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Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Myth and Mystery of UFOs

Recently I had occasion to run through many internet pages of current books related to UFOs offered by a major bookstore. Most of what I saw was pretty embarrassing: scads of garishly-covered tomes with lurid titles, advertising all sorts of connections between ufonauts and nearly every advancement in the human past, or with a medley of conspiracy theories, or channeled messages from numerous different alien groups who all go by the names of familiar stars and galaxies. With stuff like this pelting the consciousnesses of those might take a serious glance at the core UFO subject, it’s no wonder that ufology has not gained the traction it should have with the real intellectual community: such people are frankly scared away or too turned off by their short dip into that informational pond.

Fortunately, there are occasional exceptions to this general miasma, and from time to time I want to discuss some of the best books on the general subject. Some of these are very dangerous books to the self-satisfied and smug anti-UFO establishment. They are true works of scholarship, and are stand outs not only in the world of ufology, but often in non-UFO fields as well. And that is why they are dangerous to the sleep habits of those hardened skeptics and debunkers – at least those who do possess some intellectual acumen – for these books lift ufology out of its “popular” rut and into the intellectual stream where academics and those in government and business -- the real opinion makers who for better or worse determine what ultimately is lasting in this society -- dwell. A case in point: when PhD. chemist and former National Research Council Research Associate B. Timothy Pennington stepped outside his mainstream scientific background to do research for his book Science, Skeptics and UFOs: A Reluctant Scientist Explores the World of UFOs, Pennington found the author of the following book to be a true scholar and authority, whereas the scientist had a decidedly less favorable opinion of one Philip Klass. The following book review is taken from a longer treatment I did for the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies’ International UFO Reporter, Volume 34, No. 2, March 2012.

The Myth and Mystery of UFOs, Thomas E. Bullard, Lawrence, Kansas: The University Press of Kansas: 2010

Dr. Thomas E. (Eddie) Bullard’s book The Myth and Mystery of UFOs should both inform and provoke to considerable reflection those involved in the field, as it sheds light on an aspect of the UFO experience ill-considered previously. But The Myth and Mystery of UFOs deserves attention beyond the confines of UFO studies, and more specific than the standard general audience of literate readers—it should appeal to folklorists, historians, anthropologists, and psychologists, and to those interested in the history of ideas and their impact upon popular culture. 

This book is not about UFOs; it certainly isn’t about whether UFOs exist as spaceships from another world; it isn’t even about UFO reports per se or that much about UFO people; what it is about is the process by which a UFO report gets transmitted and transmuted into the common fund of ideas about UFOs that informs a society and, ultimately, helps shape future UFO reports. The book deals with how people think and talk about UFOs. It is, in fact, about the Myth and Mystery of these things we label collectively as UFOs.

Myths possess an accretive power, drawing themselves into relationship with other metamorphosed narratives and their respective interpretative content, creating in the process a whole alternative world. Along the way some of the initial kernel of fact is lost, but the product is better than verisimilitude, because (to the mythmakers) it shows the world as it should be. Myths ultimately resolve themselves into recognizable patterns of events and understandings, recurrent themes and plots, which to a suspicious observer will seem, well, somewhat suspiciously repetitive. So, while myths have their own logical structure and appeal to many logical people, so long as myths lack absolute proof, they do not enjoy consensus or official status. UFOs as myth remain a somewhat subversive potential change agent, one to be contested against by the official skeptical line. 

Bullard has produced a comparative study of long-running cultural themes and patterns, revealing important shaping influences on UFO discourse. He traces the stages UFO accounts take from apprehension of a core phenomenon to collective integration and influence upon future perceptions. We really do not study UFOs directly, but must almost always encounter them through what they leave behind, which more often than not is a puzzled witness. In the beginning is the Event -- “a possible phenomenon that exists independent of witnesses,” as Bullard puts it (p. 10) -- but the first human involvement is the Experience of a UFO, whether that UFO exists in objective reality or in a subjective world. Next, Memory comes in, as the experience travels through the human sensory bank into the memory of the witness. This stage is followed by some sort of Understanding -- how the witness makes sense of what he/she has experienced. After this comes Communication, wherein the witness relates the understanding they have gained through some sort of narrative to others. 

As we move from Communication through Social Reception, multiple recipients reinterpret what they have heard from the witness. Bear in mind that this is not merely a degenerative process, but one of construction, as well, as interpretations and new meanings may be added. The end of the developmental chain is Cultural Representation, where the narrative becomes part of the collective knowledge of the subject. And the process is circular, because this shared conception of UFOs, built over the years by the accretion of reinterpreted UFO stories, becomes a part of the background that most future UFO witnesses will possess. The penetration of the received view is considerable: Bullard notes that Gallup Polls have shown UFOs enjoy a higher recognition rating than even recently-retired Presidents. The effect is that “Every UFO story belongs to a mythic world that informs the narrator what UFOs and stories about them should be like” (p. 284). Given this layer upon layer of mediation and distortion, it might at first seem a wonder that there is a coherent picture of UFOs.

