Editorial Notes, Magonia 93, September 2006.
In a piece in the most recent issue of International UFO Reporter, published by the J Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, the magazine’s editor and UFO historian Jerome Clark, attempts to define a ‘core’ UFO phenomenon distinct from the wide range of associated phenomena which have accrued around ufology over the past sixty years. 
In returning to the roots of the phenomena, Clark identifies Charles Fort as being the founding father of ufology, a point on which I tend to agree with him, although it’s a view which will not be accepted by many contemporary ufologists who see the UFO phenomenon developing out of military involvement in the wake of WWII and the growth of the Cold War, and find Fort and his literary ramblings rather embarrassing.
Fort was certainly the person most heavily responsible for the creation of a (more-or-less) unified study of anomalies. Before Fort, although anomalous events were comprehensively reported, commented on and even investigated, there was no overall framework into which such events could be slotted. Before Fort (that sounds like the basis of a calendrical system, and indeed one of Fort’s followers did attempt such a thing!) there were certainly books of mysteries and wonders. Victorian writers such as Sabine Baring Gould published dozens of books collecting mysteries and marvels: Freaks of Fanaticism and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages were typical of Gould’s works. In Fort’s own era the English writer Rupert Gould’s two books, Oddities and Enigmas covered many of the topics which we now consider ‘Fortean’: the ‘Devil’s Hoof-marks’, the moving coffins of Barbados, the Barisal guns, etc.
But these writers treated anomalous phenomena as just that; anomalous, and they made no attempt to provide an overall explanation for the events they described. As far as organisations such as the [British] Society for Psychical Research was concerned, the phenomena they investigated largely involved, in their eyes, either the survival of bodily death, or unknown but natural powers of the human brain.
But Fort was different; as Clark points out: “Rather than present his findings as samples of random oddities, he incorporated them – his often tongue-in-cheek prose masking genuine conviction – into a vision of extraterrestrial wayfarers engaged in all kinds of baffling activities: dropping organic and inorganic substances out of the blue, seeding the earth with mysterious archaeological artefacts [something Fort himself attempted in his youth - JR], causing persons and vessels to vanish, and – not incidentally – all the while being mistaken for ghosts, demons, gods, fairies, and ocean-going saurians.”
Fate magazine was crucial in promoting the early UFO stories, but, Clark points out, “Fate (whose initial issue saw print less than a year after Arnold’s encounter), also covered Fortean and psychic occurrences and engaged in freewheeling occult-tinged speculation”, and he concludes that most of its readers “probably read Fate‘s contents indiscriminately, in the implicit assumption that one ‘true story’ is as good as another”.
And now we come to the crux of the argument: “Not all early ufologists agreed. If they had, there would have been no entity named ‘ufology”‘. And, The Pelican might add, we’d all be better off for it! Because this is the real impetus behind the semi-humorous slogan ‘Make Ufology History’. Ufology started off as history; an attempt to claim for a raw, new subject a history that was never really there. It began as a subject that was looking for something to study. The stories that were emerging in newspapers and on radio were not enough in themselves to sustain the wide public interest that the subject needed, so a broader perspective was required. Fort’s works became a storehouse of references which ufologists scoured for individual cases to prove that UFOs had a history, and they went back earlier and earlier to claim more and more anomalous ‘oddities and enigmas’ into the ufological database. We can see how the same technique has been used in an unsuccessful attempt to create a historical backgoround for the crop circle phenomenon.
The more that historical Fortean data became linked to ufology, the more contemporary anomalies also attracted the attention of ufologists, reflecting the range of reports they found in Fort and elsewhere. Clark gives the example of M. K. Jessup who introduced fortean skyfalls, archaeological mysteries and a range of other ‘oddities’ into the subject. This led on to a kind of ufology that involved “all-encompassing paranormal speculation” which challenged the ETH, and resulted in “magical thinking which could only relegate ufology even further to the edges”.
So with the sceptics on one side and the occultists and demonologists on the other, there arose the need to rediscover the core UFO phenomenon. Here Clark is clear what this might be: “such hardcore evidence as instrumented observations, radar/visuals and landing traces”. Of course, every single one of these has problems of its own, as is shown in the case Clark now raises as an example of a case that has received ‘concentrated scientific attention’ – Trans-en-Provence. He claims this case has “impressively documented anomalous effects apparently tied to an unknown, advanced technology.” In fact, it has nothing of the sort. It’s a single witness case, with some alleged physical traces, which were poorly investigated by people who, whilst they were impressively qualified, had little experience of the type of investigation they were meant to be undertaking. For a first rate analysis of the problems with Trans, I recommend the article ‘Trans-en-Provence, when science and belief go hand in hand’ by Eric Maillot and Jacques Scornaux. (1) There seems to be nothing in the Trans case which would rule out a deliberate hoax, or a practical joke which got out of hand.
