Ufology: What Have We Learned?

green and white leafed plantsUfology: What Have We Learned?

by Michael D. Swords

Professor emeritus, Environmental Studies,

Western Michigan University

Abstract – A reasonable case can be made that those of us who have dedicated a serious amount of research time to the study of ufology have learned the following:

1. That the phenomenon is a true, ongoing mystery, and is deserving of serious study;

2. How it has happened that even good (open-minded) scientists have been thrown off the subject;

3. That the “Extraterrestrial Hypothesis” (ETH) may be able to serve as a working model for what is going on but not in any simple-minded form;

4. That the field is almost impossible to study in any “conservative” (physical sciencesllab-top) type of way, barring rare cases of certain “close encounters.”

There are many other historical, sociological, epistemological things that we have learned. This review will focus its remarks around the four categories mentioned above.


Most people date the UFO phenomenon (many say the “modern” UFO phenomenon) from the years of World War Two and the “foo fighter” encounters in both the European and Pacific theatres of war. There began about ten years wherein the investigation of the phenomenon was almost entirely a military and/or intelligence activity (1945-1955). Following that, the interested civilians began creating (often very active) organizations, such as: Donald Keyhoe’s National Investigation Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), the Lorenzen’s Aerial Phenomena Research Organization (APRO), and the flagship UFO magazine, Flying Saucer Review (FSR). It was these elements (and strong-willed personages) that kept serious interest in the subject alive during a time of severe attacks in the form of derisive commentary by government officials, the media, and a few scientists. NICAP, APRO, FSR, et al., persisted through all of this buttressed by what some researchers call the heyday of classic ufology: 25 years filled with a large number and variety of “Close Encounter” cases, involving high quality and multiple independent witnesses, and incidents of physical effects. Although the Air Force’s Project Blue Book closed in the middle of this period, civilian organizations such as Dr. J. Allen Hynek’s Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) and the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) arose to carry on the battle (Figure 1). During this time (1955-1980), the phenomenon seemed to shift its emphasis from metallic disks cruising across the skies and lighting up radar screens, to close encounters with “landing traces,” electromagnetic intcrfcrence, physiological effects, and “entity” reports. The “old-style” cases were still around but the new-style ones offered the hope that laboratory science would be able to be brought to bear on the subject at last.

But, despite insightful statistical studies, such as those by Dr. David Saunders (of the Colorado Project), Dr. Claude Poher, and our own SSE colleague, Dr. Jacques Vallee (in his ChicagoIHynek years), the UFO phenomenon could not seriously dent the world of mainstream science. Clusters of case types and analyses by people such as Ted Phillips (”physical ground traces”)’, and Dr. Mark Rodeghier (”vehicle interference event^”) were powerful corroboration of the physical reality of the phenomenon to those already committed to the field, but still fell silently in the ears of a nonattentive scientific community (Figure 2). Doctor Hynek knew that some kind of new approach was necessary. Therefore, he founded the Center for UFO Studies not with the intent of chasing down every “good” sounding case that came to his attention, but rather to be highly selective of cases wherein some physical effect had occurred and its results were still present after the agent (the UFO) left the scene. These remanent “leavings” of the phenomenon could then be taken to the laboratories and hammered with all the science that could be brought to bear. Because most scientists were still shy on the subject and most high-tech labs were even more so, Hynek realized that he had limited social capital (and almost no economic capital) to spend on such testing and felt that one or two evidence-rich cases per year would be a reasonable goal. As it transpired, CUFOS was able to employ this strategy on exactly one case: the soil from the “landing trace” case of Delphos, Kansas, which had occurred in late 1971.

Hynek spent his social capital on this case in the years 1975-8, getting high-powered organizations like Oak Ridge and Battelle to do “midnight” gratis lab work, and finding experts, such as Dr. Hubert Lechevalier of the Institute for Microbiology at Rutgers, to give counsel on the constitution and formation of the anomalous soil ring3. If CUFOS had been the FBI (with funds, standby labs, expert on-call personnel, and multidimensional thought-through protocols), things might have been different. They certainly would have been quicker and many more analyses would have been done. Still, there were results but, still, the “trace” remained unexplained . . . and unexplained in ways several degrees less than would require an ET or paranormal hypothesis. The lab data on the case essentially rotted in files until the 1990s when it was collected and reanalyzed by this current author. More lab work was done by Dr. Erol ~ a r u akn~d by Phyllis ~ u d i n ~ earnd~ ,al l of this collected together in a monograph published by the UFO Research Coalition in 2002~. Hynek’s idea was scientifically sound: do a few outstanding “physical” (testable) cases per year and build up an undeniable set of demonstrations that (a) science could be done here; and (b) the phenomenon is real, interesting, and physical (at least in some part). Then no true scientist could deny that we had an externally real phenomenon on our hands and, even if they didn’t want to study it themselves, they’d at least shut up with their emotional derision and get out of the way. Who knows? Maybe they’d even cooperate occasionally. But Delphos was the only such demonstration. Why?