What Bullard selects as the normative view or collection of thoughts about ufology may discomfit those of us who like to consider themselves “Scientific Ufologists,” for a focus on the ETH to the near-exclusion of other explanations for UFOs, a passion for conspiracy theories, and a love-hate psychological relationship with technology stand out to the author as central aspects of popular UFO thought: “Majority opinion typically clusters into a narrow band of understandings of UFOs as mechanical devices, extraterrestrial spaceships known as such by a government that hides the truth” (p. 19). But Bullard’s defense of his choices is credible: these are the views of the large fraction of those who actually buy most of the books and magazines, who read the newsletters and troll the websites, and who attend UFO meetings. The material consumed by this “UFO mainstream” can be collected and studied objectively. Bullard makes an interesting point here that the history of popular ufology can be accurately followed by reviewing the papers from the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) annual symposia.

Bullard’s treatment of the post-Arnold era demonstrates how key characteristics of UFO knowledge have emerged and developed into a mythology. The Formative Years (1947-1963) introduced most UFO story types, motifs, and themes; during the Era of High Strangeness (1964-1974) there was a widening tolerance for weirdness and a climax in the conflict between official and unofficial views. Chasing the Next Big Thing (the late 1970s-1980s, a time of high-profile claims of crashes and abductions) saw a shift of interest from the UFO phenomenon to its implications; while the 1990s to the present (“Uforia without UFOs”) created the situation whereby the cultural image and political implications of UFOs have become more important than the UFOs themselves. 

Bullard then travels back to prehistory to develop and follow the evolution of three explanatory frameworks humans have erected to interpret UFO observances as well as other remarkable events. First was the focus on supernatural intervention -- messages from the gods or glimpses of a parallel Otherworld. With the 18th century rise of the scientific worldview, an unusual manifestation of standard natural events became the prevailing solution for anomalies. As the 19th century coursed on and the potential for human flight was recognized, strange aerial phenomena sometimes were explained as man-made flying machines or even extraterrestrial spaceships. One might suggest that these categories contained elements of powerful themes in the wider area of human thought: cosmologies, travelers’ tales, and the doctrine of the plurality of worlds. 

Bullard devotes separate chapters to several important themes of UFO myth: the relationship of humans to the Otherworld, including alien abductions and their similarities to tales of the Otherworld Journey; the collection of emotion-laden narratives about “Space Children”; the extremes of positive and negative expectations created about UFOs, paralleling the wider realm of current human fears; and UFO narratives as theatre for the conflict of Self and Other. Here Bullard most ventures into territory unfamiliar to ufologists, and his folkloric training is most welcome. Though he acknowledges he is painting a broad brush and that exceptions to his characterizations do occur, Bullard succeeds in showing how thought in these areas expresses cultural themes well-defined and even hoary with age.

Bullard has established that how humans apprehend and explain UFOs is a subject intrinsically worthy of study, no matter what the ultimate explanation(s) of UFOs may be. He has shown that UFO narratives by and large come to be framed in terms of themes common to humanity, though variants can express the specific cultural values of different groups. Bullard has also fulfilled one requirement that an area of study needs to meet should it desire ever to take place as an accepted discipline: that is, the ability to shed light on other fields of discussion. The study of UFO narratives provides comparisons to be made with serious treatments of other types of narratives.

Bullard’s contention that ufology is a pseudoscience may elicit a reflexive negative response in some, but his arguments hold considerable worth. He notes: “Many believers have listened to one another for so long that they take such ideas [sweeping assertions by disclosure advocates] as beyond doubt and see no need to waste more time on evidence or proof. Where  science grows brick by brick out of demonstrable, tested, and confirmed propositions, pseudoscience builds castles in the air out of loud and confident but insubstantial assertions” (p. 268). I would prefer the term “protoscience” to “pseudoscience,” on the premise that 60-plus years is but an early moment in the development of the field, and that it took chemistry a long time to divorce itself from alchemy, just as astronomy labored mightily to wrest itself from its early association with astrology. But perhaps I am being too optimistic.

