Long time FATE writer Jerome Clark reflects on how ufology has evolved over the years.
by Jerome Clark
TWO YEARS AGO in this column (October 1983 FATE) I suggested that the UFO age had passed. Interest in the subject was stagnant, I wrote, largely because ufology had failed either to establish conclusively the existence of UFOs or to lay them forever to rest, leaving us with a “riddle that stubbornly resists solution.” Rather than face the ambiguities of an extraordinarily complex phenomenon, the general public and the scientific community had decided it was easier to declare UFOs nonexistent and to go on to other diversions. I predicted that the UFO question would probably have to await another generation before receiving the serious attention it deserved.
I am no longer so sure this is the case. Since I wrote that column a number of interesting developments have occurred. I think I am not being too optimistic when I say that ufologists may be very close to making their case.
For much of the history of the UFO controversy, ufologists, with a few honorable exceptions, have been their own worst enemies. A cynic might even say (not entirely fairly but not entirely unfairly either) that ufologists were the worst thing that ever happened to the UFO phenomenon. The average UFO buff is not a crank, stereotype to the contrary, but he is often intellectually unsophisticated and uncritical. Some ufologists are little more than mystery-mongers with a naive desire to believe in wondrous phenomena (although why anyone would want to believe in UFOs, considering the unsettling implications of alien visitation, is something I don’t understand).
Yet, while some ufologists are as silly as they ever were, others have matured, developed solid investigative skills, adopted tighter standards, learned a healthy skepticism and detached themselves from emotional commitment to any particular UFO theory. Today, in fact, there are ufologists who have no special interest in any final “explanation” of the phenomenon; they are concerned only that investigations of particular cases be competently handled and the conclusions drawn from them be soundly based. Others are exploring the possibility that some UFOs—or perhaps all of them— are unknown natural phenomena. More and more ufologists are drawing on the expertise and assistance of outside scientists and psychologists who have begun to realize that something very strange is going on.
All of this has reduced ufology’s once-vocal debunkers to a state of perplexity and confusion. This is hardly surprising, since it was ufologists’ failings and foolishness that provided the ammunition for their critics in the first place. But sane and serious ufologists who do their homework are proving too much for debunkers, who now mostly eschew debates about UFO evidence in favor of bizarre charges against the character of ufologists. The strangest of these charges is one well-known debunker’s assertion that ufologists are serving the cause of Soviet Communism!
On those infrequent occasions that a debunker tries to demolish a good case, the results are embarrassing. Stanton Friedman has cited no fewer than 22 errors, major and minor, in Philip J. Klass’ attempt (in three pages of UFOs: The Public Deceived) to debunk the supposed UFO crash at Roswell, N. Mex., in July 1947. Bruce Maccabee has shown that Klass’ supposedly prosaic explanation for the New Zealand UFO film violates the laws of physics.
Some of the best mid-1980′s ufological writing appears in the MUFON 1985 UFO Symposium Proceedings, edited by Walter H. Andrus, Jr., and Richard H. Hall. The most remarkable is William L. Moore’s 48-page “Crashed Saucers: Evidence in Search of Proof,” detailing its author’s heroic effort to get to the bottom of ufology’s most persistent rumor. Until Moore came along, ufologists either gullibly swallowed such tales or, more often, refused even to consider them; practically nobody bothered to investigate them.
Before the Roswell event, the most famous—or, more accurately, infamous— crashed-saucer story concerned an alleged incident in Aztec, N. Mex., in 1948, detailed in Frank Scully’s 1950 best-seller Behind the Flying Saucers. After J. P. Cahn exposed the story as a hoax in a celebrated 1952 True article, ufologists came to view crashed saucers as a subject unfit for polite conversation. Yet Cahn’s article left many questions unanswered and inevitably, when in the late 1970′s the UFO community took a new look at crash stories, some observers suggested the Aztec tale be reconsidered.
Moore has done just that. The result is a richly detailed, absorbing, often amusing account which will stand as the definitive treatment of one of ufology’s most amazing hoaxes. Along with other new information, Moore tells us where Scully’s informants, two flamboyant con artists, got their story (which they used as part of an elaborate scheme to sell bogus oil-detection devices): not from rumors of allegedly real UFO crashes, as some have speculated, but from another hoax, this one used to hype a long-forgotten Grade-Z Hollywood thriller, The Flying Saucer.
Along the way Moore demolishes some “true” crash stories which he shows are versions of the Aztec yarn. The moral of all this seems to be that a good hoax has many lives.
The second half of Moore’s paper examines the Roswell incident which, thanks to his and Stan Friedman’s tireless efforts, has become one of the best-documented events in UFO history. Moore’s exhaustive summary of the evidence gathered from interviews with nearly 100 informants, plus documents and other printed sources, is powerful and persuasive; it is a landmark work in the UFO literature.
Another worthwhile paper is Budd Hopkins’ “The Evidence Supporting UFO Abduction Reports.” Hopkins argues, from his own considerable investigative experience, that there is good reason to believe these are physical, not psychological, experiences. His argument is especially compelling because Hopkins’ associates in abduction investigation include 10 psychologists and psychiatrists, most of them working quietly behind the scenes. Among them is one of America’s most famous psychiatrists whose work on the “survivor syndrome” has led him to the abduction phenomenon. Another is the head of neurology at a leading New York hospital.
Hopkins could have, but does not, make an obvious point: While debunkers ridicule abduction reports as “obvious” fantasies, no psychiatric or psychological professional who has investigated the phenomenon—by “investigated” I mean interacted with abductees, subjected them to psychological examination, compared their reports and personality profiles with those of other abductees and otherwise conducted in-depth research—has endorsed this conclusion. To the contrary, the professionals agree with Dr. Elizabeth Slater’s observation that the evidence to date reveals “no apparent psychological explanation for [abduction] reports.” If anything is “obvious,” it is that further research, not further ridicule, is warranted.
The book also includes solid papers by Friedman, David F. Webb and Ted Phillips. It contains, too, a couple of dogs: a pointless rehash of overly-familiar material by George D. Fawcett and a naive exercise in UFO boosterism by Marge Christensen (creator of something called “National UFO Information Week”).
Veteran ufologist Leonard H. Stringfield presents an interesting paper titled “The Fatal Encounter at Fort Dix-McGuire,” concerning a fantastic story about the shooting of a humanoid being at an air force base in New Jersey in January 1978. Unfortunately, supporting evidence is scant. There is only one informant and Stringfield does not give his real name, so independent investigation is not possible. But Dick Hall, a careful, critical-minded ufologist whom no one has ever accused of credulity, has met the informant and was impressed with him.
So extraordinary a claim, however, needs more than one seemingly sincere claimant. And I am not reassured by the fact that the official documents relating to the case and reproduced with the article were provided by the claimant himself. There is, after all, a long history of phony “official UFO documents.” At this stage skeptical suspension of judgment is the only reasonable response to this incredible tale.