Hynek’s idea was sound on paper but unsound on the ground. The “administration” of a disparate and dispersed set of powerful individualists doing work on their own time (and on their own “nickel”) was somewhere between inefficient and impossible. Communication in those pre-web days didn’t help. The loose aggregation of the so-called “Invisible College” needed a strong leader with a polymath’s ability to construct novel research protocols. Hynek was not that man. And, the Invisible College needed an SSE-some real, functional organization within which to meet, discuss, and publish. In fact, it needed an SSE-on-steroids, a working society which met to discuss research protocols, investigation teams, funding and personnel for specific project needs. None of this research infrastructure, of course, existed.

Without government or academic help, ufological amateurs had been (and still are) faced with the task of building an entire discipline and research program by themselves. It took powerful personalities like Donald Keyhoe and Coral Lorenzen merely to keep going forward in the search for and promulgation of the facts (Figures 3 and 4). The big civilian organizations had somewhat different slulls. If a talented leader, or a very cleverly constructed board of leaders, could have gathered the pieces together, much more would have been able to be accomplished. That didn’t happen. Powerful personalities often do not cooperate, even in their ultimate best interests.

UFO historians bemoan this passing of a golden opportunity but there was one other aspect of ufology that helped sink Hynek’s great scheme: the phenomenon seemed to change. As one such historian, I get a bit nervous about this, even of writing it down, but it seems (diabolically?) that just as we began to focus on full laboratory testing of good soil trace cases, or good vehicle interference cases, or anything with a remanent effect, those cases (formerly fairly numerous) began to dry up. Hynek’s administrational difficulties, the long time needed to “finish” a case (and the unsatisfactoriness of knowing that more should be done), the lack of funds and smiling workers, added to the lack of rich cases falling into one’s lap conspired to doom the great idea to the trash heap. Fortunately, the French were better than we Americans and got several HynekUfology like analyses done under the rubric of their governmental-sponsored organization, Group d’Etude des Phknomknes Aerospatiaux Non-Identifiks (GEPAN). More about that, later.

Many powerhouse cases arose in this 1955-1980 period and, even without Hynekian or GEPANian analyses, are enough to convince the open-minded of the reality of the UFO phenomenon. The allegedly hyper-skeptical administrator of the University of Colorado Project, Robert Low, admitted that early in the Project (1967)~h e felt very little work needed to be done to firmly indicate that the “objects” were indeed physical objects, external to the observers. But the array of such cases seemed to change so that once the “SSE era” (1980s and onward) dawned, the phenomenon had either “retreated” from the evidence-rich leavings cases, or had become mired in countless claims of “alien abductions.” Some researchers exulted in this change (”Now we’re going to be able to get inside the ships”), while some did not (”Groan. Now we’re going to have to get inside the claimants’ heads.”). Throughout the SSE era, 1981-2006, ufology has been dominated by three main themes: (I) “abduction” claims and research; (2) attempts to document the crashed disk (Roswell) story; and (3) the construction of documented UFO history (both phenomenologically and organizationally) using Freedom of Information Act (FO1A)- released, primary documents for old cases, revisiting witnesses, and an oral history video project! Other important things have been accomplished, of course, such as the Sturrock-Rockefeller workshop9, the Journal for UFO Studies”, and a few excellent books (e.g., by Jerome lark’ l , Richard D a i n e1s2, Richard all’^, etc.). The question of the rest of this review then is: Following the failure of Hynek’s great plan and our entry into a new era wherein the phenomenon seems to be throwing us new curves, what have we learned?

A full copy of the paper can be found at http://scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_20_4_swords.pdf

Photo by Degsie Cheung. Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- Share Alike 2.0 Generic

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