Conference Report: Seriously Unidentified – Summit on the Future of Ufology (2012)

Hosted by ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) at the University of Worcester, 17th November 2012

Ufology is in a terminal decline, its quest for evidence hijacked by the agenda of alien abductees and conspiracy theorists. This was the premise of the conference, which sought to account for the current state of the ufological field, and yet Seriously Strange played host to a wide range of opinions, and balanced them rather successfully.

ASSAP President and Fortean legend, Lionel Fanthorpe, gave the introduction. And then Ian Ridpath was first up, a science writer and astronomer, who boldly asserted that all UFO sightings have prosaic causes.

Interest in UFOs, Ridpath suggested, is fuelled by a self-perpetuating and lucrative industry. The assertion of witnesses that ‘I know what I saw’ in fact disguises an underlying rejection of reasonable explanations. There are so many possible mundane causes that the likelihood of ET becomes vanishingly small. He led us on a concise tour through Roswell (= a secret military balloon) and Rendlesham (= misperception of the Orfordness lighthouse),which indeed seemed to explain both these classic cases beyond reasonable doubt.

The causes of UFOs, Ridpath concluded, are misperception, self-delusion and hoax, yet this in itself leads to valuable insights, for if there is no evidence for visitation by aliens, this might well mean there is only one advanced civilization in this part of the universe: us. There is probably no one out there to save us from our problems. But if we can help ourselves, then maybe one day it will be our species in a position to help others. And when you think about it, this is indeed just as profound a conclusion as any to be drawn from advocating the existence of ET!

‘Saucer Movies and Politics’ by Paul Vella (forensic computer expert witness, and Bigfoot hunter), explored the fugitive link between cinematic depictions of UFOs and the experiences reported. Vella suggested that – generally – the sightings follow in the footsteps of the movies, and so Betty and Barney Hill report the first big-eyed aliens a few months after they appeared for the first time in an episode of The Outer Limits. Yet, as soon as we think a simple pattern exists, something comes along to contradict it. For instance: when the Republicans are in power, aliens tend to be presented as nasty and aggressive (War of the Worlds), but when the Democrats take office, more thoughtful depictions appear (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Except, during the Regan-Bush years, aliens stopped being evil and turned fuzzy and innocuous instead (E.T., The Last Starfighter, Star Wars, Batteries Not Included, etc.)

The War of the Worlds (1953)

This is what can happen when the Republicans take power. ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953).

Certainly, Hollywood is subject to political influence, but does the government use the depiction of UFOs to shape public opinion? Or what about the converse: that a belief in UFOs has shaped the policies of the leaders themselves? (Carter and Regan being conspicuous examples.) Apart from pointing to these teasing possibilities, Vella drew no firm conclusions, yet provided a useful reminder of popular culture’s richness and influence in this field.

After lunch, and probably with some nervousness, Sacha Claire Christie took the podium to speak about her personal experience of high strangeness. She was a member of a party of six in a Welsh holiday cottage who witnessed strange lights approaching close to the ground. She described a curious lack of fear amongst the witnesses during these events, and dreamlike, out-of-character behaviour – such as a sudden desire to do the washing-up. Christie decided to venture outside alone. Watching the lights some more, something ran up behind her and delivered a blow to her back. Her response was to run in panic – ‘I went blind with terror,’ was how she put it.

Since her experience, she has suffered from severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress. She also continues to witness odd occurrences, including bruises and inexplicable injuries that appear overnight, and peculiar objects in the sky. She has numerous photographs of these, two of which she shared with the conference. One was an indeterminate, but seemingly solid blob in the sky. The other resembled a curious distortion of the light on a sunny day. But the fact that both were amenable to photography suggests that something was indeed there to be seen.

Christie spoke on the damaging impact of the experience upon her, and upon the lives of others in the cottage, sadly one of whom has been driven to take his own life. Despite seeking assistance from various quarters, she has been unsatisfied by the responses. ‘What is a dream; what is sleep-paralysis?’ she asked, highlighting her view that sceptics and ‘believers’ alike lack a terminology to address the fundamental reality behind such experiences.

I felt that her talk was received with much interest and sympathy. Like others, I wished I could help – but what help can anyone give? Her contribution was a vital reminder that explanations (no matter their accuracy) come from the realm of ideas, and may offer little meaning or comfort to someone whose involvement is a traumatic experience. I was struck by the similarity of a ‘close encounter’ to a religious experience: neither conform to the ordinary categories of ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’. Although mystical traditions offer alternative registers for processing other-worldly experiences, these may not be attractive or meaningful to someone plunged into strangeness against their will.

In complete contrast, Trystan Swale spoke next on ‘Crop Circles: a Ufological Footnote’. As a crop-circle insider (in his own words, ‘as someone who may have spent a night in a field’) Swale led us down the tram-lines of the rational, taking gleeful side-swipes at the absurdity of the view that crop-circles are made by aliens, rather than by people with wooden boards and ropes.

