Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Barney and Betty Hill Story: Case study in parasociology (Part 2)

This post continues the analysis of the Barney and Betty Hill alleged abduction in September 1961. The remaining dimensions of the analytical model are tested for fitness. The general evaluation of the model and conclusion will be presented in the third and last part of this case study.

Shared psi effect, nurturing the phenomenon, and telepathic sharing

One of the key conclusions of Dr. Benjamin in June 1964 was that the part of the Hill’s story onboard the “spaceship” was most likely a fantasy born out of Betty’s dream and absorbed through osmosis by Barney.[27] A number of elements could be presented to support this thesis. Betty had her dreams a few weeks after the events in the fall of 1961 and wrote them down. The Hill consulted for the first time Dr. Benjamin in December 1963. So there was over two years between these two events, a lot of time for absorption. ETH ufologists claimed that the Hill never discussed her dreams, and that Barney never read her written account of her dreams. It is in fact incorrect. Many details were discussed among them.[28] As well, Betty recounted publicly the content of her dreams before 1964 during a meeting where Barney was in the attendance.

Another possibility is that there was some telepathic sharing of themes and images between them, as Schwartz suggested explaining a number of close encounters. Such telepathy could have occurred during and/or after the events of 1961. However, there is not enough evidence to assess if this could have been the case, and therefore the telepathic sharing is in this case not a useful element.

What has occurred, however, was an active nurturing of the phenomenon. Irrespective of what happen in September 1961, it is clear that the Hill were engaged into a psycho-social dynamics reinforcing the ETH interpretation of their experience. It is important to note that after the events, both Barney and Betty were not sure what to make of what happen to them. In a process similar to Marian apparitions where a beautiful lady becomes the Virgin Mary when other people get involved with the witnesses, the Hill were quickly absorbed by the ETH community and their belief system. From that point of view the Hill story is interesting as it fits the Model of Pragmatic Information (MPI) developed by the German parapsychologist Walter von Lucadou to study Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) or poltergeists.[29]

In the light of Benjamin Simon’s analysis of the Hill’s experience, Barney seems to be the “focus person.” In RSPKs, the focus person tends to be someone with a lot of unresolved inner conflicts with deep roots into the unconscious part of their mind. The events has clearly illustrated that Barney was the one who had the most serious challenges about his own identity, as an African-American man married to a White women in the 1960s. The hypnotic regression showed that issue was a constant preoccupation for him. For instance, when they were driving through Montreal in the afternoon prior to the event, he was worried about how the French-Canadians would react towards him, and was relief to see other Blacks walking in the city streets.[30] He had the same apprehension in the restaurant where they stopped before crossing the borders.[31] When he was looking into the binoculars towards the “spaceship”, his first reaction was that he saw an “Irishman friendly to Blacks”, which was described as a rare thing by Barney.[32] Then the image changed and he saw a Nazi officer, which upset him greatly.[33] If it was clear for Dr. Simon that there was no particular signs of tensions in the couple given the different background [34], being an African-American in White dominated world was affecting Barney. In the 1960s, it was not a rare thing as shown by the famous studies conducted by the psychiatrist Franz Fanon.[35]

Betty, on the other hand could be considered as the key person in what von Lucadou calls the “environment”. Not only she provided an ETH meaning to the events to Barney, but she actively engaged the wider environment in such interpretation of events. The first call Betty made was to her sister who saw a UFO, and her sister provided Betty with information as to how to report their sighting.[36] Betty told the story to their tenants the same day,{37] and some of her friends and co-workers later on.[38] Betty called the local Air Force base to report her sightings. [39] Finally, Betty borrowed Major Keyhoe’s famous book on UFO (an ETH book) at the local library, read it in one sitting, and wrote to the National Investigations of Committee of Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), on 26 September 1961 to report the sighting.[40] All these actions were taken while Barney was reluctant at every turn.

Then, the “naive observers” arrive (to use von Lucadou’s terminology). On 21 October 1961, the Hill agree to meet NICAP’s investigator Walter Webb[41]. After a discussion with Major Keyhoe about the Hill case, Robert Hohman and C.D Jackson decide to interview the Hill as well, which occurred on 25 November 1961. A friend of the Hill, Major MacDonald joins them as well, and it is at that time that they realized there was a missing time period for which they could not account for during the early hours of 20 September 1961[42]. Later on, the Hill presented their story to a few public meetings. In a few months, what was a very odd and bizarre event became an encounter construed as a prime ETH event.

