Intelligent Life in the Universe: The Case for Fence-Sitting, Part Two

Gareth J. Medway
Magonia 74, April 2002
Over the past half a century there have been hundreds of books, to say nothing of articles, purporting to solve “The UFO question”. The answers vary (and conflict, of course), but they are usually alike in that they consist of something that could easily be summarised in a few words, whether “They come from Zeta Reticuli”, or “Weather balloons”. The bulk of this writing is polemical, the author wanting to convince the reader of a particular theory, and selecting and arranging the material accordingly.
 So far as one can tell, it almost never succeeds. Instead, for the most part, it is read by people who already share the author’s opinion, and want to be confirmed in their views; and this is as true of what appears in Magonia as what appears in UFO Magazine.

The primary reason for this is that proving a theory about UFOs usually amounts to having to prove a negative, which is of course impossible. A sceptic cannot prove that there are no ETs. Less obvious, but no less true, is that an ETH proponent is at root trying to demonstrate that “There is no other explanation for these reports”, which is equally impossible.

The history of the psychosocial hypothesis indicates, I think, another reason. The PSH is usually said to derive from two works, Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia , and John Keel’s Operation Trojan Horse , though neither book was itself advocating it. Vallee compared flying saucer reports to the medieval belief in flying ships from the mysterious land of Magonia, Mothman to Springheeled Jack, and Antonio Villas-Boas’s claim to have had sex with an attractive spacewoman to the old theological belief in intercourse with demons. He did not attempt to draw a straight conclusion from all this – “The problem cannot be solved today” (1) – nor has he in subsequent books.

Keel’s book, which unlike Vallee’s was based on a large amount of first-hand research, decided that UFOs “are merely temporary intrusions into our reality or space-time continuum, momentary manipulations of electro-magnetic energy . . . This may seem like a fantastic concept, but . . . all of the evidence supports our fantastic concepts more readily than it supports the notion that we are receiving visitors from Mars or Aenstria.” (2) In this and subsequent books he noted the same kind of similarities to other unexplained phenomena as pointed out by Vallee, and concluded that they all ultimately had the same obscure “ultraterrestrial” cause. His work has sometimes been described as “demonological”, but unlike the old demonologists he left no room for the “good guys”: the same all-encompassing entities were not merely behind UFOs, poltergeists, and spiritual materialisations, but even angels, miracles, and the foundation of the world’s religions, including Christianity. The alternative title “paranormalist” is more appropriate.

The “paranormalist” viewpoint has failed to obtain any wide acceptance, probably due to its pessimistic outlook. Keel viewed the ultraterrestrials as deceptive, and inimical to the human race, yet thought there was little or nothing we could do about them. One could not even take solace in religion, since that is just a part of the deception. It was inevitable that most people would ignore his findings, or, if they noticed them at all, wish to slot his observations into a more positive framework.

There are various ways the latter can be done. Some take the “New Age” view that these entities are quite benign really. Others have adapted them into a Christian framework, putting UFOs and other spirit manifestations down to the work of demons, from whom Christ and the good angels can save us. The materialist outlook is equally comforting, since it assures us that none of these bogeymen really exist.

These various UFO schools of thought are, therefore, linked to religious belief. Accordingly, attempting to convince subscribers to one such theory of the truth of another is effectively asking them to change their faith, and hence about as likely of success as trying to convert a Northern Ireland Protestant to the Catholic Church, or a Muslim fundamentalist to Judaism.

Theories and theorists
The complexities of modern life have affected the sceptic as much as anyone else. The eighteenth century rationalist had merely to disbelieve in miracles, astrology and witchcraft. Today, one might be called upon to deny the reality of near-death experiences, telepathy, clairvoyance, UFO sightings, the Loch Ness monster, pyramid power, alien big cats, the Bermuda triangle, spontaneous human combustion, conspiracy theories, Satanic child abuse, Nostradamus, remote viewing, ancient astronauts, bigfoot, the face on Mars, Spiritualism, chupacabras, channelling, the New Age generally, and of course miracles, astrology, and witchcraft.

