Philately Will Get You Nowhere

Kevin McClure
Magonia 4, Summer 1980

Those of you who have collected stamps will know that it can be done with considerable excellence. One may specialise in stamps of different periods or countries, in particular subjects or themes. One may take an interest in new issues or postal history, or in forgeries. One may buy catalogues or background books, or expensive items of equipment, or even join clubs and societies for enthusiasts. Stamps being straightforward and inanimate, collecting them is an ideal hobby for children. 

In the order of priorities of many investigators, ethical considerations come somewhere below the possession of a tacky little membership card, but there are those who are concerned, and I suspect that many of them read Magonia. There is clearly an elite in British ufology, and UFOIN [Independent UFO Investigation Network] in particular has shown how much can be achieved by first standardising methods, and then gradually raising these standards. The quality of the best of investigation has probably never been higher and occasional articles have emerged which are wholly or partly with the ethics of investigatory method. I would like to look beyond this point in due course, but first, with due respect to articles in Investigation (1), MAPIT Skywatch (2), and FSR (3), I will try to enumerate what seem to be the most important ethical and moral considerations involved in investigation.

The right to investigate UFO reports: There isn't any, the percipient must be allowed to decide what happens, and if that is a closed front door, so be it.

The approach to the witness: This will clearly depend on who has taken the initiative, percipient or investigator, but in every case discretion and confidentiality must be swiftly established. The percipient should understand what is entailed in investigation, and what purpose it will serve.

Publicity and disclosure of personal information: This again, should be the informed decision of the witness. The investigator should be able and willing to comunicate clearly the possible effects of any disclosure.

Witness trauma: This is almost inevitable, to some degree, in any notable case. Musgrave (3) refers to the 'Investigator as Counsellor and Healer', and while this may smack a little of half-baked social work, the point is generally valid. There is much that a capable investigator can do for the witness in terms of comforting, calming, and, without bias or over-emphasis, offering an explanation for what may have happened. Many reports of paranormal events are made because of worry rather than any desire to further our research.

Poor physical health: A vital point in investigation anyway, this must be considered as early as possible - poor physical health is unlikely to preclude the making of a report, but will certainly entail extra care.

Poor mental health: A harder problem to detect, but one we must. be equipped to consider. It is a problem that cuts two ways. A 'maladjusted witness' may, on the one hand, be wholly fabricating a report. On the other hand, the report may be as 'true' as any other, but to pursue it in depth with the percipient may well cause further psychologica1 damage.

Claims of other paranormal experiences or abilities: A number of otherwise first rate UFO investigators are currently seeking out information of this kind from what are initially UFO percipients, but some are adhering to a preconceived scheme and questionnaire, such as they would never use for a UFO report. In this context, above all others, speaking as a Society for Psychical Research member with a little experience of related phenomena, I do not think the investigator should initiate belief in an extended range of experiences. Where the information emerges voluntarily, or in the course of quiet investigation, it should not be leaped on as a fascinating breakthrough in research.

Child Witnesses: A difficult area, well considered by Jenny Randles in the Investigation article. All the previous points become more important in this context, because many child witnesses will not be able to make the relevant decisions for themselves, an even greater onus of responsibility will fall upon the investigator. I would suggest, for my own part, that unless the case is liable to be important for ufology, or there is a clear need for the individual or the family to work problems out through investigation, we should not pursue cases which involve children. Quite simply, unusual events, or apparent events, should not be afforded unwarranted importance to an impressionable mind.

Specialised psychological investigation methods: This topic primarily involves hypnotic regression, though I have heard of some damn-silly hallucinogenic research into 'after-death' experiences, in which UFO-type events have occurred. I suspect that a reassessment of regression is in progress. It is steadily proving unreliable and its products too often dependent on the operator of the hypnotic condition. It has been shown to be inconsistent if repeated at intervals, and its reported experiences to be broadly replicable among creative individuals who make no claim to UFO experience. If the technique is to be used we should certainly be very careful whom we ask to practise it. Someone with a science degree in psychology is not a psychologist. How many clinically trained psychologists do we have access to in the UK?