In the Hill case, there were very few critical observers. On 25 March 1962, as Barney’s physical and mental health was deteriorating, the Hill met Dr. Quirke for an interview who suggested a cool off period in the hope that things will get back to normal.[43] Yet, the Hill actually pursued the issue even further by continuing making frequent trips to Indian Head where they thought the event took place.[44] The second critical observer was Dr. Benjamin who considered the “aliens in spaceship” part of the event as a fantasy. It was clear that Betty completely rejected Dr. Benjamin’s assessment. She even said that there were no symbols to interpret in what happened to them.[45]

Finally, society (the last component of von Lucadou’s model) got involved when a Boston journalist published their story after attending a meeting where the Hill told their story, which prompted them to work with Fuller to get the record straight, which eventually led to the publication of Interrupted Journey in October 1966. In the Hill case, the naive observers were able to shield the Hill from the critical observers and from society for quite a long time. This allowed the ETH interpretation to stick, as shown by Betty while being under hypnosis during the 7 March 1964 session. She said that “And I kept wondering why they were following us. And as I would figure that, I was wondering if they were as curious about me as I was about them.” Then Dr. Simon asked “you speak of ‘they’?” Betty replied “ I mean, well, I figured there must be somebody inside of the object, you know, someone directing its flight. And so, whoever was inside, this is ‘they’.”[46] Given the unfolding of events described above between September 1961 and March 1964, such a statement from Betty could be seen as equivocal. Either she was not truthful when she said she had no particular preconceptions about UFOs, or her statement under hypnosis is the product of psycho-social process that occurred after the actual events took place. It appears that both issues were at play, i.e., an original openness about the ETH which was reinforced later on by interacting with the ETH ufological community.

Although the possibility of a shared psi event could not have been confirmed with the existing information, it is clear that the psycho-social dynamics surrounding the event and the witnesses played an important role in defining it. This is an important issue, and the proposed model is fit enough to remove at least some of the ETH noise out of the evidence. This also reinforces the notion that whether psi effects are involved or not, UFO sightings and closer encounters cannot be separated from the large psycho-social context from which they emerged and are interpreted. Focussing solely on the PEMIE and one’s individual mental balance, like most ETH ufologists do, leads to a very limited understanding of the UFO experience.

Social psi, plausibility structure, and tension in the collective unconscious

This part of the proposed analytical model is the most innovative, but also the riskiest one. A more deliberate analysis is therefore proposed.

Plausibility structures

It is incorrect to think that the “Grey” aliens and abductors first appeared with the Hill’s story. There were already pre-existing plausibility structures leaning towards the “new alien narrative.” Hairy and small creatures were reported in 1954 in France and in Venezuela.[47] Dwarf like creatures with big ears and long arms were reported in the American press, in August 1955, in what is now called the Kelly-Hopkinsville story[48]. Then, there is also the famous Brazilian case of Antonio Villas-Boas who was allegedly abducted by alien creatures in October 1957, although the story was only made public in Brazil in the spring of 1962.[49] However, the publication of Behind Flying Saucers by Frank Scully in 1950 is probably the story that had the most impact. Scully told a story that dwarf like creatures were recovered from crash sites in Arizona and New Mexico. He was eventually discredited by the press, but with the publication of the Roswell story in 1980, Scully’s story was resurrected and stuck ever since in the ETH ufological milieus. As Paul Meehan notes in his extensive cinematographic study of alien movies, “Scully’s book help establish the notions of little humanoid aliens and UFOs over the Southwestern desert in the public mind. These themes were to reappear in many of the films of the 50s science fiction cycle.”[50]

In spite of many ETH ufologists rejection of cultural explanations for the UFO phenomenon, by 1961 there were plenty of collective representations of dwarf-like aliens, widely available across the United States. But it is also important to underline that by 1961, the saucer movies and their imagery were less prominent. As Meehan wrote, “by the end of the decade the first wave of the invasion had stalled. After numerous saucer movies releases in 1958 and 1959, the cycle had run its course in Hollywood. It would be many years before the UFOnauts return to invade the celluloid skies above New York and Washington.”[51] It is an important observation, as it is indicative that in 1961 saucer stories and images were leaving the collective consciousness to settle into the collective unconscious.

It is also clear that the Hill story not only benefited from prior plausibility structures, but was also instrumental in creating new ones. For instance, the next “Gray abduction” story that emerged in the United States was the so-called Andreasson affair, described in Raymond Fowler’s book The Andreasson Affair published in the 1970s. Yet, the story took place in January 1967, just a few months after the publication of The Interrupted Journey in October 1966. In the same vein, the television film based on the Hill story, The UFO Incident, was first aired on NBC on 20 October 1975. Two weeks later, the famous “Gray abduction” of Travis Walton occurred (5 November 1975). The sincerity of these witnesses is not in doubt here. What one needs to consider is rather that the introduction in the public realm through the mass media of new plausibility structures can enact new forms of PEMIEs.

Tensions in the collective unconscious

It is always fascinating to see ETH ufologists studying sightings in a complete social and political vacuum, as if nothing important happens around a sighting. The Hill story is certainly one of the most patent cases. In the third week of September 1961, there was a lot of going on in the United States that relates to Hill story. At least two major releases of emotional energy were occurring around the same dates.

