Truth, Tales and Catalogues

Peter Rogerson
‘Northern Echoes', Magonia 62, February 1998

In his 25 Years Ago column in the pages of the previous issue of our esteemed organ, John Rimmer paid handsome tribute to the notorious INTCAT. which used to (dis?)grace the pages of the old MUFOB and the early editions of Magonia. It was truly a child of its time, a time of naive youth, when I actually thought you could tidily separate positive and negative cases. It was as I worked on INTCAT, and in the many discussions with my collaborators on the project, that I began to realise that things were much more complicated.

There were no unambiguously positive cases, and not all negative verdicts were secure. Getting half an ear on the often passionate debates in the French ufological circles of the time about the revisionist studies of the 1954 wave was a real revelation. Even today British and American ufologists blithely quote cases from that period that their French colleagues have dismissed as hoaxes 20 years ago. The reason is largely that little of this literature has ever been published in English.

You note I said collaborators. I had help from a number of overseas ufologists such as Richard Heiden, Jacques Bonabot, Ted Bloecher, Alain Gamard, Dave Webb and Barry Greenwood, not all of whom by any means shared my own opinions – it does of course go without saying that I received no help, interest or encouragement from BUFORA whose officials adopted their usual attitude of ’if we can’t run it, we don’t want to know’. In any case occult speculation, not hard slog, was their forté at the time.

After spending the best part of a decade on INTCAT, I largely abandoned the whole project in the early 1980′s, keeping my hand in with the odd speculative article. This was the period of my transition from ‘New Ufologist’ to sceptic. My current incarnation as book-reviewer-in-chief has done little to assuage my scepticism.

Reading through book after book one encounters time after time statements to the effect that X, Y or Z happened to A, B and C. What this means at best is that A has produced a narrative which purports to be his or her memory of certain experiences which s/he alleges B and C also encountered. Investigator D may get similar memorates from B and C, but often not. More often a precis of D’s report appears in a book or magazine, from which it is further summarised by author E, who is then quoted by F who is quoted by G.

Every one of these stages produces problems. We surely know enough of the problems of perception to know that even in the tiny proportion of cases in which we have real-time reporting either by tape, mobile phone or notebook, there are likely to be distortions. The task of translating perceptions into words, which must depend on the verbal skills and cultural background of the reporter, will lead to even more distortions.

But 99% of the cases reported in anomaly literature are not real time reports, but memorates of past events, maybe only hours in the past, but in many cases years earlier. Here we encounter all the problems of memory, its distortions, false memories, confabulation, etc. The task of organising what may be difficult-to-express memories into coherent narratives will introduce still further problems. What I said about real time reports applies in spades. Especially when memories are ambiguous, vague or very anomalous, there is likely to be recourse to cultural narrative-telling traditions.

The standardisation of abduction and NDE memorates is probably occurring here. Narrators make use of words, phrases, and whole chunks of narrative from similar stories they have read or heard. A tendency to tabloid speak may take place. Narrators may believe that a good narrative ought to have certain features. These may include conversion themes such as ‘I was a sceptic until…’, ‘I was shown a photo of great aunt Mabel and the figure I saw in my kitchen was her’ or ‘the policeman who investigated said his superiors knew all about this but weren’t permitted to reveal…’, or the linking of discrete imagery into a coherent narrative.

Even now the processes have hardly begun. If a narrative is investigated, the investigators almost invariably supply their own agenda, they will often supply the witness with new vocabulary and imagery with which to express their ideas, in many cases they will supply a ready made ideology (ETHism, spiritualism, belief in conspiracies etc., etc.) around which the witnesses may organise their experiences. Where there are multiple investigations, the later investigators may be simply relayed the propaganda of the first to get on the scene.

Even the narrative itself will probably have been changed. This still applies when the same investigators interview the witness on several occasions. One should also note that witnesses may tailor their narratives to different investigators, depending on the latter’s sex, age, apparent friendliness, appearance, education, compatibility with the witness, personal beliefs, etc.

Next come the problems which occur when the investigators reduce what may be a mass of recordings or notes into a publishable narrative. They may be guided by what parts of the narrative agree most with their own beliefs or agendas; more subtly they will be guided by what they think the witness experienced, what mental imagery the witnesses’ narrative(s) conjure up in their heads. The published narrative will also be affected by the education, literary and verbal skills and life experiences of the investigators, and those of the assumed audience.

When other writers use this first-generation narrative as a basis of their own précis, further selection, bias and misreading are likely to occur. This can go on for numerous generations of narrative production. The final result that we see in any given book may therefor bear very little resemblance to what ‘actually happened’. Moreover we can never discover exactly what ‘actually happened’ – we weren’t there and in the witnesses’ mind(s). We may on the basis of past experience make good guesses. Certainly in many UFO cases in particular, we might be able to work out to our satisfaction what might have stimulated the original perception. But, we are never going to be in a position of proving, on the basis of narratives alone, that any given event is truly anomalous.

By the time we get to catalogue-type precis, we must give up any notion of positive and negative and recognise that at best we are getting nothing other than very reduced and probably very biased collections of folk stories. However, they may still say something of our general cultural beliefs.

INTCAT is now online: