Saucers and Science: Where Did It All Go Wromg?

John Harney
From Magonia 65, November 1998

There are several reasons why the scientific community refuses to treat UFO reports very seriously and a discussion of them could prove enlightening. We could begin by asking a question: When reports of strange aerial phenomena first attracted wide public attention in the USA in 1947, why where the most detailed and best-witnessed of these reports not simply subjected to critical analysis in an attempt to explain them?
From a scientific perspective the answer is fairly clear. Even when reports came from sources generally considered reliable it was difficult to pass them on to the appropriate experts for analysis as it was difficult to decide who might be competent to assess them. If most reports are thought to be generated by delusions or misperceptions, then they should obviously be investigated by psychologists. If they are thought to be unconventional or foreign aircraft, then aviation and defence experts should be consulted.

In the USA in 1947 the reports of flying saucers that could not be explained as misinterpretations of aircraft, balloons or natural phenomena were thought by some to be secret aircraft being tested. Very few people believed that they were alien spacecraft. Some of the reports were undoubtedly generated by secret military experiments. In the Mantell case of 1948, the US Air Force was unable to identify the object that Mantell was chasing in his aircraft, so resorted to guesswork. It was eventually discovered that the object was almost certainly a large balloon carrying scientific instruments. The Skyhook balloon project was run by the Navy. As it was classified secret, they had not told the Air Force.

In the early 1950s, serious attempts to investigate the UFO phenomenon were bedevilled by the activities of the contactees, such as George Adamski, Daniel Fry and Truman Bethurum. Few of those who presented themselves as serious researchers or writers on UFOs, such as Donald Keyhoe, took their stories seriously, but their activities tended to discourage scientists from taking an active interest in the subject.

The main difficulty seems to be that ufologists did not know exactly what they were supposed to be studying. A collection of UFO reports would require many different skills and different types of scientific expertise to explain them, including meteorology, astronomy, atmospheric optics, aviation technology and psychology. Scientists who did become involved either tried to explain all reports with reference to their special knowledge, or got hopelessly out of their depth because the phenomenon proved to be far more complex than they had imagined.

There were many sceptics among the scientists but, unfortunately, very few of them knew much about UFO reports and their complexity. Those who tended to dismiss the reports as nonsense when questioned by the news media, had an irritating habit either of picking on cases that were easily explained or of ignoring inconvenient facts in discussing more difficult cases.

A further problem arose when ufologists began to evolve unconventional theories or models to explain particular UFO reports or UFOs in general. In America, some became emotionally committed to the contactee cult, whereas others, such as Keyhoe, with support from some senior Air Force officers, regarded them as probably being alien spacecraft. However, they refused to consider reports of UFOs landing and their crews being seen, in order to avoid being tarred with the contactee brush.

We can thus trace back the American predilection for preferring one kind of UFO to another, based on preconceived theory rather than evidence and testimony, to the activities of Keyhoe and Project Blue Book investigators.

Blue Book had Dr J. Allen Hynek as its scientific consultant for over 20 years. As an astronomer, he was easily able to explain reports generated by misinterpretations of stars, planets and meteors, but not those generated by sightings of experimental aircraft or unusual atmospheric phenomena, or those generated by optical illusions and hallucinations, which often involved other persons present at these incidents by a process of hysterical contagion.

Hynek began as a sceptic but eventually became a believer, taking an occult approach to the subject. As a physical scientist, he tended to take reports at face value and thus tended to assign those he could not explain in physical terms to the realm of the paranormal. Another scientist, Dr Jacques Vallee, began by attempting scientific and statistical analyses of the UFO data, but gradually became more concerned with the bizarre and subjective aspects of the subject when he found that although some reports resisted easy explanations in physical terms, they did not seem to make sense when interpreted as visitors from other planets. This change in his approach led to the publication of Passport to Magonia, (1) which compared modern UFO reports with traditional fairy lore and demonology.

Nuts-and-bolts ufologists were even less pleased with the researches of John Keel when he published a detailed account of his investigations of the weird phenomena associated with UFO sightings. (2) His speculations were unscientific and incoherent, but his actual reports were the fruits of considerable field work. Those who attempted to follow up his investigations were horrified to find that they were told similar stories by UFO witnesses.

The result of all this was not that ufology split into supporters of the nuts-and-bolts extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) and paranormalists, but that readers of Vallee and Keel refused to take their writings at face value and used them to evolve the theory that ufology was a modern myth whose details could be attributed to various social and psychological causes. As Jerome Clark put it: “In Passport to Magonia the groundwork for the psychosocial hypothesis was laid.” (3) The paranormalists tended to be marginalised in any attempts at serious discussion of the topic, being despised by ETHers and proponents of the psychosocial hypothesis (PSH) alike.