It is very useful, therefore, to have a simple theory that covers the lot. This of course the psychosocial hypothesis provides: “human imagination”. Unfortunately, there are other simple viewpoints that are also able to encompass the whole field. Christians say miracles are sent by God, and all the rest is the work of demons. The school of Paul Devereux and Albert Budden explains paranormal phenomena as being the result of electromagnetic pollution. Then again, “UFO technology”, supplemented by “screen memories”, has been used to account for everything from Biblical miracles to Satanic abuse reports.

Thus we have at least five schools of thought: the ETH (whether “New Age” or not), the PSH, the paranormalist, the EM, and the Christian. yet to a great extent the adherents of all these schools cite the same evidence. We observe that sky ships from Magonia resemble UFOs from Zeta Reticuli. So, medieval peasants misinterpreted aliens as fairies; or, they both come from the same place, human imagination; or, they have the same paranormal cause; or, the same electromagnetic cause; or, the same demons are responsible. What is not argued is why we should believe one explanation rather than another.

It is theoretically possible that the truth might be a combination of two or more of these views, for instance, most UFO sightings could be caused by electromagnetic pollution, but a minority could be of actual craft piloted by agents of Satan. Certainly, if one can show that the PSH explains most UFO events, this does not eliminate the possibility that some might be actual ET encounters.
Members of her local Evangelical church denounced it as “Satanic”, hence typical of Earl’s Court

Incidentally, the plethora of views does help to confuse witnesses. On 13 January 2001 a woman told me how ten days earlier she had seen a silent triangular object flying over Earl’s Court, West London, faster than an aeroplane. I told her flying triangles are the ufological fashion, and that pleased her, because, she complained, no one believed her. her downstairs neighbour had said, “You’ve been taking too many vitamin pills”. The dustman told her, “I don’t believe in such rubbish”, no doubt believing only in the kind that comes in bins. Another neighbour, a drug dealer, asked, “Have you been taking what I’m taking?” On the other hand, a Christian friend suggested that it was a sign from God of the End Times; whereas members of her local Evangelical church denounced it as “Satanic”, hence typical of Earl’s Court. An old woman said, “It’s quite possible nowadays, it’s the Russians tampering with the sky”, and a Scotsman told her how he saw an object like an “old threepenny piece” flying through the sky fifty years ago.

There is no need here to point out the defects of pro-ETH writing. It is worth drawing attention, however, to some of the weaknesses commonly found in sceptical works. I have often read pieces on crop circles which boiled down to the argument: “Some crop circles are known fakes; that shows they are all hoaxes.” Considered purely as an exercise in logic, this is on a par with saying: “Some men have red hair; therefore all men have red hair.” Though it is termed rationalism, at root it is an appeal to incredulity, and will only convince those who share the incredulity from the start.

If you are disputing with militiamen who believe that President Kennedy was assassinated by aliens from the Trilateral Commission acting on the orders of Satan, then you would be unlikely to impress them by reasoning based around plausibility

In framing arguments it is therefore worth asking whom, if anyone, you hope to convince. For example, if you are disputing with militiamen who believe that President Kennedy was assassinated by aliens from the Trilateral Commission acting on the orders of Satan, then you would be unlikely to impress them by reasoning based around “plausibility”.

Another problem for sceptics is that often their various arguments cancel each other out. It has been stated that the “Oz Effect”, in which everything is reported to go strangely silent prior to a UFO encounter, was first described in a 1967 SF novel, The Terror Above Us. (3) I take the implication to be that, since it initially featured in a work of admitted fiction, its subsequent repetition in “real” cases must be a result of conscious or unconscious plagiarism, and nothing to do with real events. But others say the Oz Effect proves that close encounters are only hallucinations. (4) You can’t have it both ways.

(Actually, I doubt if the “science fiction said it first” view is correct in this instance, since a while ago I came across a book in my local library which quoted a 1950s book referring to the Oz Effect, though not by that name. I tried to find it again to quote it here, but it was not on the shelf. Possibly some other reader had taken it out, but John Rimmer suggests it was abstracted by Men in Black, who are engaged in an evil plot to remove UFO books from the shelves of public libraries in order to stifle public interest in the subject, a conspiracy to which Gordon Creighton drew attention in Flying Saucer Review back in the 1980s.)