As found by Kottmeyer and Viéroudy[52], important ufological events in the United States appear to be linked to national security concerns. In September 1961, the world was in the midst of the Berlin crisis, which brought the world to a very serious confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. The then secret National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 21 September 1961, the day after the Hill’s event, was circulated among senior decision-makers showing that the Soviet Union was bluffing and that they could not back up their claim on West Berlin with a large ICBM force.[53] The preparations for an eventual pre-emptive nuclear strike were not necessary anymore, to the great relief of President Kennedy. This also indicated that America was no more in a catching up mode (perceived as such since the launch of Sputnik in 1957), and in fact America was clearly ahead in the Cold War contest.

Second, the Civil Rights movement was actively engaged into the “Freedom Rides” during the summer and fall of 1961 (which finds its roots in the famous Rosa Parkes incident of 1955), where both White and Black activists were riding coach buses across the southern United States, purposefully transgressing segregation laws in bus seating arrangements. This led to several violent incidents where buses were burnt by racist demonstrators. Many Civil Rights activists were seriously beaten and arrested by the police in states where segregation was enforced. On 22 September 1961 (two days after the Hill’s incident), the Freedom Rides Civil Right activists won their first victory by a ruling of the Federal Interstate Commerce Commission interdicting segregation in trains, buses and transportation terminals across the country.[54] Given the Hill active involvement in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), these “interrupted journeys” at the border of segregationist states in the southern United States were certainly known to them.

What is important to remember here is that these key events occurred one and two days after the Hill’s event. This could be seen as a liminal events where the content of the NIE and the decision about ending segregation where certainly known to those who wrote them, but were not public yet. In both cases, such information was certainly known to have a major impact on America’s self identity. On one hand America was no more the underdog in the Cold War competition, and the Civil Rights activists were successful in changing American society. To use Anderson’s analysis,[55] it is clear that deeply shared myths and their unconscious underpinnings about what America is were affected.

Social psi effect

The question whether such liminal event could produce social psi effect remains to be answered and it is one of the central tasks of parasociology. Without proposing what could be considered a proof, it is at least possible to show some indications that may be some social psi effects were in action in the Hill case by looking at the symbolic content of what has been reported by them.

The first interesting link can be made is about the appearance of the “spacecraft” and the Freedom Riders. In a previous post about the Fatima story, it was said that a ladder was seen. But what was really meant was a horizontal series of windows looking like a ladder, as commonly found in buses and trains. Then, could it be possible that what Hill saw was a mixture of flying saucer and coach bus, or a flying bus? The famous drawings made by the Hill looks as follow:

It is interesting to note that they also underlined that there were red lights at each ends of the object. Now let’s consider these coach buses contemporary to the Hill event, and note that they have red lights on top at each ends:

Now take a picture of a similar coach bus taken from the side, print it, take both top ends and join them to make something like a cone, and compare it to Barney’s drawing. The similarity is striking.

Another set of symbolic representations are the eyes of the “aliens” which could be linked to the nuclear war that did not occur given the winding down of the Berlin crisis. If one has a look at contemporary mask and military protective suits, like these ones and then compare it to the typical “Gray” seen by the Hill, interesting similarities can be found.

However, it is possible to have a different set of “eyes”, which in the Hill context of 1961 could have been terrifying, and yet very meaningful. Once the alien is seen upside down, as if he would look over someone lying down, the comparison is striking.

In the part of the Hill event that emerged during the hypnosis regression, the issue of sexual reproduction was clearly at the centre stage. There was the barney’s semen collected issue, and Betty’s pregnancy test through the navel using a technology just about to be discovered, but that is low tech our present-day standards.[56] Then there was the skin test performed on Betty [57], and the “Grey” aliens (and let’s remember that grey is a color produced out of a mixture of black and white). Although Betty could not have children due to a medical condition,[58] the issue of mixed children in the United States of the 1960s was not a light one.

The issue of inter-racial marriages was not just a contested social convention in the United States at the time. This was against the law in many states, and as Civil Right activists, there is no reason to believe the Hill were not aware of this. Furthermore, these laws were in place to avoid producing mixed offspring (known in the racist literature as miscegenation). It was only in 1967 with the landmark judgement of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Loving vs. Virginia case that laws prohibiting inter-racial marriages were formally declared unconstitutional. Although it was not enforced, it was only in 2000 that the last state, Alabama, formal struck down their anti inter-racial marriage law. [59]

The last symbolic element addressed here is the famous map that was first described as a 1960s paper technology (i.e. a regular map)[60]. But was later re-described by Betty as being digital under hypnosis by niece (an ETH ufologist) and after such technology became available on Earth.[61] There are a number of problem with the Zeta Reticuli hypothesis that are well-known: it is based on memory and Betty’s drawing could only be approximate, there are an almost infinite number of possibilities if one expand the possible stars beyond 100 light years, etc. Instead, if one reverses the “stellar” map and compare it with a map showing the Freedom Ride action published in 1962, another set of striking similarities can be found.


[27] Fuller p. 319.

[28] Fuller, p. 232.

[29] Lucadou, W. and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”.

[30] Fuller p. 94.

[31] Fuller p. 97.

[32] Fuller, p. 114.

[33] Fuller, p. 115.

