Friday, July 9, 2010

UFO's, Culture & Public Opinion

The number of Americans who actually participate in the UFO subculture— by buying books, magazines, and videotapes; attending conferences; visiting Web sites; and engaging in similar activities— cannot be precisely estimated. But survey data make clear that those who do participate represent merely a fraction of a vast number of people interested in the subject. Whether they are open-minded or simply credulous, it remains the case that millions of Americans view UFOs with considerably less skepticism than do the government and the academy. Within a few months of the first modern claim of a flying saucer sighting in June 1947, polls showed that 90 percent of the population had heard of them. By 1966, that figure had risen to 96 percent, and, more important, 46 percent of all Americans believed UFOs actually existed. More than a decade later— in 1978 —30 percent of college graduates believed they existed. At that time, the number of Americans who believed UFOs were real reached its highest level, 57 percent. The number fell to 47 percent in 1990 but was still at 48 percent in a 1996 Gallup poll, nearly half a century after the first sighting. A 1997 Time-CNN poll (presumably commissioned in connection with the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell, New Mexico, UFO “crash”) indicated that 17 percent of Americans believed in alien abduction. An even stranger result had appeared in a 1992 Roper survey, which suggested that 2 percent of Americans (roughly 3.7 million) believed they themselves had been abducted. While the Roper result is almost certainly inflated, a number even half as large would be extraordinary.

Two aspects of these figures are particularly striking. First, they have remained astonishingly stable over a fifty-year period. What might have been an early Cold War fad clearly came to occupy a semipermanent niche in the American psyche. Second, the level of belief was not only relatively stable; it was extraordinarily high, regardless of when the survey was taken or by which polling organization. Even if one compensates for problems of sampling or the wording of questions, tens of millions of Americans accept the reality of UFOs. In a survey of 765 members of the UFO community, Brenda Denzler found her respondents to be anything but “fringe.” They were predominantly white, male, middle-class college graduates, with incomes just slightly below the national median. At the same time, attitudes about UFOs contain the seeds of conspiracist thinking, for public attitudes are clearly at variance with the official position that there is no credible evidence that UFOs exist. Indeed, in the 1996 Gallup survey, when subjects were asked, “In your opinion, does the U.S. government know more about UFOs than they are telling us?” 71 percent answered yes. In the Yankelovich poll in 2000, 49 percent believed that the government was withholding information about UFOs. 7 Thus an extremely large number of people hold beliefs that contradict official government positions and believe that government concealment explains the discrepancy. Belief in a government cover-up runs deep in the ufology community, especially among those who are professional or full-time UFO writers or investigators.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Ufology and Imagination

In many ways the study of UFOs has exemplified modernity’s conflicted relationship with the “Other.” In a transcendent sense, this alone qualifies ufology as having religious valences. But even in a more mundane sense, religion and ufology have been intertwined, because religious motives have so often been imputed to UFO witnesses, UFO investigators, and those who believe them. Yet although many in the UFO community struggled with mainstream science, they nevertheless tended (or intended) to use a scientific framework for understanding UFO phenomena. There was almost no room in the organized study of aerial anomalies for religion, which one theologically oriented ufologist candidly described as a “‘wart’ on what [ufology] hoped was a scientific hog.” 1 Indeed, at the 1992 abduction conference held at M.I.T., participants were very unwilling to “deal with the spiritual and religious issues” surrounding encounters. In part this rejection of religion stemmed from the contactee phenomenon, with its salvific pronouncements about the beneficent space brothers. To most people in the UFO movement, the contactees sounded like pathetic purveyors of a quasi-religious message clad in space-age garb. 