The idea that ET is still at work in the wheat is not entirely dead, although it has been forced to morph slightly – into the idea, for instance, that human-made circles nevertheless attract aliens; or that the aliens inspire the circle-makers. However, the truly interesting intersection between circle-making and ufology, Swale suggested, is likely to lie in the Vale of Pewsey, a crop-circle hotspot where there have been numerous sightings of anomalous lights, some of them by the circle-makers themselves whilst going about their business. (Swale didn’t say as much himself, but the implication seemed to be that the Pewsey sightings might lead us into the domain of so-called ‘earth-lights’ rather than ET.)

The Vale of Pewsey

The Vale of Pewsey, looking suitably moody and mysterious.

Kevin Goodman was up next, speaking (in a nostalgic mode at times, due to his own involvement) on the history of the ufological scene in and around Warminster. He seemed pretty tolerant of the view that the Warminster flap, with Arthur Shuttlewood at its centre, was mostly a self-perpetuating exercise in stimulating tourism.

In the 1950s, Goodman suggested, the Clean Air Act had enabled a new generation to see the sky more vividly than before, coinciding with a dramatic increase in aviation traffic. Meanwhile, the MOD was busy exercising upon land around Warminster, producing lights and sounds ripe for misattribution. In the 1960s, the younger generation was raising its consciousness, rejecting orthodox religion, and looking skywards for inspiration. Goodman himself joined them during the 1970s, but had to balance these factors debunking the flap against two dramatic sightings of his own: one involving four red lights performing outrageous manoeuvres; the other, a silver cigar-shaped object which, despite multiple witnesses, refused to appear on film.

The flap itself began to die down as early as 1976, and the death of Shuttlewood in 1996 seemed to have relegated Warminster to the footnotes of ufology, but Goodman, I sensed, perhaps wasn’t totally convinced by his own observation that the Warminster scene is probably approaching its inevitable end.

I felt that the psycho-social perspective was under-represented at the conference. Cal Cooper, a parapsychologist, stepped up next and took us some way in this direction, but could have gone further, perhaps, if he hadn’t been re-purposing a talk mainly on ghosts for his ufological audience. Cooper’s area of research is anomalous phone calls (‘phone calls from the dead’ in more populist parlance), of which he has collected many cases.

Cooper described how the phenomenon of speaking via instrumentation with the dead occurs universally, regardless of religious beliefs, although belief certainly affects interpretation of the experience. In contrast to apparitions, anomalous phone calls more commonly involve the dead than the living. Cooper also insightfully observed that in dreams, it is more common to talk on the phone with a dead person than face-to-face.

Ufology and psychical research are linked, he suggested – most obviously in high strangeness cases, where anomalous phone calls can provide the (literal) connection between them. There are numerous reports from witnesses claiming to have been phoned by ‘aliens’. Even more common are strange, electronic voices warning witnesses not to discuss sightings: ufologists such as Gray Barker, John Keel and Brad Steiger are seminal in this regard. Sometimes, the voices themselves self-identify as alien; it’s not widely known that the famous ‘Philip’ experiment shifted focus from poltergeists to aliens, when Philip himself began to claim extraterrestrial origins.

E.T. phoning home

Ever wondered why the telephone is E.T.’s preferred mode of communication?

Cooper’s talk called for a recognition of psi in the phenomena of ufology. ‘Is a haunted house still haunted when no one is at home?’ Cooper asked. Because there are no ghosts without human beings experiencing phenomena as ghosts, then psi is always a factor – these experiences come from our propensity to have such experiences, and this applies to ufology just as much as it applies to psychical research.

John Wickham of BUFORA spoke next on ‘UFOs Throughout History’. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the use of historical images and artefacts. Just because a figurine resembles a spaceman for us, that’s no proof it resembled anything remotely similar for the culture concerned. And I don’t know much about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but I know enough to be pretty sure that ‘hieroglyph which looks like a helicopter’ probably didn’t signify ‘helicopter’, or even ‘thing which looks like a helicopter’. Equally, medieval depictions of the annunciation or the baptism of Christ, with aerial lights and beams from the sky, may hint to us at UFO encounters, but that isn’t necessarily what they represented in their original context – which is what needs to be explored in detail by anyone wishing to pursue this type of argument.

The rest of Wickham’s talk was a pleasant meander through figures and cases from the history of mainstream ufology, although I was most interested by the conclusion to BUFORA’s most recent investigation: those strange lights filmed in Pitlochry turned out to be a spotlight on top of forestry equipment!

This marked the end of the individual presentations. Conference organiser Robert Moore, as a prelude to the panel discussion that followed, set out his case for ufology being in decline. He singled out exopolitics in particular, a field that takes the existence and nature of UFOs as given, even whilst the number of sightings and the quality of research into them continue to wane. He also highlighted the impact of the internet upon ufology. By making promulgation of images and information easier, it allows a detrimental bypassing of ufological organisations and their expertise. Widespread availability and advances in digital photography, and in image manipulation software, have also not served ufology well.

The panel discussion was lively, and more than adequately supplied with penetrating questions from the audience, but – to be honest – there were no great surprises in the speakers’ responses. The closer their allegiance to mainstream ufology, the less willing they seemed to countenance ufology’s demise. But I seemed to detect a slight consensus that the dominant trend, at present, is downward, and that this must be reversed for ufology to survive in the longer term. What form this rescue will take, and whether it can be relied upon, seems – for the time being – a matter of faith.