When stories of UFO abductions gradually became more prominent, a split appeared in the ranks of the ETHers. Those who were physical scientists tended to attribute these to psychological causes, in agreement with the PSHers, whereas others were inclined to take them at face value and gradually evolved the fantastic theory that the aliens were using humans in a programme to produce human-alien hybrids. The nuts-and-bolts ETHers, however, could not accept this because many of the claims of the abduction enthusiasts ignored the basic laws of physics and biology. They were not sceptical about the idea of UFOs crewed by aliens, though, and they were keen to discover any physical evidence to support the ETH.

The Roswell incident was a gift to the nuts-and-bolts people. Here was evidence that the saucers were physical devices which, like earthly aircraft and spacecraft, could sometimes go wrong and crash. As the Roswell obsession developed, at the same time the UFO abduction researchers were honing their theories. Perhaps the two most influential of them are Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs. Neither is a scientist; Hopkins is an artist and Jacobs is an historian. Both men came to the conclusion that abductions were taking place on a grand scale and they were merely irritated by more numerate ufologists who calculated that such operations were not a practical possibility, even if the saucers and their crews really existed.
Physical scientists, together with others having a modicum of common sense, also took issue with the abductionists’ assertions that the Greys could get into abductees’ houses without opening doors or windows and without being seen by independent witnesses, or recorded by security cameras or other equipment. Hopkins and his friends wave all such objections aside. The Greys have the power of “selective invisibility” which enables them to choose who will or will not see them. They also seem untroubled by the biological absurdity of the notion of human-alien hybrids. After all, is not this a familiar theme in many Star Trek episodes? If humans can mate with Vulcans and Romulans can mate with Klingons and produce offspring, why not humans and Greys? In the world of the abduction researcher there seems to be little distinction between science and science fiction.

One would have thought that the activities of Hopkins and company would draw nothing but contempt and derision from the world at large, but this does not seem to happen to the extent that one would expect. Here we come to one of the more serious aspects of the whole business – the credulity of many people who are sufficiently intelligent and well educated to know better. These people are easily taken in by the apparent sincerity of the abductees and the emotions they display when questioned by abduction researchers about their experiences.

Abduction researchers have managed to create a big impression by using the technique of hypnotic regression. They claim, contrary to the best evidence, that this, when used correctly, can reveal the truth about their subjects’ past experiences. Untold harm has been done by the use of this technique by psychiatrists, and by persons with no formal qualifications, in producing stories of Satanic ritual abuse. Families have been broken up and persons sentenced to long prison terms because police, lawyers, judges and jurors have taken these fantastic tales at face value. This has happened in spite of the absurd details and the lack of any physical evidence to support them.

As the inevitable reaction set in against these injustices, many of the hypnotists have become involved in expensive lawsuits, as victims attempt to obtain compensation. UFO abduction hypnotists feel that they are on safer ground, though. The persons accused of wrongdoing are not parents or teachers, but the Greys who remain safely out of reach of the law. However, many alleged abductees have complained that, although they have had strange experiences and perhaps have seen UFOs, they do not really believe that they have been abducted. It is surely only a matter of time before one of them sues an abduction enthusiast. The results could be interesting.



Meanwhile, the abduction obsession makes the study of unusual aerial phenomena extremely unattractive to physical scientists and gifted amateur investigators. But this is not the only reason why few scientists get involved with ufology. Most scientific research is carried out because governments and private companies provide the necessary funds to pay for it. Ufology must be a spare-time pursuit and available resources are very limited. Well-witnessed, detailed reports for which fairly obvious explanations are not apparent, occur rarely and unpredictably. Some reports, which at first seem promisingly mysterious, attract media attention and the waters become so muddied by liars and fantasists who want to get in on the act that it becomes almost impossible to establish the truth about the alleged incident. A good example of this is the Varginha case of January 1996.

The principal barrier to the objective investigation of UFO reports is the ETH. The ETH can be stated in a beguilingly simple and seemingly reasonable form by saying that there are a very few unexplained reports for which this would seem to be an explanation worth considering. Few ufologists are aware of the temptation and the trap. If you think that the ETH might – just might – be true, then there comes a point in your investigation in which you stop working on a case and say that you have considered every possibility and that the ETH is the only one left. Therefore further investigation would be a waste of time.

Fellow ufologists are very impressed; you are congratulated on your hard work and are favourably compared with carping critics superglued to armchairs. Then what happens? You and your fellow ETHers build up a collection of inexplicable reports which should eventually accumulate so that a disbelieving world will finally be convinced that the ETs are here. Then along come the dreaded Sceptics and the Debunkers. They want to investigate your investigations to see if they are as meticulous and objective as you say they are. They look for hidden agendas and the concealment and distortion of negative evidence. Some of them even get out of their armchairs and cause you no end of trouble.

