Crossing Swords

"The Pelican"
Magonia 92, June 2006

The Pelican, in his campaign to Make Ufology History, has decided that the most urgent priority is to press on with his project to strip the ETH of every last vestige of respectability and credibility. In his searches of the Internet in this connection, the name of Michael Swords crops up here and there. Swords, who was Professor of Natural Sciences at Western Michigan University - now retired - has written and lectured on UFOs and is chiefly noted for insisting that the ETH is a reasonable hypothesis.

He tries to convey an impression of scientific objectivity, but he doesn't fool the sceptics, who recognise him as a True Believer in the ETH. He is not as well known as many other ETH proponents as, unlike them, he does not trade Insults with those who disagree with him. He provides no testable hypotheses, only lots of dreamy speculation which reveals a somewhat unscientific tendency to take seriously unlikely UFO stories not backed up by any reliable evidence or testimony.

Before going any further with discussing Swords' UFO logical works it would be a good idea to look at one of the main weaknesses of the ETH. It is a weakness that is obvious in Swords' writings and it is simply that he never develops any version of the ETH which could be tested. In its present forms the ETH is unscientific because there is no objective way of testing it. It can simply be applied to any UFO report which does not have an obvious explanation. (In some cases believers even reject obvious, rational explanations, and refuse to take them seriously.)

On the UFO UpDates mailing list, Brad Sparks has often drawn attention to this problem. He complains that not only is there no testable theory, but that any attempt to devise one is attacked by the ETH believers. For example:
"But first, let's review what I said and what the criteria for a true scientific hypothesis involves, as it relates to ufology, and how ufology consistently undermines and attacks theory development:

"1. Consistency of model. I have pointed out again and again in numerous postings over the years that those in ufology who start on a promising avenue of theory or model-development always get shouted down because they allegedly failed to "consider the magic-like level of technology" the alleged aliens must have. Sometimes the UFOlogist struggling to develop a self-consistent model suddenly injects the "show-stopping magic-level technology" argument himself into his own reasoning because he knows he is going to be criticised by someone using this bogus argument as a weapon and he stops what he is doing, himself, on his own accord. And it always ends right there. Call it self-censorship in those cases, a reflexive response due to the hostile climate in ufology to anyone who tries to pursue an internally consistent model of what alien behaviour might look like at say, a 22nd century technology level, who allegedly fails to consider 30th and 100th century technology (which would mean introducing gross inconsistency into the 22nd century model and a violation of Occam's Razor). Or anyone who tries to begin first with human behavioural models and then shuts down because he thinks (or someone attacks him for) failing to consider that "alien behaviour" must and can only be so "alien" that we cannot understand it. So just drop whatever the hell you were doing and go into paralysis about any kind of mode ling of ETH or alien behaviour, period. This has happened so many times right here on UFO UpDates that I am surprised that anyone would dispute it.

"2. Testable model. I hope this is not controversial. It's just science, you know. If it's untestable, it is non-scientific. If an ETH model does not yield any testable ideas then it really isn't science yet. It does not have to be some great elaborate deal, but it has to be something, preferably numerical, quantitative. For example, a Military Reconnaissance Model of ETH would predict certain things about ET behaviour, such as use of stealth, patterns of observation, non-contact with human culture, etc. etc. But there would be specific quantitative estimates about the patterns to expect based on a specific given alien technology level (not confusingly mixing 22nd century levels with 30th century, etc.), distance travelled, use or non-use of bases on moon or planets or underwater, etc. Also patterns to expect not to see (e.g., if it is a military recon one would not expect landings on the White House lawn, at UN HQ, etc.).

