The Psychosocial Controversy

John Rimmer
Editorial Notes, Magonia 64, August 1998

A few things seem to have come together lately to bring the extraterrestrial hypothesis back into the centre of discussion in ufology. The recently published Sturrock Report has provoked an outbreak of rather triumphalist ETH comment on Internet discussion forums. We are making our own 'contributions to the debate with John Harney's controversial Magonia ETH Bulletin and with the response that my 'Extremely Tenuous Hypothesis' article provoked from American researchers. 

Curiously, we heard nothing from ETH proponents for months after the publication of the article until Mark Pilkington posted the article on a number of Internet forums. This produced an almost instantaneous reply from Jerome Clark, who was the principle target of my comments. The discussion has gone on now for several weeks, and wired-up readers can find the various contributions archived at Readers of the original Extremely Tenuous Hypothesis article will not be surprised to find that the debate is almost entirely polarised between ETH-supporting Americans and ETH-sceptical British ufologists.

One of the problems seems to be a misunderstanding of the basic premise of the 'psycho-social hypothesis'. In a way, it is a mistake to regard it as a means of explaining individual UFO reports in the same way as the ETH. With the ETH the chain of logic is clear: an anomalous observation cannot be explained by conventional means as a natural phenomenon or a misinterpretation of a mundane event. The investigator is satisfied that the description of events given by the witness is an accurate record of what actually happened. The investigator may also find physical evidence or further eyewitness accounts which seem to bear out the original report. As no mundane explanation can be found, and as elements of the witness's account suggest an extraterrestrial origin for the event, the investigator feels justified in proposing that as a likely explanation for the puzzling phenomenon.

I hope I have not misrepresented the ETH case here, and as I do not intend to rehearse the contrary arguments here, I will let it stand at that. The psycho-social hypothesis is not directly comparable to the ETH, it is not a sort of 'opposition party' which has to come up with an alternative policy on every individual UFO investigation. That is the job of the debunker. It is concerned rather with the totality of cases, and the manner in which the UFO phenomenon is interpreted as a whole. This is not to say that individual PSHers (a convenient if rather oversimplified description of those investigators who propose a psycho-social dimension to the UFO phenomenon) will not attempt to explain the mechanism of individual cases. In doing so, however, they are just as likely to be at loggerheads with other PSHers and sceptics, as with ETHers (another convenient abbreviation). We have seen this when John Harney has taken Phil Klass to task for his sceptical explanation for the Travis Walton case.

In proposing that psychological and sociological factors are the main defining influence on the construction of the UFO phenomenon, the PSH is much less dependent on finding an 'explanation' for individual cases than the ETH proponent. Although is quite wrong to demand that any particular UFO report should be 'explained' by the PSH, the necessity to find an extraterrestrial explanation for at least one UFO report is a sine qua non for the ETH. Part of the fun of the Internet debate has been goading the ETHers to come up with the details of ten such cases. Only one correspondent came up with a 'Best 10' list, the others dismissing the request out of hand, no doubt recognising it for the trap it is. Chris Alien was quite right in his letter in Magonia 63 when he predicted that "your challenge to Jerry Clark ... will be met either by silence or by the simple riposte that the mass of UFO evidence speaks for itself and that further elucidation is unnecessary". This is exactly what has happened.

What this argument ignores is that 'the mass of evidence' is comprised of individual cases, and the 'mass' can have no evidential value in itself unless each individual part of it can be shown to stand up on its own. Ironically though, the mass of evidence, regardless of the status of its individual pieces, is of more relevance to a psycho-social analysis than to a 'hard-evidence', ETH-oriented approach.

As I said earlier, it is not the role of the PSHer to 'explain' each puzzling case, but rather to demonstrate the psychological, social and cultural conditions which have led to the UFO phenomenon manifesting itself in a particular way at a particular time. In some ways the actual 'cause' of a UFO report is irrelevant to a PSH analysis: a particular experience may have been triggered by an astronomical object, a meteorological phenomenon or a psychological symptom. The PSHer is interested in why such an experience is reported at a particular time in terms which may be identical to experiences triggered by totally different stimuli.

A psychosocial analysis of UFO reports is still valid even if in some cases the original stimulus is extraterrestrial in origin. It is clear that ETH proponents cannot agree amongst themselves which particular reports unequivocally demonstrate other-worldly intervention, so it is difficult to create a sample of generally agreed cases in order to look for similarities between them. However, in those cases which do seem to turn up fairly regularly in ETH discussions Coyne - Valensole, Trans-en-Provence, Levelland, and a few others - the differences between them are greater than the similarities with other cases that are widely accepted as not provide strong evidence of the ETH. So the PSHer is not too worried by the ETH, but rather wonders why so many other ufologists, particularly in America, get so worked up about it. If a genuine extraterrestrial agency is producing UFO encounters which end up looking just the same as encounters with unusual but mundane natural and psychological phenomena, the only way we can scientifically examine it is by considering the psychology and sociological setting of the percipient and the way it was investigated.