They know the truth
UFO coverup theories go back to the start of ufology: John Keel recalled going to a meeting in New York in 1948 where he found “about 40 people crowded into a small room, yelling and screaming at each other about government suppression and such”. (5) Less well known, but equally pertinent, are the disbelievers’ counterparts, such as that the US Air Force is promoting a belief in UFOs (e.g. with Rendlesham) which it secretly knows to be untrue. Leader in the field seems to be Gregory M. Kanon, who maintains that the military invented the extraterrestrial threat to justify their huge budgets.

It is worth comparing the records of the Robertson committee, which met in 1953. They concluded that, though there was no threat from UFOs, the UnAmerican belief in UFOs could be a threat to national security, since it could be used by foreign powers to create a “morbid national psychology in which skillful hostile propaganda could induce hysterical behavior and harmful distrust of duly constituted authority”. (6) So they proposed various kinds of counter propaganda, such as silly alien cartoon films which would stop the public taking the subject seriously.

This indicates that they considered that they knew the truth about UFOs – that there were no such things – but wanted to suppress interest in them. This does not fit with either of the above paranoias. Nevertheless, Jenny Randles wondered if they had created the contactee movement, since absurd tales about blond, blue-eyed Venusians “were just what Dr Robertson ordered”. (7)

Another version has it that the aliens themselves are responsible for the coverup, having to some extent taken control of the world already, though this line inevitably degenerates into paradox. We would have to ask if the Magonia editorial team are controlled by implants, or are they themselves aliens in (quasi) human form? I am unbeknownst to myself being programmed to write all this as a further piece of disinformation?

Behind all these conflicting views lies, I think, the same fallacy: a refusal, on everyone’s part, to accept that their opponents really disagree with them. No, secretly they know the truth that there are, or are not, UFOs, but are hiding it for their own reasons. It is no accident that 1950s UFO sceptic Donald Menzel was later alleged to be one of the Majestic-12 coverers-up. (Something similar occurs in other fields: Joseph McCabe, a former Catholic priest, and anti-Catholic writer, stated that the view of the Catholic Church was that “the chief Satanic manifestation, the world in its most vicious shape, is the anti-Catholic writer; above all the apostate priest, who, of course, secretly believes in Catholicism, but is moved by some mad and mysterious rage against it”. (8))

Though this attitude may be adopted only unconsciously, sometimes it is quite explicit, as for instance in Martin Gardner’s article on Ray Palmer in the Skeptical Inquirer, which contained statements such as: “If Ray Palmer for one moment believed the crap in this crazy volume [Oahspe] then the man was a moron, which of course he wasn’t.” This produced a letter from Palmer’s former associate Chester S. Geier, who protested that, at least with regard to the Shaver mystery, Palmer appeared sincere: “Privately as well as publicly he was quite serious about it. For my part I recall how the members of Ray’s inner circle often asked one another ‘Do you think Ray really believes that Shaver stuff?’ He certainly seemed to.” In Gardner’s inevitable reply to the reply he refused to accept this, and openly accused Geier of the same deceit: “Geier . . . was Ray Palmer’s top booster of the Shaver hoax . . . It is unthinkable that either he or Palmer saw the hoax as anything but a flimflam to boost the circulation of Amazing Stories .” (9)

What we have here might be termed the Impotent Inquisition. The original Inquisition told people what they were to believe, with the possibility of imprisonment, torture and death for those who refused. Writers on ufology have no such power, so instead they tell people what (supposedly) they already believe, irrespective of what they may say themselves. I am not saying that this is any way comparable to the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, but I would suggest that it is totally valueless except as an exercise in self justification.

Consider the facts
John Keel made a gesture towards the PSH when he wrote: “If you saw a strange light in the sky in 1475 you knew it had to be a witch on a broom because you had heard of others who had seen witches on brooms skirting the treetops. Now in 1975 you might decide it is attached to a spacecraft from some other planet. This conclusion is not a qualified deduction on your part. It is the result of years of propaganda and even brainwashing. If you are under thirty, you grew up on a diet of comic-books, motion pictures, and television programmes which educated you to believe in the extraterrestrial hypothesis . . . ” (10)

Obviously to a great extent this is true, but it doesn’t address the crucial question: What is the strange light in the sky? Is it something currently unknown to science? Even if the study of UFO reports never tells us anything about life on other planets, it may eventually lead to some new finding in natural science, or, if nothing else, teach us things about abnormal psychology. But in order to achieve this, the first requirement is to collect the evidence.