[34] See the “ Introduction,” written in 1966 by Dr. Benjamin Simon, in John Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey (New York: Berkeley Publishing), p. 5.

[35] See in particular his famous book originally published in 1952: Black Skin, White Masks.

[36] Fuller p. 39.

[37] Fuller, p. 39.

[38] Fuller, pp. 49 and 71.

[39] Fuller, p. 41.

[40] Fuller, p. 46.

[41] Fuller p. 50.

[42] Fuller, p. 62-65.

[43] Fuller p. 72.

[44] Fuller, p. 69.

[45] Fuller, p. 335.

[46] Fuller, p. 178.

[47] For more information, please refer to Jacques Vallée. (1969) Passport to Magonia.

[48] Please refer to J. Allen Hynek. (1972). The UFO Experience.

[49] Also reported in Vallée’s Passport to Magonia.

[50] Paul Meehan. (1998). Saucer Movies, p. 34.

[51] Idem., p. 104.

[52] See Kottmeyer, Martin. (1996). “UFO Flaps”. The Anomalist 3 (1995-1996): 64-89; and Viéroudy, Pierre. (1977). Ces ovnis qui annoncent le surhomme. Paris: Tchou.

[53] NIE 11-8/1-61 -- Strength and Deployment of Soviet Long Range Ballistic Missile Forces, 21 September 1961 (29 pages), access on Internet at on 22 December 2008. For more information, please refer to Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan. (1978) Force Without War. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

[54] For more information on the Freedom Ride please refer to Raymond Arsenault (2006) Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[55] See Anderson, Benedict. (1983). Imagined Communities—Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

[56] See Fuller, p. 196.

[57] See Fuller, pp. 316-317.

[58] Fuller, p. 317-318.

[59] For more information, please see on Internet

[60] Fuller, p. 208-209.

[61] In Friedman and Marden, Captured!.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Barney and Betty Hill Story: Case study in parasociology (Part 1)

This post is a first attempt to evaluate the usefulness of the model that emerged from two previous posts: “The materiality of UFOs”, and the “The sociality of UFOs”. The Barney and Betty Hill alleged abduction by extraterrestrial entities (ETs) in the early hours of 20 September 1961 has been selected as a case study to try out the model. There are a number of reasons that justify such a choice. The key one is that large excerpts of the hypnotic regressions conducted by Dr. Benjamin Simon are publicly available through Fuller’s book The Interrupted Journey. Data about the inner state of being of the Hill are thus available, which is rarely the case for most close encounter reports studied by ufologists who espouse the extra-terrestrial hypothesis (ETH). Similarly, this case is quite well-known, and many other aspects have been reported on by a number of authors. Lastly, their story constitutes a landmark case from a sociological standpoint. Contacts with extraterrestrial entities were already reported in the 1950s, particularly during the so-called “contactees era” involving the benevolent “Space Brothers” (notion actively promoted by a number of people after the publication of George Adamski’s Flying Saucers Have Landed in 1953). What makes the Hill case significant is that it introduces innovations in the collective perceptions and narratives about the alleged ETs appearance and behaviour. In particular, the social representations of the ETs slowly started to show certain common physical features (big black eyes, no lips, gray skin, etc), and the ETs’ behaviour as told by witnesses contrasted from previous accounts: the ETs were not that friendly after all.

Analytical Framework

The analytical framework developed in the previous posts is used here to re-assess the events as reported by the Hill. The purpose is not to be predictive, but rather to show that some key variables were present in their experience, many of them completely ignored by the ETH ufologists. Hence, the key criterion is to see if the model can provide new lights to understand what happened to the Hill. As discussed previously, the model can be represented graphically as thus:


The Hill’s story has been studied by ETH ufologists, and they emphasised the few physical elements involved, in the hope of vindicating their belief. But like in most ufological accounts none of those physical traces can be verified through physical means. For instance, it was believed that there was radar tracking records of a UFO during the night of 19 to 20 September 1961 over central New Hampshire that could prove the Hill story. But after the investigations of David Webb and John Oswald in the 1970s, it became clear that there is no evidence of a link between the radar tracking and the Hill incident.[1]

The object itself was watch by both Barney and Betty while they were conscious with naked eyes and with binoculars, and it was described as something that “appeared to be flashing thin pencils of different colored lights, rotating around an object which at that time appeared cigar shaped. Just a moment before it had changed its speed from slow to fast, then slowed down again as it crossed the face of the moon. The lights were flashing persistently, red amber, green and blue.”[2] This description does not provide a lot of information, and in no way does it prove that the UFO was a manufactured craft. If anything, this description is more in tune with the behaviour of a ball of light made of plasma.[3] Also, it is important to note that at the end of the event, as told under regression, the “spaceship” was actually perceived as an orange ball of fire,[4] which is the hallmark of the most common form of ball of light.

