Monday, June 19, 2017

In Search Of "Progress" in UFOlogy - At the End of the Road?

Every so often, a cry goes out from some well-known UFOlogist about the lack of "progress" in UFOlogy. The cry is often echoed by others, typically with great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Solutions are proposed, but ultimately nothing changes.

Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos
As those of you who follow the UFO Blogs and postings already know, the most recent cry of this kind comes from the Spanish UFOlogist Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos. Olmos has been researching UFOs for fifty years now, and since the year 2000 has been concentrating his efforts on FOTOCAT, a world-wide catalog of UFO photo events. Many researchers have assisted with this collection, myself included.  Olmos is well-respected among UFO Realists (those who attempt to adhere to facts (more or less) in investigating UFOs, as opposed to the Unrealists who are always ready to believe exciting UFO stories with little or no proof). In Jacques Vallee's autobiographical Forbidden Science (Volume 2), he mentions in an entry for 1970 that he has been corresponding regularly with Olmos concerning reported Spanish landing cases. In fact, Vallee mentions Olmos several times in that volume. You won't find anyone with better UFO street cred than that.

In his Blog posting of June 9, Olmos wrote,

Case after case, when duly documented and analyzed, is demolished or downgraded. Every day that goes by, we hear of another classic UFO case long considered uncanny and insoluble, now probed and found to have an ordinary, conventional cause.... Advanced imaging systems aboard military aircraft are available today in such numbers that one could expect that UFO images would be recorded frequently, if UFOs appeared in the atmosphere with the regularity some reports suggest. The bare truth is that the evidence of anything exceptional or singular recorded with such powerful means is extremely poor or non-existent...
Ufology not only fails to advance, it is a vicious circle. Today we see UFO news publicized on the internet with the same old images of lens flares or aircraft contrails that seemed strange in the 1950s. Because there are no academic or authoritative criteria universally accepted, and no hard evidence that exists as a certainty, past mistakes recur over and over. Ufology is immersed in a loop that never ends
His posting is long and very thoughtful, and painfully honest. I recommend that you read it very carefully, in its entirely. Olmos concludes:

Let me be perfectly clear: the UFO phenomenon holds transcendent significance only insofar as it results from extraterrestrial life visiting the Earth. It is this possibility that made the ETT popular and compelling from the start. But I fear that 70 years of air incidents, close encounters, radar returns, photos and videos and other seemingly astonishing experiences do not sum up to proof that such visits have taken place. 
This conclusion, coming from a man who has been at the forefront of UFO research for fifty years, is devastating. He follows it up with a piece by his colleague Thomas E. "Eddie" Bullard, professor emeritus of folklore at the University of Indiana. Frankly, this piece surprised me at least a little. I have met Bullard several times at different UFO conferences (I have corresponded with Olmos, but never met him), and came away with the impression of Bullard as a True Believer in the UFO Abduction Phenomenon, as taught by Hopkins-Jacobs-Mack: we have done the studies, we have the evidence, alien abductions are established fact. He participated in the Encounters at Indian Head conference ("Betty Hill's Last Hurrah") in 2000, where he suggested that the Hills' close encounter and abduction narrative were probably based on real events. 
Eddie Bullard (left) and the late Hilary Evans chat with the late Betty Hill in 2000. On the right is "junior," Betty's supposed UFO abductor, as sculpted by Marjorie Fish.

It was Bullard who established the eight "elements" of UFO abductions, a general guideline that would supposedly help sort out 'authentic' alien abduction experiences from delusions.
1. Capture. The abductee is forcibly taken from terrestrial surroundings to an apparent alien space craft. 
2. Examination. Invasive medical or scientific procedures are performed on the abductee.
3. Conference. The abductors speak to the abductee.
4. Tour. The abductees are given a tour of their captors' vessel.
5. Loss of Time. Abductees rapidly forget the majority of their experience.
6. Return. The abductees are returned to earth. Occasionally in a different location from where they were allegedly taken or with new injuries or disheveled clothing.
7. Theophany. The abductee has a profound mystical experience, accompanied by a feeling of oneness with God or the universe.
8. Aftermath. The abductee must cope with the psychological, physical, and social effects of the experience.

These "elements" were taken seriously for a time, but received a serious blow when Martin Kottmeyer showed that only one account in Bullard's "abduction" catalog has a greater number of  correctly-ordered "elements" than the fictional alien abduction by the Tiger Men of Mars in a 1930 Buck Rogers comic strip. Kottmeyer attributes this to the "elements" being what is requisite for good storytelling.