As the ETH is taken most seriously in the USA, this is where it has developed in its most extravagant form. As ufologists have no convincing proof of the ETH after more than 50 years, then there must be reasons for this situation. One of the favourite explanations is that the evidence is systematically concealed by government agencies. This notion has inspired numerous books, some of them written by people who are manifestly insane. These do nothing to entice the scientific community to take the UFO phenomenon seriously.

The belief that physical proof of extraterrestrial spaceships is kept secret is hopelessly irrational. Most ETHers cannot see this, so it is necessary, even if boring to some, to say why this is so and to keep on saying it as loudly and clearly as possible.

It is certainly true that governments and their agencies can keep secrets. But what many fail to realise is that these secrets concern matters controlled by governments. For example, if it is decided to construct and test a new type of weapon, then the government department responsible for it can decide where it is to be constructed and tested, and who shall have access to information about it. No persons will be informed about any aspect of the project unless they need to know. If defence journalists suspect that something unusual is going on, there will be cover stories ready for them to lead them away from the truth.

However, those who believe in government cover-ups of UFO evidence never seem willing to say how any government could preserve secrecy about something over which it has absolutely no control. UFOs can appear anywhere, at any time. Yet, against all logic, many ufologists still believe that an alien spacecraft crashed near Roswell in 1947 and that it and its occupants are still kept, under heavy guard, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Less credulous ufologists have pointed out repeatedly that, although the crash of a secret prototype of a US Air Force plane could be hushed up almost indefinitely, it would be extremely dangerous to attempt to do this in the case of the crash of an alien spacecraft. What would happen if the crash were followed by a similar incident in another country? And what if this incident were witnessed by thousands? Is it likely that the saucers are so designed that, in the event of mechanical failure they are programmed to crash within easy reach of US Air Force recovery teams?

The Roswell enthusiasts are unwilling to address themselves to such awkward questions. They either ignore them or attempt to preserve the myth by devising ingenious, paranoid fantasies. One of these is the story that the aliens are in league with the US government and that there is mutual co-operation in the effort to conceal their activities from the public. Another is that the US Air Force is so efficient and powerful that it can retrieve crashed UFOs quickly from any part of the world and persuade various governments to assist it in preserving secrecy by means of censorship and disinformation.

The problem with this sort of nonsense is that it distracts attention from the UFO reports themselves. Paranoid conspiracy theories get us nowhere, whereas the PSH if used fairly and carefully can enable us to take account of the effects of psychological factors and popular culture on the reporting and investigation of mysterious aerial phenomena. Those reports which still remain mysterious after these factors have been taken into account are the ones most worthy of further investigation.

On the other hand, ETH proponents are not interested in puzzling reports, they are interested only in those which seem to them to point to the ETH as a possible explanation. They do not want to see such cases highlighted and subjected to intensive critical examination because a convincing explanation of one might be capable of being applied to most of the others, leaving them with no evidence to support their hypothesis.

Unfortunately, journalists and others who boarded the ship to interview crew members were apparently unable to obtain statements from any of them confirming that they had actually seen the UFO

For example, ETHers rightly lay great stress on reports involving multiple independent witnesses but there are in fact very few of these. In a number of cases allegedly involving multiple witnesses the careful reader will notice that the story is told to investigators by only one or two witnesses and that investigators mysteriously fail to interview any of the others. A notorious example of this is the Trindade Isle sighting of 16 January 1958, when photographs were taken from the deck of a Brazilian navy vessel. Sceptics pointed out that the photographer was known for his trick photographs and said they were obvious fakes.

Believers insisted, and still insist, that up to 100 witnesses saw the UFO. Unfortunately, journalists and others who boarded the ship to interview crew members were apparently unable to obtain statements from any of them confirming that they had actually seen the UFO. ETHers are sure there are such statements but somehow don’t seem able to locate them, or that no one has yet got around to translating them into English, or whatever. However, they feel sure that there must have been all these witnesses, because that’s what Coral Lorenzen said in her book, Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space. (4)

It is understandable that ETHers should complain about sceptics who insist, a priori, that the ETH is nonsense and suppress and distort evidence in order to come up with conventional explanations for UFO reports, but they also resent open-minded researchers who actually dare to apply scientific and technical knowledge to their investigations. Such an approach, practised by Allan Hendry and reported in The UFO Handbook, (5) resulted in conventional solutions to all but a few of the cases he was able to investigate. Inevitably, some of the most puzzling cases had only one witness each, so not much weight could be given to them.