Three other elements are also underlined in the ETH ufology literature[5], the first one being spots on the back of Hill car that appeared to be magnetised. The second one is about the marks on the top of Barney’s shoes. The last one is the issue of marks on Betty’s dress and damages to its zipper. These evidences are also equivocal. The magnetized marks on the car could be caused by the impact of smaller balls of light which could explain the “perfectly” round and magnetized marks. Smaller balls of light are known to accompany larger ones. For the shoes, as it appear that Hill stopped in a forested area, walking in the forest at night could create such effect, and there is no need of being dragged by someone else to produce such an effect. The broken zipper on Betty’s dress could have been damaged while waking in the forest by getting stuck on a branch and the other marks could have been caused by tree resin (which marks were found of being of Earthly biological origin[6]). As one can see, the physical evidences are equivocal at best. Furthermore, the only real evidences left are the accounts of Betty and Barney, both of which are based on recollection of events that occurred mostly while being in altered states of consciousness (either during the event, or after the event during the hypnotic regression sessions with Dr. Simon). With this kind of evidence, a simple materialistic explanation, as proposed by ETH ufologists, is simply impossible to maintain. So, as there is no physical evidence available for physical analysis, an indirect approach is required.

Individual psi effect, belief, and sensitivity to the paranormal

One of the very few approaches that meet that could provide new lights on the physical dimension of the Hill’s story is the one proposed by those who studied psychokinetic events. Pamela Heath, a parapsychologist specialized in the study of psychokinesis (PK), produced in 2003 a substantial compendium about what is known about PK: The PK Zone. Out of her findings, a number of elements about PK present striking similarities to the events told by Betty and Barney Hill.

One of the key findings in Heath’s research is that altered state of consciousness is a pervasive element. Heath found that the key elements of ASC and PK are (1) a feeling of being in another dimension or alternate reality; (2) awareness of discarnate entities, by accessing our spirit; (3) altered sense of time or of being “out” of the time; (4) a sense of vast complexity, difficult for the ordinary mind to understand; (5) a sense of flow, or being in the “zone”; (6) fusion between the conscious and the unconscious; (7) sense of meditation; and (8) subtle shift in the quality of the experience.[7] These elements, of course, cover a wide variety of PK experiences from lab tests on random number generators to poltergeist events. The elements (1) to (3), in particular, describe very well many UFO close encounters, and can be put in direct relations with Jenny Randles’ concept of the “Oz factor”.[8]

When one keeps in mind the factors identified above and links them to Randles’ description of the Oz factor, one can only be struck by the similarities. For instance, she states that "the Oz factor certainly points to consciousness as the focal point of the UFO encounter...Subjective data that override objective reality could be internal [from our subconscious], external [e.g., from some other intelligent agency], or both...The encounter has a visionary component. You might interpret that as meaning it is all in the imagination. But it really means that there is a direct feed, if you like, from the source of the encounter to the consciousness of the witness...Some witnesses report a strange sensation prior to the encounter -- a sort of mental tingling as if they are aware that something is about to happen. They just have to look up and see what is there, as if it had called to them silently...Then time seems to disappear and lose all meaning".[9]

If we use the constitutive elements of ASC found by Heath, the Hill’s experience has many commonalities. On the alternate reality aspect, under hypnosis Barney described during the 22 February 1964 session that he saw the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland disappearing, the eyes of the leader were in his face disconnected from the leader’s body, and that he was “just floating about”.[10] For Betty’s part, the entire episode is about entering into a very strange craft with very strange people.

Both have encountered strange entities that could access their mind directly, which is very similar to the notion of awareness of discarnate entities, by accessing our spirit. On the altered sense of time, it is well-known that the Hill couple was missing a few hours, for which they could not account for. The same occurred under hypnosis. During the 7 March 1964 session, Betty said “We’re driving along … I don’t know where we are … I don’t even know how we got here … Barney and I, we were driving, I don’t know how long…I don’t know how long…”.[11]

Heath found that there is a general sense of knowing among experiencers.[12] Knowing that the event will occur; knowing that the healing is working or not. The sense of knowing also manifests itself through ESP-like experiences. Barney and Betty, at numerous occasions state that they knew that the light in the sky is “interested” in them. For instance, Barney said during the 22 February 1964 session that “the object was still around us. I could feel it around us. I saw it when we passed by the object. When I got in the car, it had swung around so that it was out there. I—I know it was out there”.[13] As well, they knew what the alien entities are saying even when there are no sounds or spoken word uttered.

Other factors that are more commonly found in spontaneous PK are strong emotions and a strong sense of playfulness. Heath notes that “peak levels of emotion can trigger PK, especially for spontaneous events. This seemed to be true for a wide variety of strong emotions, including anger, frustration with others, sadness, excitement, and love”.[14] Heath also quotes an experiencer to illustrate the role of playfulness, “’play is very important in these sorts of’s entertainment at a certain has a thrilling quality”.[15] There are clear links with the UFO experience where emotions can run high, including fear mixed with curiosity, which in a way connects both aspects of emotions in PK, i.e., the strong emotions and the thrilling aspect. Both Barney and Betty showed high degrees of fear of about the aliens and the craft during the hypnosis sessions. But there was also a playful aspect. For instance Betty said during the 21 March 1964 session, “I was more curious and interested. And I had the feeling of being sort of helpless. That something was going to happen, and I didn’t have much control over it. But I wasn’t really afraid. I guess I was looking forward to it.”[16] During the 28 March 1964 session Barney said that he was fascinated while at the same time afraid.[17] It is also interesting to note Barney said that fascination “was being produced by something stronger than me, outside me, that I wasn’t creating this”.[18] Heath found that PK is also associated with what she calls a sense of energy which may be felt as if it is coming from a “higher source”.[19]