3. Comparison against other competing self-consistent models. There needs to be at least an awareness of the existence of competing models both within ETH and outside ETH (such as interdimensional, inner earth, time travel, spiritual, paranormal/occult, etc.) and some kind of discussion so that ETH theory modelling is not done in a vacuum, but not with bringing in 'showstoppers' either." [1]
It would indeed be difficult to produce a model which would make certain reasonable assumptions as to how ET visitors might behave and testing them against the reports. There is also the difficulty of deciding which reports might reasonably be considered possible manifestations of ET activity, as all but a small proportion are fairly easily explained and it can be argued that the others remain unexplained because essential information is not available or unreliable. However, the main point is that most ETH believers don't want rational theories, as there is always the danger that they might provide the "wrong" answers. They really prefer the UFOs to be regarded as inherently mysterious with "show stopping magic-level technology" as Brad Sparks puts it.

Eliminating the "magic" technology would also rule out some reports of UFOs apparently defying Newton's laws by moving at high speed and stopping instantly or making right-angle turns at high speed. These would probably have to be attributed to observational error or misperception. There might be disturbingly few reports left on which to test the theory and, like some of the "classics", these might fail to stand up to critical examination and be classed as IFOs rather than UFOs.

The best approach, from the point of view of the ETH true believers (and these include those "serious ufologists" who say they merely regard the ETH as a rational hypothesis) is to point to compilations of "good" UFO reports and say that while no single report is really convincing, when looked at en masse they make a pretty good case for the ETH and they have words to describe anyone who disagrees, some of them very rude.

However, to give it a bit of credibility this style of "scientific" ufology requires someone with an aura of academic respectability. Michael Swords is one such person and his work is often referred to on UFO UpDates by Jerome Clark whenever the set of SF comic-strip wild imaginings known as the ETH comes under attack, which in The Pelican's opinion should be as often as possible.

Swords' writings are almost entirely speculative and he tries to give the impression of being scientifically respectable, although to the careful reader he can be seen to lean towards the irrational. A good example is an article in which he criticises the Condon Committee for its attitude to close encounter (CE-IV or abduction) reports. (2)

He thinks the Condon team should have investigated the Betty and Barney Hill case, although people who have investigated it have got bogged down in endless arguments about how to interpret the story and most sensible people would surely agree that they were wise to avoid getting involved and wasting their limited resources on it. A case which they did investigate was the Herbert Schirmer encounter report of 3 December 1967. Swords quotes from some Of the original documents on the case concerning opinions about Schirmer's mental state and objects to it being "seen as a psychological case from the beginning". In view of the details of the report, the fact that there were no other witnesses, and the lack of any physical evidence to support the story, this is hardly surprising. The published conclusion (Case 42 in the Condon Report) was: "Evaluation of psychological assessment tests, the lack of any evidence, and interviews with the patrolman, left project staff with no confidence that the trooper's reported UFO experience was physically real."

The Pelican wonders what other conclusion Swords thinks they should have reached. Swords continues his article with an account of a night-time encounter by a woman in Texas, who wrote a detailed letter to the Colorado Project about it. Swords prints the woman's report and remarks at the end of it: The lady then offered herself for hypnosis and research, but the project ignored her. Condon filed the letter under the category "psychological". Conceivably it was. One thing we do know: The project and Ed Condon couldn't be bothered. And another thing is at least half-true: This is an old and sickly lady asking for some help, but nothing was done. This inaction was a type of sin of omission that reflects badly on Colorado.

It should be noted, however, that the woman, writing in 1968, claimed to have had her extraordinary experience 35 years earlier! She had been moved to write her story after reading John Fuller's Interrupted Journey, about the Hills' encounter. She claimed to have suffered from nervousness and nightmares since. Now what should the Condon team have done about it? They surely couldn't have been expected to waste time on such an old report, and it was surely no part of their duties to provide free psychotherapy to anyone who blamed the UFOs or aliens for their troubles.

Swords goes on to discuss a couple of similar cases, but he objects to the project's conclusions that their causes were psychological. What should they have concluded? He doesn't say, but he concludes by contrasting their approach to such reports with that of Budd Hopkins! Need the Pelican say more?

  2. Michael D. Swords, "Too close for Condon: close encounters of the 4th kind", International UFO Reporter. Fall 2003 (also available on the CUFOS web site)