I was surprised to see Bullard "backtracking." In his piece accompanying Olmos' posting, Bullard writes that Olmos' words

serve as an obituary for a failed quest.  I do not want to hear that we have tilted at windmills for decades, but sadly, I have to agree with most of what he says.

As might be expected, this double whammy from Olmos and Bullard has gotten a lot of attention from serious students of UFOs. Chris Rutkowski, who for decades has been collecting and evaluating UFO reports in Canada much as Olmos has been in Spain, wrote in the Facebook group UFO Updates, "He's right." Researcher Curt Collins, blogger at Blue Blurry Lines, wrote "Wow, that's a brutally honest assessment."

My Two Cents

UFOlogy cannot become a science, because it has no real data that it can study. Of course there are accounts from "reliable witnesses," but it has become increasingly evident in recent years that "reliable witnesses" often aren't. So there is nothing truly solid on which to base any theories about a supposed UFO phenomenon, separate and distinct from other known phenomena. Given the inherent fallibility of human eyewitness testimony, the real question should be: how often should we expect to find seemingly credible and extraordinary UFO accounts, even in the absence of any extraordinary stimulus? UFOlogists assume that the answer is "zero," which is obviously wrong.

This was the argument I made to Dr. J. Allen Hynek when I was his student at Northwestern. He didn't agree. Hynek was finishing up his first UFO book. It became The UFO Experience, a book famous for creating the three different kinds of "close encounters." Hynek had been sending the manuscript around to his UFOlogical colleagues, like Jacques Vallee and Fred Beckmann. Once while we were discussing matters UFOlogical, Hynek offered to let me read one chapter, Chapter 8 ("Close Encounters of the First Kind"). I wrote a three-page letter in response to that chapter, one leading the the inclusion of a note in his book  in Chapter 4, to answer my uncredited comments:
Many critics maintain that all UFO reports are garbage. Since a large portion of the original, unfiltered reports are clearly the result of misperception, critics say that investigation in depth would reveal that the entire body of UFO phenomena can be so characterized. Such arguments assume that all UFO reports belong to the same statistical population and that the deviants, the truly interesting UFO reports, are merely extremes in that population. One might with equal justice say while plotting the variation in sizes of oranges that watermelons are merely the tail end of the distribution curve of the sizes of oranges. (Footnote, The UFO Experience, p. 27)
One might indeed say that when one does not know whether watermelons are a distinct category from the oranges, and thus cannot exclude the possibility that they are measurement errors of oranges.

One can often find seeming patterns in random noise, but such correlations always disappear with time (like a gambler's "lucky streak"). UFO old-timers might remember the "pattern" that David Saunders thought he recognized, suggesting in 1971 that waves of UFO sightings repeat about every 61 months, and seem to move eastward by about 30 degrees of longitude. That "pattern" has fizzled out quite completely.

What Olmos is saying is that the traditional approach to serious UFO research - what might be called the Hynekian paradigm - investigating reports from credible individuals, investigating alleged physical effects, photos, and videos - has reached a complete dead end. And nobody (thus far) has mounted a vigorous defense to try to prove him wrong.

But this grudging admission will have no effect whatsoever on what is sometimes called "Retail UFOlogy," the large number of Unrealist consumers of UFO materials and those who pander to them for fun and profit. Most of those people probably have no idea who Olmos or Bullard are. Instead they eagerly devour high-octane UFO and alien stories from the likes of Steven Greer, David Wilcock, George Noory, etc., and find them highly interesting.

Philip J. Klass
In our discussion of the lack of "progress" in UFOlogy, it is appropriate to close with a look at Phil Klass' UFO Curse. In a moment of great benificence, the late super-skeptic Philip J. Klass bequeathed
To ufologists who publicly criticize me, ... or who even think unkind thoughts about me in private, I do hereby leave and bequeath:

No matter how long you live, you will never know any more about UFOs than you know today. You will never know any more about what UFOs really are, or where they come from. You will never know any more about what the U.S. Government really knows about UFOs than you know today. As you lie on your own death-bed you will be as mystified about UFOs as you are today. And you will remember this curse.

Another way of looking at Olmos and others'  admissions of UFOlogical defeat is that they have run into, and recognized, the fundamental limits to our UFO knowledge set by Klass' UFO Curse.