Indeed, most contactees were students of spiritualism and Theosophy who had adopted a mantle that was (at the very least) quasi-scientific and modern— the UFO phenomenon. The apparently hard-edged reality of UFOs, and the superior levels of technological achievement (and presumably of moral development) of the UFO operators, dovetailed nicely with preexisting worldviews that included infinitely wise spirit guides and Ascended Masters. The larger UFO myth did not originate in the teachings of Theosophy or spiritualism, however; it entered American consciousness as spontaneous personal experiences whose apparently real-world tangibility caused them to be reported as fact, retold as story, and eventually embraced as a veritable cultural myth. Its emergence as a modern myth, combined with the psychological and spiritual impact reported by many who had a UFO experience, helped to nudge the entire subject toward the realm of religion. But if you wanted to understand a real-world event, you turned to science, not to religion, because religion in the West was no longer the Great Legitimator, the arbiter of Truth and determiner of Reality. Being reported first as factual, real-world encounters, UFO phenomena were predisposed to being studied first from a materialistic rather than a metaphysical point of view. Thus the status of UFO reports as factual claims also accounts in part for the early rejection of religion as an interpretive framework for UFO studies. Nevertheless, religion continually intersected with UFO phenomena and those who were interested in them in a variety of ways. Donald Menzel, ufology’s first official scientific debunker, was frequently vexed by correspondents who wrote to him to report sightings but who refused to accept his prosaic explanations. Sometimes these correspondents would attempt to bolster their case by pointing out UFO-like phenomena described in the Bible. At other times they would simply offer biblically based barbs, as in the case of the man who, after some months’ correspondence with Menzel, wrote that he could “understand better now just why Jesus Christ gathered about him relatively unschooled men, instead of trying to convince the ‘learned’ of his day.”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Concise History of Alien Encounters

Fore-word - Legitimate search for extraterrestrials aside, a lunatic (or a prophetic genius, if you believe so), has kick started a petition campaign to force the London natural history museum to allow DNA analysis of the skeletal remains of the so called "Goddess". The petition service is provided by 'ipetitions' and you can sign the petition  here. If the museum does go for the DNA testing, you'll finally be able to either do away with your 'Crosses' or laugh your ass off at Sitchin, at any rate it'll be an interesting exercise! 

In its most basic manifestation as an aerial anomaly the UFO was, to borrow a phrase from C. G. Jung, a “myth of things seen in the sky.” In its simplest form as night lights and anomalous daylight disks, it presented formidable challenges to the grassroots organizations of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s who were dedicated to solving the mystery. Ideas about crashed saucers and a government cover-up conspiracy added layers of complexity to the basic myth and siphoned time and energy away from study of the core phenomenon while, some felt, yielding little of concrete value in return. The notion of a cover-up provided the frustrated with a partial explanation for ufology’s otherwise slow progress in discovering more about the phenomenon. But the merit of conspiracy allegations and, as the years passed, their usefulness in advancing UFO research were subject to dispute. 2 After the closing of Project Blue Book, the entire public responsibility for UFO research fell to the UFO community. It only made sense that the priority for ufology from that point forward should be to find proof that UFOs were real rather than proof of conspiracy. But as ufologists well knew, proving UFO reality would be easier said than done. A major problem in studying UFOs and proving their existence was the ever-changing conception of just what might constitute irrefutable proof. Project Blue Book’s first director, Edward Ruppelt, pointed out that the UFO phenomenon had in fact exhibited in increasingly sophisticated ways that it was a physical phenomenon and not just an illusion.

Simple visual sightings, prone to human error, had been followed by instrumented sightings such as radar returns, followed shortly thereafter by simultaneous radar and visual sightings, multiple-witness sightings, and reports of ground traces found after sightings. But though each increase in the complexity of the reports was important, ufologists were still left with just that: reports. What was wanted was “something you could get your teeth into,” not just anecdotal data. The failure of UFOs to “make predictable appearances at convenient times and places,” to fly into a laboratory “for a physical and a chemical checkup,” meant different things to different people. To the skeptics, it meant that UFOs were not a scientific problem because there was no physical, tangible evidence for the scientist to study. Ufologists pointed out, in response, that if scientists were to wait until they could personally see a UFO or its remains before they began to take a serious interest in them, ufology could be at a standstill for another fifty years. “If we had waited until we ‘captured’ an electron,” wrote one interested scientist, “we would never even have suspected that they exist!” To the ufologist, the fact that the evidence for UFO reality ultimately came down to various kinds of sighting reports meant that UFOs presented a “new kind of scientific puzzle” that might have to be studied in a slightly different manner. Jacques Vallee shared other scientists’ mistrust of a “simple report” as constituting adequate proof of the existence of UFOs. He argued, however, that the data contained in many individual reports could be useful if studied and analyzed cumulatively with a view toward apprehending the phenomenon for what it was in itself, without prejudice toward making it appear to be something recognizable and ordinary. Thus, as ufology approached its silver anniversary it had a clear goal in mind: to prove that UFOs were real phenomena deserving of serious scientific funding and study.