More than once in recent years, some of the finest defenders of unexplained aerial phenomenon have had to step back and question the nature of the mystery before them, and ask, “what’s really going on here?”
Writing of his exhaustive research into a famous series of photographs taken by William Rhodes in 1947, which depicted an odd-looking object in flight over Phoenix, Arizona, researcher Kevin Randle wrote of what he found to be their possible dubiousness in his memoir, Reflections of a UFO Investigator, stating that, “In the end, I suppose we can ignore the photographs and the implications, unless and until someone finds something more. This was not the result that I had hoped for, but sometimes in UFO research that’s the best you can do.”
Writer and researcher Nick Redfern has more recently expressed his own doubts regarding conventional approaches to modern UFO research, noting that, “many ufologists are already recognizing and realizing that if they are to get the answers to the UFO puzzle that they seek, it’s sure as hell not going to be by addressing today’s reports of ‘lights in the sky’ and so on. The answers are to be found in history, in the past. It may well be that, 10 years from now, the primary role of the UFO seeker will not be to investigate current cases as such, but to take on the role of historian. And that would not be a bad thing.”
I too am someone who, like Nick Redfern and Kevin Randle, has found myself dissatisfied with what many present as “evidence” of UFOs, opting at times to err toward skepticism, when warranted, or seeking instead to illuminate the same sorts of problems that Redfern outlined in the passage above, with hopes of highlighting elements of stagnation that may, if anything, prevent further progress. This is not to say that any of us, Randle, Redfern, or Hanks, are trying to “debunk” UFOs, or dissuade the public from believing in them; however, it would be prudent to note that belief, all by itself, will also do little to further the cause of proving whether or not something may be lingering above us in our skies. Put another way, belief, purely for the sake of believing in something, represents both stagnancy, and naivety.
And yes, these days, it should also be noted that there seems to be less of that “something” than there once was, which ultimately comprised what became known as the UFO phenomenon. So is there really still merit to the study of unidentified aerial phenomenon?
I certainly think so, and all this said, I do like for people to know that I’m very accepting of challenges to my views, which are at times quite skeptical. Again, it is not that I doubt there is a phenomenon, or perhaps several varietys of them, that exist which we might use the blanket term “UFO” to describe. I’m quite certain there is some phenomenon; however, despite what labels we may apply to it culturally, or what suppositions may arise from uncritical attitudes toward it, coming to a true, rational determination about its nature and origin is something we have yet to prove successful at doing. Thus, accepting a challenge to my own views, either from a hardened skeptical debunker, or from a more willing believer in extraterrestrial life, is not merely aimed at inviting argument; instead, it is intended to promote individuality and freedom of opinion, while engaging in honest discourse about the subject. I am also a firm believer that, in the end, logic will prevail as a result of honest, intelligent debate, and that often a position must be challenged in order for it to be perfected.
In one recent instance, a commenter at Mysterious Universe became the latest to take issue with my views regarding modern UFO studies, as espoused in an article I wrote for the website. The comment, as you will see below, disagreed with what they must have perceived as my assertion that UFOs are a purely psychological phenomenon:
“Not that I want to be seen as an internet troll but to your article I say meh. You said “…despite the fact that there is probably some psychological component that should be addressed in relation to UFO encounters…” really? According to who? In what capacity? Also, “… psychological underpinnings that relate to UFO studies worldwide.” Man that is presumptuous! That dog won’t hunt! Been there done that ‘Mr. Condon.’ You are just as bad as the FAA grounding pilots for reporting a UFO. And, Just because all ‘modern’ UFO sightings could be hoaxed doesn’t mean they are all hoaxed. The potential that there is a mass of data being collected is as real (well almost) as constant and persistent hoaxing. The phenomenon of UFO’s is indeed mysterious and challenging. If things have changed, adapt don’t dismiss.”
First, I would like to make clear that by discussing “psychological phenomenon,” I mean the interrelationship between human perception of an observable phenomenon, and the interpretation of it thereafter. Obviously, here I take it that someone felt I was attacking UFO witnesses, and asserting there is a psychological problem that may be associated with alleged UFO sightings… this is certainly not the case. In fact, here are my actual words, exactly as they had been written in the original article, for sake of comparison:
“While one cannot deny the exotic nature of many reports, we can’t say, with certainty, that extraterrestrials are anything akin to what we’re dealing with. An equally suspect position to take, in my opinion, would be to assert that all UFO reports of the last several decades are misidentifications, hoaxes, and mental aberrations. The statistical likelihood of this would seem questionable indeed, despite the fact that there is probably some psychological component that should be addressed in relation to UFO encounters, but that is a much broader conversation than what we seek to address here.”
Now that said, I should also say I’ve been compared to Condon before in the past, which surprisingly, isn’t something I mind so much. In fact, I would argue that when this comparison is made, it has likely been expressed by someone who may not possess as complete an understanding of Condon’s role in ufology as I do, with regard to what viewpoints Condon had sometimes espoused after the publication of the Condon Report. Having worked to interpret the history of UFO research and many of its key players as carefully as possible, I would actually go so far as to say that Condon, amidst the scientists of his day who could have offered commentary on the subject and didn’t, may have made at least a few meaningful contributions to mainstream scientific attitudes on UFOs. Sure, disagree if you want, but try to suspend your judgment until we get to quoting Condon a few paragraphs on down the page!