Often, alas, the full facts are not recorded, I suspect because investigators are unconsciously afraid that more data might undermine their theories. There are many examples I could cite, but here are just a few selected at random.

The Sheffield Lake, Ohio, UFO (1958) was one of the few civilian sightings to be investigated by the US Air Force. A woman claimed that at three o’clock one morning she saw an aluminium coloured disc hovering in her back yard, which emitted clouds of smoke then flew off. Two air force sergeants concluded that what she had seen was the beam of the rotating headlight of a train going past about 100 yards away, shining through smoke from a nearby foundry.

This is one of those rare cases where it would be possible to test the hypothetical explanation, by getting the witness to watch when another train went by late at night, and see if it resembled what she saw. This approach does not seem to have occurred to the investigators; nor to the Akron Ohio UFO Research Committee, who later attacked the official report in a pamphlet.

One of the criticisms made in the latter was that the sergeants did not make a house-to-house check among the neighbours to obtain confirmatory evidence. Since the sighting had happened in a small town at three a.m., quite likely there would have been no other witnesses anyway. But Donald Menzel defended the Air Force in this wise: “Such a time-consuming procedure would not have been justified. The neighbors had had two weeks in which to report a visiting spaceship. No such report had been made.” (11)

No one investigating a murder would wait for witnesses to come forward, and, if they did not, conclude that there were no witnesses, or even no murder. In practical terms a UFO sighting is far less important than a murder case, but for precisely that reason witnesses would be far less likely to make a report of their own accord. Moreover, if other witnesses had recognised that the “object” was only a train headlight, thus confirming the Air Force explanation, then they would have seen no reason to report it. (Again, apparently, the Akron UFO Research Committee did not bother to make such enquiries themselves.)

As John Keel put it, the American public has not been telling the Air Force the truth about the UFOs

Indeed, I can see no reason to think that most UFO witnesses try to report to the authorities, or to anyone at all. As John Keel put it, the American public has not been telling the Air Force the truth about the UFOs. Even if they tried, they would probably get only a brush off. The [London] Metropolitan Police commissioner was complaining a while back about people who telephone emergency services over trivial matters. This is certainly a problem (e.g. a man who merely wished to know the time, a woman who reported a broken fingernail) but the one example the commissioner gave was of people who want to report UFO sightings.

Tony Dodd, in Alien Investigator , quotes the memories of Jim Duesler, which, he says, at last prove that Captain Mantell did indeed encounter an alien craft. Duesler was in the control tower at Godman Field on the fateful day. He described the object as “the shape of an inverted ice-cream cone . . . It was rotating; at least there seemed to be a black stripe from top to bottom which seemed to move across our vision and go around and come back. We didn’t time the length of rotation but it was a matter of a few minutes.” In addition to one or two meaningless statements (“it was about 185-195 degrees above the horizon”) we are told that the plane crashed in one piece, rather than wreckage being scattered over a mile, as is more usually the case, and that Mantell’s body was “oddly intact”. (12) But this hardly proves anything, and otherwise his description is consistent with the object having been a balloon.

Reading this, I wondered if a Skyhook balloon would be picked up by radar (I think not, but am uncertain about this), and whether the object chased by Mantell was seen by the radar. To my amazement, though this is one of the most discussed cases in ufology, no writer I can discover ever recorded whether the UFO was picked up on radar, still less how that would bear on the balloon theory. My guess is that there was nothing on radar, so that nobody thought about or mentioned the matter, but there is no way of knowing for sure.

A recent book, MILABS: Military Mind Control and Alien Abduction, (13) which is not quite so paranoid as you would expect from the title, draws attention to an interesting statistical anomaly: many books by abductees, for instance Debbie Jordan and Kathy Mitchell’s Abducted!, Leah Haley’s Lost Was the Key, Whitley Strieber’s Breakthrough, Beth Collins’s and Anna Jamerson’s Connections, and Katherine Wilson’s The Alien Jigsaw, describe how they were apparently watched by unmarked black helicopters. Yet Thomas E. Bullard’s study of 270 alien abductions mentions in only four cases that the abductees saw dark unmarked helicopters over or near their houses.

