This morning, New York Magazine featured a thoughtful article on ufology, Mark Jacobson’s “The End of UFOs,” which presented a recap of the recent MUFON Symposium in Pennsylvania. In the commentary Jacobson provided, I found the following excerpt particularly poignant, in light of a culture of belief that surrounds a subject about which, in pure honesty, I feel a number of its great adherents remain very “in the dark”:
“Fernando Garces-Soto, a wry, 60-ish Colombian-born music producer from Miami and fellow witness, was taking it more personally. ‘I’m spending a $1,000 to come to this. That’s a lot of money for the same old stories. This rehash, and more rehash. Probably next year I’ll spend another $1,000. What choice do I have?’ Fernando exclaimed, finding the existential humor of the situation. ‘I’m obsessed,’ he sighed. ‘I’m all messed up.’ “
In truth, maybe we’ll stay “messed up” if we continue re-hashing and re-hashing, and hiring only “celebrity ufologists” to come out and give lectures because they are “the big names in the field,” and hence, the ones who will sell tickets. There are a great many brilliant thinkers out there whose names you never hear, and who wouldn’t sell tickets to a large-scale event; but what they have to offer might do more than just amuse or entertain… it might cause you to think.
I applaud Scotty Roberts for having the guts to encourage P.Z. Myers, an evolutionary biologist, skeptic, and adversary of his, to come speak at last year’s Paradigm Symposium. This is the last time in recent memory that I can recall a hardened skeptic being invited to speak at an event of this sort, and while I don’t agree entirely with Myers, he provided a much-needed intellectual balance amidst the other speakers. Who in the UFO field is really working to maintain balance of this sort? Who would invite Joe Nickell, a UFO skeptic, to speak at an event, and put aside their reservations or personal dislike for the man or his views, with hope of learning something valuable?
On the other side of the fence, who are the innovators in ufology today, who actually present the best case for the existence of a phenomenon which we don’t fully understand? Arguably, many of the brightest thinkers aren’t names you would even know… and hence, from a practical business standpoint, you likely won’t hear them lecturing at large-scale UFO events. I think we all have to understand this… but we also must remember to try and overcome our reservations about listening to new voices in the field, whose work we know nothing about… just like we must overcome our feelings about what a UFO skeptic has to say on the subject. In truth, we might learn something meaningful from each of them.
So is ufology “dying”? Is there so little to this phenomenon that there is nothing to be studied at all? I think that’s hardly the case; the problem, instead, is that we have become hung up in the ideological extremes, and the cult of personality surrounding those who have (and I say this in appreciation of their work) dedicated their lives, and livelihood, to studying this mystery. For a few of them, it has led to fame and notoriety… I wonder if they, after working so hard, and for so long, would really want people to shrug off new ideas and good research that may arise elsewhere, in favor of an autograph instead? It’s food for thought…
I don’t think the serious study of UFOs is dead at all; but I also don’t think you’ll find it at a lot of events and conferences. There is a lot you can learn from going to these locations, meeting the speakers, and hearing their ideas and perspectives. There is a great service rendered here to those who are new to the subject, and those who may not have lived a full life of studying UFOs themselves, documenting reports, and studying alongside other great minds in the field for decades.
Still, I would argue that the newest, and best innovators in this field are “below the radar,” so to speak. You may not find them at conferences, because they don’t draw crowds; you won’t see them on television, because they aren’t sensational enough to bring ratings. You may not even read about their work, because some of them are applying technical thought to the subject that publishers wouldn’t find appealing on any printed page… but they are out there, and they are working. I know, because I am familiar with many of them myself.
In fact, I would argue that some of the best innovations in the study of unidentified aerial illuminations aren’t even generally accepted as what we call “UFOs,” and largely due to the fundamental (but timeless) misinterpretation of the acronym UFO–meaning simply an unidentified flying object–being taken to mean an extraterrestrial spaceship, which was never the intended use of the term.
Of those outside the field of ufology whose work has helped formulate new ideas on the nature of anomalous aerial illuminations are Robert Theriault and John Derr, two of the authors who contributed to a brilliant paper on “earthquake lights” earlier this year titled Prevalence of Earthquake Lights Associated with Rift Environments. Nothing about the title insinuates an alleged UFO crash, an individual abducted from their bedroom, or a mass-sighting of a huge alien spaceship; but the scientific work it entails, while far from being the final word on the subject, may contribute more to understanding the nature of anomalous aerial lights than any presented in the last two decades. Yes, the authors argue that the “UFOs” they are discussing are of a natural variety… and in truth, this is likely the story behind many (if not a majority) of modern UFO reports.
The study of UFOs isn’t dead; if anything, the serious research is, and perhaps always has, worked behind the scenes. It takes place in laboratories where scientists take seriously the idea that there are natural phenomenon we have yet to fully understand or formulate a clear idea as to their origin. It also takes place in the homes and offices of individuals who are able to look past the sensational aspects of this phenomenon, and consider instead the idea that there could be correlations drawn and new isights extracted from the plethora of data on the subject that has been amassed since the end of World War II. There are businessmen–Robert Bigelow comes to mind–who take it all seriously enough to invest their time and fortunes in the study of the phenomenon, and whose work ends up being very much “behind the scenes,” for better or for worse. And yes, there are probably some secrets that are kept from the public; whether or not they represent some wide-reaching “conspiracy” or “cover-up” is irrelevant; it would be silly to think that a subject of potential national security importance would truly be systematically overlooked by government agencies. Proof of their fundamental interest in the phenomenon is presented with the release of countless official documents on the subject; again, whether or not they prove the nature of the phenomenon is irrelevant. The important fact is that we know they’ve been watching, with interest.
A colleague of mine, Chris Rutkowski recently expressed similar sentiments about all this. “I rarely go to UFOcons,” he said, “mostly because of the points you raise. Too bad, because there are some very good researchers out there who never get the recognition they deserve. Fortunately there’s an ‘underground ufology’ hard at work behind the fluff. Below the surface, there is good and thoughtful discussion that needs to be uncovered.”
As Rutkowski suggests, there is an entire world of study involving UFOs that very seldom makes it to the stage at UFO events, or onto the sound stages of the production companies and networks that produce popular UFO programming. You won’t read about it in popular books and magazines that cater to the rumors, conspiracy theories, and urban legends that have formulated around UFOs over the last several decades, though you may read about some of it in science journals, if you have proper access, and know where to look. The same can be said of information posted freely online: a lot of the process of finding good information is simply knowing where to look, and at times, having access to it.
If it must be underground, so be it, and maybe for the better. Serious study of UFOs will always be criticized, but arguably, this is largely because it’s detractors are among those who don’t know where to look for the good research that’s being done. These critics will continually watch the sensational television shows, and sit in the back rows at popular conferences and events, criticizing arguments that, at times, are so easily deconstructed that it’s easily likened to shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. But what they are criticizing often isn’t the most meaningful, relevant, or up-to-date information on the subject; perhaps they should spend their time and criticisms more wisely, and go looking for a harder argument to deconstruct. And as for the groups who continually prop ufology high atop a rickety scaffolding of old cases, fringe theories, and sensational claims, they should learn to expect that critics will continue to attempt to debase their arguments. In truth, neither of these opposing sides seem to be interested in discussing the most relevant details pertaining to true anomalies which may exist in our world.
Down in the heady world of research that exists below, there is no end to the UFO phenomenon anywhere in sight. But in fairness, innovation–if it is to be achieved–very seldom ever occurs on a soundstage, does it?
Welcome to the world of the underground innovators.