Knowing a little about interviewing techniques, I am somewhat prejudiced against what I see as artificial methods. A good interviewer can almost always obtain information that is true, a hypnotist can obtain much that is not. I prefer our witnesses to be conscious, for their sake, and ours.
The premise is that UFO reports actually require investigation, and that we are the right people to do this

Little of the above is original, but I hope it covers most of the major approaches to ethics in ufology. Considering that little or no thought was given to this matter ten years ago, we should probably be proud of getting this far; yet, though we have begun to establish something of a 'code of conduct' for dealing with witnesses, we are still assuming the validity of a premise that has scarcely been considered. The premise is that UFO reports, some or all, actually require investigation, and that we are the right people to do this. Underlying all our questions of success or failure, skill and ethics, is the matter of our motivation for all what we do.

We are still like the philatelists, collecting UFO reports. Having made what we consider is an adequate collection, we use the appearance in our collection of some particular item,to justify ideas and speculations towards which we feel, for some reason, a particular affection. We collect our reports, and, like the skilled specialist stamp-collector, catalogue and classify them, look at historical and fraudulent aspects, and partake in group activities of various kinds. Certainly we buy books and catalogues, and dream, at least, of expensive items of equipment. But we are not dealing with small pieces of printed paper, but with people and their problems, and complex social and psychological situations. If we are to become involved with percipients who are moving toward the edges of reality, we should not only know how to do it well, but to be able to explain why we are doing it, and justify our explanation to the public.

The fact that we are broadly regarded as cranks often dangerous cranks seems to suggest either that we cannot provide such explanations, or have failed to communicate our ability to do so. Jenny Randles, in the Editorial of NUFON News, May 1980, and in her attitude to high strangeness cases in the groups with which she has worked, has taken a stance with which I wholly agree. She makes the point that groups, great or small achieve relatively little, and that it is individuals who make the breakthroughs in ufology. She has stressed the importance of directing investigator effort where it is likely to produce results; that is, in the area of close-encounter and paranormal cases. I suspect that this is partly a response to the limited number of capable investigators, rather than a major change in the direction of investigation.

We might even go beyond this. Instead of using local groups and representatives to filter out trivia, might we not devise a way of ignoring the trivia in the first place? If we declined to show an interest in low definition reports and lights-in-the-sky for a year or two, would it actually be any loss? Do any reports falling into these categories produce anything of interest that has not actually be introduced by an over-keen investigator? How may reports of these types do we have already; and do we do anything with them that might justify our encouraging people to spend their time collecting more, or justify our intrusion on witnesses to obtain further information?
We collect our reports, and, like the specialist stamp collector, catalogue and classify them, look at historical and fraudulent aspects, and partake in group activities of various kinds

This is really to take a different approach to priorities at least, and probably to the whole subject. To emphasise high strangeness cases, and actively exclude what may be 'true-UFOs', but 'true-UFOs' which cannot be productive in advancing our understanding, might have a number of effects. The movement towards common ground with serious psychic research (which has much less of a public credibility problem) would be emphasised and, as far as scientific method.,would be appropriate, it could be more easily applied to a narrower range of investigations.

While such a change in direction might emasculate the raison d'etre of many groups and investigators, the "saving remnant", seriously skilled and involved, would at least be freed from the bad publicity inherent in the skywatch mentality. It would make nonsense of the current systems of judging the 'reality' of UFOs by ratios of total reports to presumed unknowns. That seems an inappropriate method of assessing psychological experience. Above all, given a new approach and a definition of investigation that demands a professional attitude, we might stop squabbling, all we seem to have in common at present in a desire to investigate.

I don't think we have strayed very far from ethics, because the ethical question is indivisible from the quality of our approach to investigation and our use of its results. Among the best and most experienced investigators and writers in the UK there is a range of attitudes, running from a clear determination to refute any paranormal explanation to a firm belief in UFOs as part of a demonology. Others are clearly preoccupied with self-publicity. Surely mysteries and anomalies are fair game for investigation, for sound social and psychological, even journalistic, reasons. We should not even feel ashamed of the pleasure we undoubtedly derive from our interest. Certainly some witnesses require the attention that we can afford them. People want to read about UFOs, whether ET, paranormal or anything else; many percipients wish to share their experiences. We can justify investigators, but can we justify the ones we've got?

The application of ethical principles of the kind discussed above are clearly vital; so too is intelligence, stability and sanity. I would suggest that while we encourage investigators with strong prejudices and preconceptions to attend important cases, we will continue to suffer from marked 'investigator-effects', where the investigator's own attitudes influence the result of the investigation. We do not know or understand the nature of the UFO phenomenon; the most unethical act open to us is to believe, or worse, pretend, that we do.