Heath describes openness as “both something of a personality style and a lack of rigid beliefs that might prohibit PK. It seems to indicate a flexible worldview, which might allow the performer not only to do PK, but also to recognize and accept their experiences. [But...] belief systems seemed to play far less of a role than the literature would suggest.”[20] This is an interesting distinction, but it can also cause quite a bit of confusion. For instance, studies[21] that identified the belief in the paranormal as an important element of the UFO experience used the concept of belief not meant to mean necessarily “belief system” but rather a positive attitude towards the paranormal in general. The word belief can therefore mean either “belief system” or “openness”.

In her summary, Heath reassesses somewhat her findings in stating that “in a way, openness to an experience is also a willingness to suspend disbelief, and to see what can happen without the interference of the intellect. It also suggests a lack of attachment to a rigid world view. Hence, it is possible that beliefs could act to modify PK performance either through encouraging the performer to be open to the possibility of PK, and/or willingness to open up to that state [...].”[22] The relationship between belief systems and openness can be therefore more subtle than previously understood by parapsychologists.

Betty, although she appears to have no conscious interest in UFOs prior to her September 1961 experience, it was clear that from the onset she established that the light in the sky was a UFO (read here: aliens in a spaceship). She immediately linked that experience with the one of her sister Janet, who saw a UFO during the 1950s. Indeed, Betty called Janet when she arrived home to discuss her UFO experience. As well, a fact rarely underlined by ufologists is that Betty engaged in informal telepathic experiments with Barney before their UFO event,[23] and her family has a history of dealing with paranormal events.[24] Lastly, she had other UFO sightings afterward in 1966-67.[25] Barney, on the other hand, was clearly struggling to not believe it was an “alien spaceship,” and this inner struggle was obviously perceptible in the debate he had with Betty in the car while watching the UFO in the sky in 1961. This struggle was also obvious while he was under hypnosis with Dr. Benjamin.[26] Such a struggle was clearly indicative that he unconsciously accepted the possibility of an “alien spaceships”, but consciously he was trying to resist such “irrational belief”. In the end, they had a different experience. Barney had a more rigid belief in “rationality” while Betty was quite open to have an extraordinary experience. Barney had no visual memories of being on “the ship”. It was Betty who provided the bulk of the story about the “Greys”, the medical experiment, the stellar map, etc. Hence, the Hill’s story also fits well Heath’s findings about openness.

Although it is not possible to prove according to the positivist epistemology that the Hill story was actually a spontaneous PK experience, it is clear that their story has a lot in common with what is known about the psycho-social dynamics of PK. A more in-depth analysis of all the material gathered under hypnosis (as Fuller only published a portion of the transcript in his book) submitted to all of the 14 elements proposed by Heath in her book would probably provide a more comprehensive look at the Hill story. Nevertheless, there are a number of indicators pointing towards something known (i.e., PK effects), which is more useful than trying to speculate about something that is not known (i.e., the ETH).


[1] Hall, Richard. (1979). “Hill Radar-UFO Connection Weak”. MUFON UFO Journal No. 140. Retrieved on Internet at on 2 January 2009.

[2] Fuller, p. 28.

[3] Heath, P.. (2003). The PK Zone, p. 100; Budden, A. Electric UFOs, pp. 165-196.

[4] Fuller, p. 213.

[5] In particular Freidman, S. and K. Marden. (2007). Captured!.

[6] Freidman, S. and K. Marden, p. 267.

[7] Heath, pp. 220-222.

[8] Randles, J. (1983). UFO Reality.

[9] Randles, J. (2004). “View from Britain”, pp. 18-19.

[10] Fuller, p. 125-127.

[11] Fuller, p. 184.

[12] Heath, pp. 316-320.

[13] Fuller, p. 121.

[14] Heath, p. 256.

[15] Heath, p. 258.

[16] Fuller, p. 253.

[17] Fuller, p. 283.

[18] Idem.

[19] Heath, p. 266.

[20] Heath, p. 307.

[21] See Philips 1993, Spanos et al. 1993, and Basterfield and Thalbourne 2001.

[22] Heath, p. 314.

[23] Fuller, pp. 243-244.

[24] Schwartz, pp. 273-281.

[25] Friedman & Marden, pp. 211-218.

