with a view to finding evidence of the reality of the experience. This is not only to convince others, but often to prove it to himself. This intense desire to find proof can easily lead him to discovering a myriad of insignificant anomalies – a broken branch, animal tracks, the remains of a fire) and relate them to the UFO. This is a typical scenario for a UFO seen in the distance, where often the exact location of the landing or near-landing is not known.

Less common is the deliberate false linking of spurious traces with a ‘genuine’ UFO in order to make the sighting more believable. Even so, in my view this latter scenario is quite feasible for many rational people who would not otherwise behave in this fashion.

The above possibilities must be taken very seriously when investigators do not follow up the ‘traces’, but merely rely on the word of the witness. When investigators do visit the site we should then expect them to validate or invalidate the traces. But the reality of the matter is often rather different.

Unfortunately, an investigator is usually on the same level as the witness, having the same unconscious needs and beliefs. He is usually unprepared in terms of scientific methodology. He may well have a strong desire to present a ‘classic case’ to his colleagues, or have a belief system which includes the material reality of the UFO phenomenon, thus anticipating trace evidence. All of these can lead to frequent and serious errors, if the investigator attempts to support his ‘ambitions’ and ‘needs’.

Obviously there are some truly strange and apparently unidentifiable traces, but their percentage is fairly low – even if it cannot be termed negligible. In any case, a number of doubts must remain. Natural phenomena or human activity could precipitate apparently inexplicable traces. If the circumstance is rare enough the possibility of identification is close to impossible, except in a few luck cases. However, these possibilities are too important to overlook. The much extolled ‘physical evidence’ is based on a small number of baffling cases, and of these only a fraction (perhaps 25%) are investigated in sufficient depth. Most ‘incontestable proof’ actually stems from newspaper articles or nothing more substantial than the witness’s say-so.

In other words, what we term the ‘trace phenomenon’ is but a small residue of well-investigated reports; about 3.6% of the total volume of reports according to data passed to me by Ted Phillips (Phillips’s TRA-CAT, an international catalogue of trace cases, actually now having more than 2,100 entries).

We must also not forget the outright hoax. Such frauds may be perpetrated for many reasons: financial, psychological, advertising, or merely as a joke, The number of trace cases determined to be hoaxes is actually quite remarkable, although not excessive – perhaps as a result of the inherent difficulty of proving a hoax. Some ‘mysterious’ substance placed at the site, coupled with a good recitation of a fabricated tale, and the gullibility of ufologists and journalists can produce but one result… fake evidence presented as proof of an alien technology. Only the exceptionally skilled or rational investigator (often with the aid of Lady Luck) can rescue the situation at a later date… but this certainly does not happen in many cases.

I believe that I have discovered two fundamental aspects of the traces question, giving us much cause to rethink our attitude towards it:

1. The explanation of most trace reports is to be found in terms of both natural and artificial origins. The range of these is so broad that their identification is often next to impossible.

2. It is impossible to accept some investigation reports as a basis for scientific data. Investigators too often are guilty of extreme subjectivity and emotional involvement. This makes identification of traces very difficult. Not being at the site oneself, one can only assign ‘possible’ or ‘probable’ identifications, which is to the detriment of serious research, although UFO fanatics can ‘easily turn it to their advantage by distorting the true situation.

This means that practically all of the so-called trace data is useless in terms of scientific evaluation. We are left with a residue that seems to be small, but not negligible; this seems to show the apparent physical reality of a seemingly unknown phenomenon (although unknown most certainly does not mean alien). But even so we must realise that the best of our investigation and research does not allow strict scientific determinations to be made. We can never totally exclude rare natural explanations. My future research will base itself upon this selected sample of high-strangeness reports – the apparently unknown residue. This is essential if one is to study the subject scientifically.

The conclusion I must reach is this: we cannot be certain that the UFO phenomenon has a physical basis. It is naturally difficult to accept this conclusion; but if we wish to develop a serious field of research then we must learn to accept the destruction of deep-rooted dogmas and common illusions. We need courage to re-think our basics, and understand what is wrong with them. Above all, we must search for understanding and not cling to belief.