To further elucidate on this point here, I’ve chosen to enlist the assistance of another well respected, but at times, very skeptical UFO researcher, the late John Keel, who noted the following of Condon in his book Operation Trojan Horse:
“Dr. Edward U. Condon, the physicist who headed Colorado University’s Air Force-financed two-year UFO study, has been criticized because he devoted part of his time to examining the claims of the controversial contactees. He earned the undying wrath of the the cultists when his final report was published in January 1969, and he stressed an anti-extraterrestrial conclusion. He asserted that his scientific teams had failed to find any evidence of extraterrestrial origin or of serious UFO censorship on part of the government. But both of these myths have been implanted too deeply in the UFO literature to be killed off so easily. The Library of Congress’s objective bibliography even had sections devoted to news management, censorship, and CIA plots. Was all of this just another government whitewash, as the cultists content?
In April 1969, Dr. Condon delivered a speech before the Amereican Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, in which he was gently derisive of the popular UFO beliefs: ‘Some UFOs may be such [extraterrestrial] visitors, it may be postulated,’ Dr. Condon said, ‘and some writers go so far as to say they actually are. To discover clear, unambiguous evidence on this point would be a scientific discovery of the first magnitude, one which I would be quite happy to make. We found no such evidence, and so state in our report… We concluded that it is not worthwhile to carry on a continuing study of UFOs in the manner which has been done so far: that of going out into the field to interview persons who say they have seen something peculiar. The difficulty about using objective means of study lies in the rarity of the apparitions, their short durations, and the tendency of observers not to report their experience until long after it has ended… These difficulties led us to conclude that it is quite unproductive of results of scientific value to study UFOs in the traditional manner. But, contrary to popular belief, we do not rule out all future study.
“Perhaps we need a National Magic Agency (pronounced ‘enema’) to make a large and expensive study of all these matters, including the future scientific study of UFOs, if any.”
Now I know the snarky bit of humor Condon employed here toward the end of his statement would rub most UFO enthusiasts the wrong way… but I can also see why Keel, with his own wry sense of wit, would want to include it (keep in mind, Keel enjoyed calling Sasquatches “Abominable Swamp Slobs”, abbreviated more simply as “ASSes”). But rather than paying so much attention to the joke at the end, look at what Condon said beforehand, and namely the portion where he said, “But, contrary to popular belief, we do not rule out all future study.” In other words, as man of science, he saw no value in continuing the kind of work the U.S. Air Force had been devoting tax dollars to, at that time, under the hope of solving the UFO problem, which began simply as a matter of potential national security concern. Arguably, this wasn’t intended to be the death nail in the coffin which many UFO enthusiasts since have tried to make it out to be.
Granted, Keel no doubt chose to quote Condon because the views he espoused were also in keeping with his own premise to some degree: that UFOs are likely not to be of extraterrestrial, biological origin (the preeminent theme Keel presented in Operation Trojan Horse). This doesn’t have to mean that Keel was attempting to take anything away from the hopeful “UFO believers”… instead, he was trying to explain to people, as Condon had done with a greater degree of skepticism, that the then-current attempts at going about trying to explain the phenomenon had yielded few favorable results, none of which presented evidence (as in hard, scientific proof) of an extraterrestrial component to the mystery. It’s no wonder then that Keel, as well as other well respected UFO researchers like Jacques Vallee, have gravitated away from the “space aliens” explanation. I too have been of the opinion for years now that UFOs represent some variety of phenomenon, but that we still have no hard evidence whatsoever of aliens visiting Earth… instead, what we do have is a fair degree of compelling, but also inherently confusing data, which has less often undergone any evaluation before being interpreted, in a cursory fashion, as pointing to the otherworldly.
In truth, about all we can say of the UFO phenomenon at present is this: While we may have some circumstantial proof that an unsolved mystery exists, this alone does not prove that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial aliens. In order to find out what the UFO mystery really may entail, we still require considerable amounts of good data… data which exists apart from speculation and conspiracy theories about what our government knows, but refuses to tell us about. It may very well be the case that the government does know more than it’s telling us; but again, knowing this would not necessarily constitute proof of ET’s existence, either.
Gravitating over to the opposite extreme, it is also interesting to note of the various interpretations of Edward Condon’s positions on UFOs that Robert Todd Carol, author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, offered Condon’s words in a fashion similar to what Keel had done, where he obviously hoped to bolster a more skeptical viewpoint regarding UFOs. In the book’s entry on unidentified flying objects, Carol wrote:
“UFOlogists are unimpressed with the Condon Report, as well. Edward U. Condon… concluded that, ‘nothing has come from the sutdy of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to the scientific knowledge… further extensive study of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby’.”