[26] Fuller, pp. 33, 101, and 108.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Essay on the Sociality of UFOs

This post is proposing a review of the literature surveyed so far on the social dimension of the UFO experience. However, contrary to most sociological research on UFOs, it is not focussing on the socially shared belief in UFO per se. It is not, either, assuming that the debate about the actual reality of the phenomena is to be ignored (or worst, ridiculed). Instead, this review is building on the post on the “Materiality of UFOs”, in which UFOs were described as PEMIEs (Psi/Electro-Magnetic Induced Experiences). In other words, it based on the assumption that the UFO experiences are caused, in part, by factors external to the experiencers that are beyond conventional explanations. It is also based on the assumption that social realities not only provide narrative contents for the experience but also that it might at the source of some of those external factors. The materiality and “sociality” of the phenomenon are therefore understood here as being two interdependent dimensions of the same experience.

The literature that addresses directly the social dimension of the UFO phenomenon is much less developed than the one about its materiality. It is not surprising. Not only the dominant Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) in the ufological literature tends to ignore the social dimension of the phenomenon because it is threatening its core beliefs, but also because many of those who wrote seriously about UFOs tend to have a background in natural sciences or engineering (e.g. Karl Brunstein, Allen Hynek, Jacques Vallée).

This particular literary context presents other challenges. There is also a useful literature that is not directly linked to UFO research. It is the parapsychological research on macro psi effects, which has a lot to offer, and reinforces in many instances the findings found in the limited literature on the social dimension of the UFOs. Hence, wherever it is appropriate, the parapsychological literature is also introduced within this discussion on the sociality of UFOs.

Central role of belief

It is now well established in parapsychology that the belief in the paranormal is an important enabler to produce psi effects. The famous sheep-goat effect identified by Gertrude Schmeidler (1952) is now known for over 50 years. If one believes in paranormal effects (sheep) he/she tends to have higher score in tests, while the disbeliever (goat) tend to have lower scores. It has been replicated numerous times, and it is clear that the cognitive dimension of believing in psi is the key to produce psi effects (Wiseman & Smith 1994). More recently, Heath (2003) also identified that a general positive attitude towards the paranormal is an important enabler for psychokinesis (PK). Batcheldor (1984) and Reihart (1994) also noted that self-convincing through trickery can also be an important way to reinforce beliefs and increase the potential for psi effects to occur. In the same vein, some studies found that a strong proportion of people who saw a UFO had other paranormal experiences before the sighting (Phillips 1993; Spanos et al. 1993; Basterfield & Thalbourne 2001). As well, Rogo (2006) and others have noted that UFO experiencers oftentimes have repeated experiences of sightings. Although more research is needed, it appears that the UFO phenomenon shares the same general characteristics as other psi-related phenomenon with regards to the centrality of belief in the paranormal. According to Spencer (1994), this is correlation is more pronounced in case of people experiencing close encounters. This is an important indicator pointing towards social dimension of the UFO phenomenon.

An interesting empirical illustration of this issue can be found in the Barney and Betty Hill story, as the witnesses provided substantial information about their inner state of being through hypnotherapy. Betty, although she appears to have no conscious interest in UFOs prior to her September 1961 experience, it was clear that from the onset she established that the light in the sky was a UFO (read here: aliens in a spaceship). She immediately linked that experience with the one of her sister Janet, who saw a UFO during the 1950s. Indeed, Betty called Janet on the day she arrived home to discuss her UFO experience. As well, a fact rarely underlined by ufologists is that Betty engaged in informal telepathic experiments with Barney before their UFO event (Fuller 1966: 243-244), and her family has a history of dealing with paranormal events (Schwartz 1983; 273-281). Lastly, she had other UFO sightings afterward in 1966-67 (Friedman & Marden 2007: 211-218). Barney, on the other hand, was clearly struggling to not believe it was an “alien spaceship,” and this inner struggle was obviously perceptible in the debate he had with Betty in the car while watching the UFO in the sky in 1961. This struggle was also obvious while he was under hypnosis with Dr. Benjamin (Fuller 1966: 33, 101, 108). Such a struggle was clearly indicative that he unconsciously accepted the possibility of an “alien spaceships”, but consciously he was trying to resist such “irrational belief”. In the end, they had a different experience. While Betty had a full experience with the aliens and the spaceship, Barney had his eyes closed for most of the event, as they told Dr. Benjamin while being under hypnosis.

The psycho-social dynamics

Another important social dimension of the UFO phenomenon is the actual psycho-social dynamics surrounding the event. Such dynamics has several layers with their own distinct internal logic; as well as showing interdependencies among the various layers.

The shared psi event at the local level

One of the interesting speculations of Berthold Schwartz (1983) is that the context of multiple witnesses of UFO sightings appears to be a telepathically shared psi event. Such event could occur irrespective as whether the UFO is a materialized phenomenon through PK effects or simply a transfer of images and feelings through ESP without having any particular material basis. This phenomenon of telepathically shared psi effects is known for quite some time in parapsychology, and can be traced back to the landmark study of Gurney, Myers and Podmore (1886) Phantasms of the Living. Warcollier (1928, 1962) also noted that images can be communicated to a wider group through telepathic means. Favre (1978) also proposed a similar set of ideas for various types of apparitions, to include UFOs and alien sightings. This notion of telepathically shared psi effect certainly requires further research, but it is an interesting hypothesis to investigate as it highlight that psi induced events are not only related to the individual but it is also a micro social event.

