Physical Evidence for UFO Reports: The Sturrock Report

John Harney
Magonia 64, August 1998

The recent report of a workshop on UFO reports, funded by Laurance S. Rockefeller and given administrative support by the Society for Scientific Exploration was, according to the New Scientist, " ... funded by a little-known organisation which has published papers supporting such concepts as dowsing and reincarnation. What's more, the panel included a physicist who "designs' perpetual motion machines and an engineer who tries to move objects by concentrating hard". [1] 

This gives the impression that the findings of the panel are fit only for the sort of tabloids which bear headlines such as 'World War II Aircraft Found on the Moon' and 'Space Aliens Turned My Son Into An Olive'. However, almost all of the ridicule which has appeared in the media consists of knee-jerk reactions from persons who have obviously not read the report and have no intention of doing so. The belief obviously subscribed to by such people is that those who waste their time studying UFO reports are, by definition, crazy.

This does not seem to be a very constructive or scientific approach, so let us have a look at the report itself. The purpose of the workshop was to consider physical evidence associated with UFO reports and it took the form of a number of UFO researchers presenting evidence to a panel of scientists. Considering that the panel was looking for good cases supported by physical evidence its members must have been disappointed with what was presented to them. It is admitted that The panel concluded that further analysis of the evidence presented at the workshop is unlikely to elucidate the cause or causes of the reports.

As I read the report I got two main impressions: nothing useful emerged from the presentations and discussions; and the ufologists presenting their data and findings seemed bent on blinding the panel with science, or pseudo-science (in this they appear to have succeeded).

Just because the panel members did not issue a report supporting the ETH or any other scientifically unorthodox explanation of UFO reports, it should not be thought that their deliberations were rigorously scientific. The ufologists obviously took advantage of the fact that the panel members had little time to examine their claims in depth.

One of the cases reviewed is the famous Coyne helicopter incident of 18 August 1973. Readers might wonder what the ufologists had to say about Philip Klass's assertion that the helicopter crew was fooled by an Orionid meteor. The answer is nothing. Maybe Klass's explanation is incorrect, but it is so well known (to ufologists) that there seems to be little excuse for not mentioning it at all.

If you think I am being nitpicking about this, then you only have to look at the large amount of text devoted to the French government sponsored organisation SEPRA (formerly GEPAN). The panel members were so impressed by what they were told of this organisation's work that they present them in their report as a shining example of what scientific UFO research ought to be. The notorious Trans-en-Provence case is presented, as interpreted by GEPAN/SEPRA. The reader is referred to three papers by investigators who apparently believe the testimony of the only witness and apparently prefer to link the markings found at the site of the alleged encounter to the possible landing of a UFO. There is no consideration of the theory proposed by Michel Monnerie that the affair was a hoax that got out of hand, or of or of Eric Maillot's detailed criticisms of the GEPAN/SEPRA investigation of the case. [2]

The panel members, as physical scientists, obviously tended to take much of the evidence at face value, whereas experienced ufologists are aware that many UFO incidents just did not happen in the manner described by witnesses and investigators. They obviously underestimated the enormous bias caused by investigators' preconceived ideas as to what UFOs are or are not. The panel's conclusions included such stunningly obvious ones as "The UFO problem is not a simple one, and it is unlikely that there is any simple universal answer" and "Studies should concentrate on cases which include as much independent physical evidence as possible and strong witness testimony'. They also recommended that there should be formal regular contact between the UFO community and physical scientists. Many of the larger UFO organisations already have physical scientists, some of them very experienced and highly qualified, among their members. Formal contacts already exist between, for example, amateur and professional astronomers, and amateur and professional meteorologists. However, there are very few professional ufologists.

One of the main points picked up by the media was that the panel would like funds to be made available for UFO investigations, with the wonderful French SEPRA as the model of how to implement this suggestion. Whether it would be worth while to pay scientists to go around investigating UFO reports in the hope that data leading to the advancement of science might eventually be acquired, is a debatable question. (There is also the problem of the gullibility of many physical scientists when presented with evidence said to be connected with a UFO

The panel members would have done better if they had heeded the advice given by Dr Condon, [3] who wrote in his report to the US Air Force: Although we conclude after nearly two years of intensive study that we do not see any fruitful lines of advance from the study of UFO reports, we believe that any scientist with adequate training and credentials who does come up with a clearly defined, specific proposal for study Should be supported.

  1. New Scientist, No. 2141, 4 July 1998.
  2. Maillot, Eric and Scornaux, Jacques. 'Trans-en-Provence: 'Where science and belief go hand in hand', in Evans, Hilary and Stacy, Dennis (eds), UFOs 1947-1997, John Brown, London, 1997, 151-159.
  3. Condon, Edward U. 'Conclusions and Recommendations', in Gillmor, Daniel S. (ed.), Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Bantam, 1969.