I wouldn’t say that “UFOlogists” are unimpressed with Condon and his committee’s findings; nor would I admit that a study completed in 1969 offers “proof” that there are no such things as UFOs… which in truth, could be any number of different things ranging from government aircraft, natural phenomenon, and yes, perhaps even more exotic varieties of aerial phenomenon. Who knows… but notice here that when we already know Condon’s stated feelings on the matter, we nonetheless see how the “modern skeptic” seeks to use the determinations of the Condon Committee as an argument against UFOs. Quite the contrary, the University of Colorado UFO Project only offered rationale for why governments and scientific institutions would likely not benefit from such studies at that time. As we know, what Condon himself actually said, however, was that “We concluded that it is not worthwhile to carry on a continuing study of UFOs in the manner which has been done so far (my emphasis): that of going out into the field to interview persons who say they have seen something peculiar… it is quite unproductive of results of scientific value to study UFOs in the traditional manner.” If one reads this carefully, and puts aside their biases long enough to see clearly, it becomes difficult to argue that Condon was saying study of UFOs was pointless, but instead, that a new approach must be implemented, if it were to be made a worthwhile subject of study, redeemable before the ever-scrutinizing scientific community.
Sure, Condon was a skeptic. But he also offered some valuable insights here, which many scientists and UFO researchers alike have continued to ignore since that time. Sadly, the believers and the skeptics have instead both chosen to argue for the last four decades about what Condon was trying to say, rather that seeking to get creative, and formulate scientific processes that may garner more favorable results in UFO studies than Condon and his team managed to do way-back-when.
So in conclusion, can we honestly say we’ve learned anything revelatory about UFOs since 1969, aside from information based on speculative endeavors and hearsay? The evolving (or revolving, perhaps) UFO communities over the years have examined hundreds, maybe thousands, of reports that should be able to lend details about the phenomenon which, if interpreted correctly, might present details that are worthwhile or otherwise useful in some way. So then why should there still be room for debate over the issue? As my critic had espoused earlier, “If things have changed, adapt don’t dismiss.” Wise words, these are… but too bad my critic didn’t catch that I had been arguing the same thing!
Still, we also have to ask the hard questions: Why don’t we have physical evidence of a UFO? Yes, Jacques Vallee wrote about possible physical samples obtained several decades ago, as discussed in his book Confrontations, but also lamented the cost and demands involved in administering scientific tests without getting into the realm of diminishing returns… perhaps such a source of funding could be better used, in truth.
Why don’t we have better photographic and video evidence of UFOs, given the rate of improvement of camera technologies in the last five years alone? Arguably, many more UFO photos–and pictures of far better quality–were produced decades ago. These range from photos such as the famous “saucer” image that was photographed from a mapping aircraft flying over Lago de Cote in 1971 (or maybe it’s a flashlight), to the images taken by William Rhodes in Phoenix, AZ in 1947 (which Randle, as stated above, doubted based on discrepancies in Rhodes’ credentials). There is even the UFO that J. Allen Hynek managed to photograph from a plane window on one occasion; it’s a decent photo, though it remains hard to tell really what the object in it might be. Is it unfair to ask why these sorts of images aren’t prevalent anymore in UFO research, replaced instead by an overwhelming majority of photos that display only ambiguous lights in the sky, as my colleague Nick Redfern has argued?
And yet, none of those compelling images of yesteryear–even the best ones–offer us proof of extraterrestrials. They do provide circumstantial evidence that supports the notion that possible varieties of aviation technologies, or some other aerial phenomenon often of apparent technological origin, may exist. Obviously, in the absence of leaping to speculative determinations on these objects or ruling them out as fakes, we can at least say that many of them cannot be accounted for with explanations derived from conventional sources of knowledge. Whatever they are, the absence of a final determination is, again, no proof that ETs are behind the phenomenon… merely that there is, at the end of the day, some phenomenon… and one that we lack the data needed to make a final determination about.
And arguably, there is indeed something about it all that has changed along the way. Perhaps there is a necessity for revising our approaches… lest we go on documenting every report of a distant light seen in the sky, and appending to it the romantically appealing, but largely obsolete procedures of “classic” UFO research, which have thus far exhibited limitations in allowing us to gain any serious headway with our inquiries. I recognize, both with humility and expectation, that many UFO researchers will disagree with my assertions about the shortcomings of UFO investigations and research. Putting myself in their shoes, I wouldn’t want someone to launch attacks against a body of work to which I’d devoted my life any more than the next person. Hence, my ideas here aren’t meant to be taken as attacks; however, I would also argue that, sometimes, in order to move forward, the proverbial pot has to be stirred, and people need to be challenged in order to stir the proper emotional response that may spur a new logical insight. Challenges against my own viewpoints often have this positive result for me, and in truth, had it not been for what began as attacks from other writers, etc, based on misunderstandings of what things I’ve said in the past, I might not have ever sought to hone and improve my own viewpoints.
There will be room for UFO research, and for UFO researchers, in the coming decades… of this I feel confident. Denying the existence of a mystery does not make it go away, any more than pretending we know what it is already will solve it. Thus, what we do not have room for are sacred cows, and a relentless insistence on feeding them in order to maintain the appearance of healthy stock… which will eventually only be led off to be slaughtered anyhow.