It’s not made clear just what this data is, or why science should choose to neglect it
But cases like Trans (and even more so, the allegedly multi-witness Trindade Island) are essential to the concept of the ‘core phenomenon’. In Clark’s definition this is something which “as far as we can judge … comprises structured craft with extraordinary performance characteristics and humanlike and humanoid crews” which to me is a pretty clear acceptance of the ETH. The part of the quote I have indicated by an ellipsis contains an interesting qualification: “as far as we can judge from the limited evidence available to us“, which is fair comment, but continues: “in good part because of science’s neglect of eminently investigable data”. It’s not made clear just what this data is, or why science should choose to neglect it. In the case of the Trans-en-Provence case the data consisted of soil and vegetation samples which were analysed, producing inconclusive results, and ending with the apparent claim by some investigators, including Jacques Vallee that the fact that nothing seemed to have happened to the soil was indicative that a physical UFO had been present!
In attempting to further identify a ‘core’ phenomenon, Clark draws a distinction, which I would certainly not argue with, between an ‘event’ phenomenon, and an ‘experience’ one. One of the key analyses of the ‘experience’ phenomenon is Hufford’s classic work on the ‘Old Hag’ (2). This describes an experience – the sense of being assailed by a non-corporeal entity whilst asleep – which is shared by many people in different cultures. A number of physiological mechanisms for this experience have been offered, but their ability to explain all cases has been questioned, and while the basic experience – the ‘core phenomenon’ – is widespread, there are complex cultural overtones to individual cases. Clark points out that such experiences are “truly, profoundly mysterious, and their cause or stimulus is unknown”.
Broadly true, but to some extent I would challenge the latter part of the statement. Although the exact mechanism of individual experiences can never be definitively explained, there is enough evidence to suggest a broad outline of what is involved in such experiences as the Hag, linking it with such states as sleep paralysis, although it is impossible to ‘explain’ individual experiences definitively. And in this issue of Magonia, Mike Hallowell presents a fascinating preliminary study which brings something which has traditionally been dismissed as ‘imagination’ or ‘fantasy’ into the category of ‘experience event’.
Obviously, such experiences are controversial, by the very fact that their cause or stimulus is unknown, and this allows Clark to take a swipe at ‘conventionalist opinion’ (a.k.a. ‘pelicanism’) which he claims dismisses them as “misperceptions, lies, and mental disorders sometimes invented on the spot for the purpose”. But if such experiences cannot be dismissed so easily, and we accept that they have some causative principle, we are still confronted by observations that “do not translate into anything that transcends testimony and memory”.
Clearly Clark does not believe that this applied to UFOs, and that there is something there that does ‘transcend testimony and memory’, presumably the radar/visual, physical evidence and multi-witness cases which seen never to work out quite as they are meant to. And. Of course, in many cases the so-called physical evidence is itself dependent on testimony and memory. The soil and plant samples in the Trans-enProvence case have no evidential value in themselves without the testimony of the sole witness; the value of the photographic evidence in the Trindade Island case is dependent on the testimony of a small, compromised, group of people and the clearly incomplete memory of two others.
So is the UFO phenomenon so different from other puzzling experiential phenomena? Clark himself seems to suggest that there might be a ‘core phenomenon’ behind Sasquatch as a “race of (biological) hominids, the product of evolutionary processes, cousins to humankind, and intelligent enough to conceal themselves in the vast wilderness of the Pacific Northwest”, with the bizarre accounts of hairy hominids in less likely places (including, according to Peter Rogerson, Colwyn Bay) being a ‘secondary correlate’.
Could there then be a ‘core phenomenon’ behind such experiences as non-corporeal childhood companions? Mike Hallowell suggests there might be. I rather doubt it, although he presents one multi-witness case that would be considered good evidence if presented in a UFO context, and the consistency of testimony across a range of cultures is no less, possibly even more, convincing that the often culturally-specific UFO testimony!
The search for the ‘core phenomenon’ as exemplified by the ‘structured craft’ is the Holy Grail of ufology, and as in the case of the other Grail, it seems that it can only be tracked down through codes, hints, suggestions, fading documents, ‘sincere testimony’ and malleable memory.
- Jerome Clark, ‘The Core Phenomenon and the Secondary Phenomenon’, International UFO Reporter, 30, 4, 2006, pp. 14-16
- Eric Maillot and Jacques Scornaux, ‘When science and belief go hand in hand’ in 1947-1997 Fifty Years of Flying Saucers, ed. Hilary Evans and Dennis Stacy, John Brown, London, 1997.
- David J. Hufford, The Terror that Come in the Night; an experience centred study of supernatural assault traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press.