Probably this discrepancy occurred because abductionists (the source of Bullard’s data) are not interested in black helicopters and do not normally record them, whereas they seem important to the abductees themselves, and so are reported by those who get to write their own books. Notably, there is no mention of helicopters in Budd Hopkins’s Intruders, which is about the experiences of Debbie Jordan (there called “Kathie Davis”), but Debbie Jordan herself says they were, at one time, “almost daily around out houses”.

In the same way, C.D.B. Bryan’s book about the 1992 MIT abduction conference gave more than 150 pages to the stories of Carol Dedham and Alice Bartlett, firstly long interviews, then transcripts of their subsequent hypnosis by Budd Hopkins. Speaking for themselves, they told Bryan how “black helicopters began appearing over Alice’s horse farm”, (14) but nothing was said about these craft in the Hopkins sessions. (Nor did Hopkins deal with their other exotic adventures, such as Carol’s night-time encounter, on a lonely road in Maryland, with a naked man wearing a four-foot stetson – was he really an alien, or just eccentric?)

This suggests that a widespread phenomenon is going unnoted because it does not fit what researchers want to hear. Moreover, whatever the real explanation for black helicopter sightings, it cannot be due to abductees saying whatever abductionists prompt them to say, the usual blanket explanation offered for abduction experiences. Accordingly sceptics, no less than abductionists, are inclined to pass over this topic, leaving it to be dealt with only by the paranoid.

Though there has been some attempt at proper analyses of the abduction phenomenon, studies tend to speak of an “abductee” as a generic creature, with no attempt to distinguish any different types. For instance, one might want to know how many are “waking encounters”, i.e. the witnesses claimed always to have remembered them, and how many “recover” their memories of abduction? And what percentage of these are recovered under hypnosis, what percentage spontaneously as “flashbacks”?

(Edith Fiore’s Encounters, though not very critical, does at least explain why her abductees came to think that they were abductees: out of thirteen cases, two had had an experience of seeing a bright light and then “missing time”; four had had dreams about aliens; one experienced a sense of fear on reading Communion ; in four cases Fiore herself had a “hunch” about a client, and during hypnosis suddenly asked about UFO experiences; one, visiting her for his drink problem, was told by her about UFO healings, and started recalling them; and one remembered, without hypnosis, having fifteen years earlier floated out of his flat, through the venetian blinds, into a circular building where he conversed with aliens.)

One problem is that it is difficult to know what facts may be important. Anthony R. Brown, commenting on Hufford’s study of the “Old Hag Phenomenon” notes that “he discovered that the hallucinations, the paralysis, the fight for breath, and the terror that characterised the Old Hag Phenomenon fitted perfectly the major components of the Narcoleptic syndrome. At no stage did he consider that the descriptions of the Old Hag sitting on the victim’s chest had any relevance to the clinical picture at all”. (15)

Obviously, if you are trying to understand how television works, then knowing the storyline of EastEnders will not help you. But that does not mean that the content of the programmes is devoid of all interest. In the same way, some aspects of an experience might have medical significance, and others social relevance.

The survey of abductees carried out in the USA by Randle, Estes and Cone found that a high proportion were gay or bisexual – far higher than would be expected by chance. This has given rise to some controversy, but no one apparently has suggested why this should be. There must be a reason, but because it does not easily fit into the usual theories I suspect the fact will end up being ignored.

David Sivier has recently argued that abduction experiences are basically sexual fantasies, and published accounts of them stand in the place of pornography. One point that tends to support this is the way that abduction stories frequently feature alien rectal probes. Now, while we cannot expect to understand alien technology, it is hard to see why, if they are engaged in fertility research and genetic manipulation as maintained by Hopkins and Jacobs, they should want to investigate our anuses. On the other hand, many people have anal erotic tendencies that they will not admit to. What better way to indulge them than in rape fantasy which has been given a seemingly scientific and factual basis?

It seems to me, people want to believe that their problems are due to suppressed memories of alien abduction, mass rape by gangs of paedophiles, or Satanists forcing them to eat their own babies

Sivier also says, however: “For most abductees I would suggest, much could be done by simply reassuring them that their sexual or emotional problems do not stem from abuse by aliens.” (16) I cannot agree with him: on the contrary, it seems to me, people want to believe that their problems are due to suppressed memories of alien abduction, mass rape by gangs of paedophiles, or Satanists forcing them to eat their own babies. If they could be convinced that this was not so, then they might have to face up to the realisation that their emotional and sexual problems were their own fault, which is at best a depressing truth.