Although some of the more intellectually honest ETHers have praised Hendry’s work, many of them hate his guts for whittling away at the evidence so that there are very few reports which cannot be explained by competent investigators. Hendry also managed to conduct his investigations without the usual paranoid rantings about government agencies concealing evidence, silencing witnesses and giving false information to news media. He just investigated the cases, without any tantrums or histrionics. Most ufologists who are fairly new to the subject have probably never heard of Hendry. This is because his objective approach is not likely to excite the crowds of believers who attend UFO conferences.

This brings us to another reason why scientists despise ufologists – ufology as show business. There have been notorious examples of this in recent years, some of them spin-offs from the Roswell circus, such as the Santilli “alien autopsy” film. And then there’s the long-running MJ-12 saga, which might be called the thinking man’s UFO entertainment.

Alien abduction was a favourite theme of science fiction films long before it became an obsession of certain ufologists. As a result of this, many producers of radio or television entertainment seem to see abductees as fair game. Recently, Jenny Randles was phoned by a TV company in London, asking her for the phone numbers of “robust witnesses who could stand up to being grilled in a fun way”. She told the caller that ” . . . abductions were a serious issue that needed proper assessment not the kind of farcical, fluffy chat show intended.” (6)

Randles is certainly correct in her attitude. Holding up abductees to ridicule is no more likely to throw any light on the matter than the touting of absurd theories about selectively invisible aliens gliding through bedroom walls.

What is needed to entice physical scientists to take an interest in the study of UFO reports is a supply of genuinely puzzling cases, with multiple witnesses. These would also attract qualified psychologists, who could give advice about the limitations of human perception and memory and how these should be taken into account in the evaluation of sightings.

One somewhat neglected source of interesting UFO reports is the Hudson Valley area, to the north of New York City. A new edition of a book on these sightings has recently been published. (7) It summarises a collection of over 7,000 reports from the area covering the period from 1982 to 1995. After sightings of stars, planets and aircraft had been weeded out, there were many multi-witness reports of large flying objects with coloured lights, seen at low altitudes. The authors say that, because of the large number of reports, they lacked the resources to investigate more than a small proportion of them. However, as the reports are so numerous and the mysterious objects were continuing to be observed in recent years, there is plenty of material to work on for anyone who is keen to devise a sensible theory to account for them. It is possible, of course, that the Hudson Valley sightings can be explained without recourse to speculation about alien spacecraft or unknown natural phenomena, but only careful, scientifically informed and unbiased investigation can uncover the truth. Perhaps some resources could be diverted from Roswell, MJ-12 and all that nonsense?

Finally, what is to be done? Is ufology to continue as a form of popular entertainment, or is it possible to investigate and present cases in such a way that professional physicists and psychologists will be prepared to take them seriously? There are some hopeful signs. Three British glossy, news-stand UFO magazines, Alien Encounters, Sightings and UFO Reality, have recently gone down the plughole, a fate they truly deserved for their general fatuity, empty-headed speculations and paranoid conspiracy-mongering. It was also pleasing to note that when the recent Sturrock Report was published, it was not only Philip Klass who noticed that the ufologists who presented UFO evidence to the panel of experts suppressed any negative findings or negative evidence about the cases they submitted. We now know not to trust these characters in future. In Britain, some influential ufologists are no longer prepared to tolerate the practice of unscrupulous people who allow unqualified persons to hypnotise alleged abductees, and they are making plans to do something about it.

The best way ahead is undoubtedly to develop the psychosocial hypothesis, but it must be applied with care. There is much that remains to be discovered about human perception and memory, and the workings of the brain. There is also much remaining to be discovered about natural phenomena which are rare or difficult to observe and record. PSHers must be careful not to discard evidence that does not seem to suit their preconceptions. There is little to be said for the ETH, though. While seeming superficially reasonable, it leads researchers inevitably to distort the evidence to accommodate it and frustration at its failure to deliver convincing proof leads to the unedifying paranoid fantasies and cover-up conspiracy theories that we have been subjected to for so many years.


  1. Vallee, Jacques. Passport to Magonia, London, Neville Spearman, 1970
  2. Keel, John A. Operation Trojan Horse, London, Souvenir Press, 1971
  3. Clark, Jerome. The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial, Detroit, Visible Ink Press, 1998, 495
  4. Lorenzen, Coral. Flying Saucers: The Startling Evidence of the Invasion from Outer Space, New York, Signet, 1966, 168
  5. Hendry, Allan. The UFO Handbook, London, Sphere Books, 1980
  6. Northern UFO News, No. 180, October 1998, 8
  7. Hynek, J. Allen, Imbrogno, Philip J. and Pratt, Bob. Night Siege, St. Paul, Minnesota, Llewellyn Publications, second edition, 1998.