The Myth and Mystery of UFOs reminds us that an intelligent UFO proponent can write an intelligent book on a subject that is drowned by noise created by numerous less-than-serious treatments. It proves that aspects of ufology can be studied as rigorously as any topic in a mainstream area such as religion or mythology. Those within the UFO discussion can expect to learn much about outside academic disciplines, while non-ufologists may come to respect while they learn about the viewpoints and the work of many of the more prominent ufologists on all sides of the opinion spectrum. As one example, Peter M. Rojcewicz (“The ‘Men in Black’ Experience and Tradition: Analogues with the Traditional Devil Hypothesis”, in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 100 (396), 1987, p. 148) suggests that “With a better understanding of the UFO experience in general, the student of belief materials is more likely to perceive the numerous continuities between UFO-related phenomena and various folk traditions.”
While favorable and even notably respectful, reviews of this book have often been rather incomplete, telling us more about the knowledge and attitudinal makeup of the reviewers than what the book was about. Reviewers with little UFO background or current interest extol Bullard’s courage, comment upon the book’s erudition, or remark that “Those interested in the UFO phenomenon will find tons of interesting material to ponder and a different way of looking at it” (Mary E. Jones, “Social Sciences Reviews,” in Library Journal.com, October 15, 2010); they may exaggerate the treatment given Roswell, or the strange experience had by 1993 Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis. One reader says the book is not about UFOs, while another claims that it is only about UFOs; Bullard becomes a near-total skeptic by one account, a purveyor of the most extreme flights of UFO fancy in another. In this reactive recasting of the book and its message, the central mythmaking point of The Myth and Mystery of UFOs is borne out in an unintentional, but powerful, way.

By William Murphy

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Synchronicity in New Orleans

"The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." Eden Phillpotts

There are both large and small events that shape our lives as we travel in this human existence on Earth. They are often full of wonder and excitement as they can bring new challenges and learning experiences when we are open to them. There are the types of experiences we have when we work long and hard towards goals; then there are those experiences that are unexpected and provide us with insights and universal "winks" that we are on the right path. Some call this a synchronistic experience that gives us pause. I believe synchronistic experience is its most powerful when it is unforced and totally unexpected.

As an example, after I obtained my Master's degree in Electrical Engineering some years ago, I was talking a long walk along a dirt trail that is popular in our city and I was contemplating what I would focus on next. I was seriously considering continuing my work towards a Ph.D. but I left my options open. I was even considering an alternative path to engineering and I was wondering what and where I would go. At that very moment, two women passed me on bikes and one of them was wearing a white t-shirt with large black letters on the back spelling a single word. Engineer.

What were the odds of that?

Part of what I do as a Ph.D. is present at conferences and publish papers on my current research. Some months back, I was able to attend such a conference in New Orleans. It was my first time in Louisiana and New Orleans and it was a memorable one.

First, a couple of my impressions -- don't bother renting a car if you have a hotel downtown. You walk everywhere! There is a trolley that runs through town if you need it but otherwise, what you really need are comfortable walking shoes that can take a beating. I generally didn't care for the infamous Bourbon Street, but there is a very nice outdoor café on Bourbon Street. Definitely stop by if you get a chance. It's Café Beignet and there are live musicians playing and you can get a bite to eat and a glass of wine to enjoy the sights and sounds of New Orleans. For shopping, I thought Royal Street was a nicer area with better shops. In one place that had everything from masks from Africa and Oceania to a marvelous collection of estate jewelry, I found a beautiful pair of antique silver cuff links with a treble clef design. Music has always been an important part of my life along with that of my entire family, so the cuff links had to come home with me.

Now back to the synchronicity part of the story: on the last full day I was in New Orleans, Bill and I went to visit a famous Catholic cemetery there called the St. Louis Cemetery on Basin Street. It was a fascinating experience to see the tombs along with the inscriptions. I took several pictures of the ancient to the newer tombs in the cemetery. Unbeknownst to me, a friend of mine was in New Orleans just days earlier and was at the exact same spot where I took a picture of the tomb of the famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. I had no idea my friend had been in New Orleans and she had no idea I was there either. We had missed each other by just a few days.

This was one of the synchronistic moments that gives one pause for reflection. What were the odds of this occurrence? I will take it as one of those little God winks that can occur with all of us to show us we are traveling the correct path and gives us all encouragement in life.

If you are interested in learning more about synchronicity, there are many good books available but here is one I enjoyed reading. The title is When God Winks by SQuire Rushnell and it is available on Amazon.

Here is the introduction to the book from Amazon:

"It is not by accident that you just picked up When God Winks. Whether you call it synchronicity or coincidence, what brought you to this book today is worth remembering. In fact, you may have suspected all along that there is more to coincidence than meets the eye. These seemingly random events are actually signposts that can help you successfully navigate your career, relationships, and interests. SQuire Rushnell shows us that by recognizing our "God Winks," we can use the untapped power of coincidence to vastly improve our lives."

Here are some more pictures I took of the St. Louis Cemetery and of New Orleans. Remember those comfortable walking shoes if you go!

Note: As I was just about to publish this blog, the quote leading this article appeared in my news feed on Facebook from the psychic medium John Edwards. Thanks to John for this "God wink."