I have a particularly sad memory in this connection. On one occasion a man admitted to me that he had not (as he had been claiming for the previous year) been homosexually raped. He had merely had a psychotic episode and imagined it. That was the last time I saw him. A couple of weeks later he committed suicide. In view of incidents like this I think that having fantasies, even quite unpleasant fantasies, can have therapeutic value. Yet most therapists do not encourage them, so people who have unconsciously prescribed themselves fantasies have to pretend that they are real events.

Whilst there are obvious dangers in taking false memories literally, personally I can foresee potential hazards in a general acceptance of False Memory Syndrome. The next step may be, some doctor will find a “cure”. Then, we will find this treatment being tried out on people who, say, claim to remember Tony Blair’s election pledges.

What the existence of False Memory does not do, in any case, is prove anything about UFO reports, rather, it is another of those matters which makes it harder to reach any conclusion at all. A little while ago Hilary Evans wrote of the Cergy-Pontoise case: “Many years later, Jean-Pierre Prevost, the most prominent of the three young men involved, confessed that it had been – as most researchers had always suspected a hoax; but what is intriguing is that his two companions, Salomon N’Daye and the abductee Fontaine himself, have refused to go along with their companion’s confession, insisting vigorously on the truth of the affair. Easy to say they are lying, but why should they? What if they have come, by who can say what mysterious process, to sincerely believe everything really did take place just as they told police, press and researchers at the time? Believing so profoundly, that the pseudo-story is now implanted in their minds as reality?” (17)

Well, maybe, but if there is no evidence besides the memories of humans, and these do not agree, no firm conclusion is possible. One could just as well argue that Fontaine really was abducted by aliens, but that because most researchers suspected a hoax, eventually Prevost managed to convince himself that it was so.

Abductionists seem to consider themselves a combination of investigator and therapist. Budd Hopkins employs a “buddy system” or mutual support network for abductees, but makes it a rule that: “The abductee whose case has already been investigated is not permitted to give any information as to the content of his or her abduction experience – descriptions of the UFO, its occupants, technical procedures, sequence of events, etc.” (18) He wants to help people who have suffered at the hands and rectal probes of the heartless greys, but therapy must not interfere with his programme of uncovering the secrets of alien technology.

In fact, of course, investigators and therapists usually have incompatible agendas, as is well known in child abuse cases. Moreover, attempting, say, to learn from an abductee what date the greys plan to take over the world is futile or worse from either point of view. I had thought of suggesting that it would be more helpful to approach alleged abductions from a purely therapeutic position, and simply ignoring the question of their “reality”; but there is no point in making recommendations when no one is going to take any notice of them, so I may as well leave it at that.

  1. Jacques Vallee, Passport to Magonia , Tandem, 1975 (1st ed. 1970), 154
  2. John Keel, Operation Trojan Horse , Abacus, 1973 (1st ed. 1970), 299
  3. Magonia 49, 14
  4. Magonia ETH Bulletin No. 1
  5. Fortean Times 65, October/November 1992, 28
  6. David M. Jacobs, The UFO Controversy in America , Signet, New York, 1976, 83
  7. Jenny Randles, Investigating the Truth Behind MIB , Piatkus, 1997, 44
  8. Joseph McCabe, The Popes and their Church , 1933, 146
  9. Reprinted in Martin Gardner, The New Age, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1991, 218, 220-221
  10. John Keel, Visitors from Space, Panther, 1976 (1st ed. as The Mothman Prophecies, 1975), 48
  11. Donald H. Menzel and Lyle G. Boyd, The World of Flying Saucers , Doubleday, New York, 1963, 286
  12. Tony Dodd, Alien Investigator, Headline, 1999, 175-178
  13. By Dr Helmut and Marion Lammer, IllumiNet Press, Lilburn, GA, 1999, 31-33
  14. C.D.B. Bryan, Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind , Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995, 229
  15. Magonia 72, 5
  16. Magonia 73, 18
  17. Magonia Monthly Supplement No. 24
  18. Budd Hopkins, Intruders , Sphere, 1988, 58-59