The active nurturing of the phenomenon

Spencer (1995) notes that UFO events, and close encounters in particular, appear to be very strange and hard to describe events, but that witnesses ultimately end up interpreting them as “aliens-in-spaceship” events because it provides a convenient set of notions to describe something that is beyond description. Some authors have found that experiences very similar to the UFO ones have been interpreted in other cultures in different ways (Harvey-Wilson 2001, Vallée 1969). However, it is important to note that for such interpretation to emerge, the social and cultural conditioning existing in Western societies about the ETH is required especially through the diffusion of the science fiction genre. In other words, if a society provides appropriate “plausibility structures (Goode 2000), then we can collectively nurture such conditions to interpret psi events as “aliens-in-spaceship” events. In this regards, it is important to underline that historically witnesses first talked about strange objects in the sky, and it was only after a few years of speculations about the possibility that they might be of extra-terrestrial origin that close encounters with aliens were reported.

In parapsychology, Walter von Lucadou (1995) and von Lucadou & Zahradnik (2004) have develop an interesting model to understand the social dimension of poltergeist events that could be borrowed to study UFO events. Although their model is more akin to social psychology (i.e. small groups), there is a number of links that can be made with the sociological dimension of nurturing the “aliens-in-spaceship” scenario. For them, it is clear that a poltergeist is a psi event that tends to last longer because the focus person and his/her immediate entourage are confirmed in their belief that there is an evil spirit in their house. Among the people who play an important role in reinforcing such particular belief are what they called the “naive observers” (i.e. self-appointed psychics and parapsychologists). The naive observers are in a way shielding the phenomenon from disbelief so that the focus person and his/her entourage continue to maintain the conditions necessary for the poltergeist event to occur. One cannot escape thinking that the ETH ufologists play the same role as the naive observers, but at a societal level. Von Lucadou’s model appears to be even more applicable to the repeat abduction scenario, as individual ufologists who study particular cases only reinforce the belief by the experiencer that they were abducted by aliens.

One could also see some interesting similarities between what Spencer found about the mythmaking process of UFO construed as “aliens-in-spaceship” and the parapsychological experiment of creating from scratch a ghost by Owen and M. Sparrow (1976), as described in their famous book Conjuring up Philip. Nurturing plausibility structures, therefore, can be construed as working both at the small group level, as well as at the societal level. Furthermore, it can be speculated that when the two levels are in line, with respect to their content, then there is a reinforcing effect. The active participation of people, either as individual, circle of believers, or socially shared belief, appears to be key in producing psi effects.

Social anxiety and UFOs

The notion that UFOs represents some sort of reaction to socially shared anxieties constitutes the core of Jung’s (1958) analysis of the UFO phenomenon. However, it appears that this issue can be analyzed from two distinct angles. First, Pierre Viéroudy (1977) and Martin Kottmeyer (1996) found a correlation between national crises and UFO waves. As well, it can also be said that UFO-like events such as the Marian apparitions in Fatima in 1917 were occurring during a national crisis, i.e. the first deployment of Portuguese troops on the Western front (matching almost perfectly the spread of the apparitions), which was completely occulted by ufologists who studied the events (such as Fernandes and D’Armada 2005). Jacques Vallée (1992), who visited the USSR in its last days, speculated that the UFO wave they were experiencing at the time might be caused by the incoming national crisis.

Second, it is also possible to see the UFO phenomenon as the expression of a general anxiety about technology and its impact on our lives (Méheust 1978). In this case, the phenomenon appears to have developed a dynamics of its own, where it is quite difficult to predict sightings, as they may be linked to a multitude of factors hard to measure and monitor.

The macro social dynamic and the collective unconscious

The notion that UFOs would be an objectified expression of the collective unconscious is not a new one, and was contemplated by Jung (1958). A few other authors have made such a suggestion (Freixedo 1977; Viéroudy 1977, 1978a, 1978b, 1983; Méheust 1978; Stupple in Fuller 1980; Rojcewicz 1987), but none of them has pursued it to any significant extent. What these authors imply is that collectively, through shared unconscious processes, we produce macro level PK effects (including materialization) that are partially autonomous from the individual witnesses. As well, our commonly shared frames of reference provide a specific content to these PK effects (i.e., drawing from existing plausibility structures). UFOs and aliens are thus understood as PK effects specific to our technological world dreaming of deep space exploration. To understand how the collective unconscious could be producing PK effects, one has to search into a literature further remote from the study of UFOs and parapsychology.

Collective unconscious and social unconscious

These two terms have been used interchangeably, and in the sociological literature it appears to not cause much problem if one is doing so. However, psychologists do make a distinction between the two. The collective unconscious is a concept directly linked to Carl Jung and his followers. Although there have been some attempts to link his concept to sociological analysis (Staude 1976, Greenwood 1990, Main 2006), it remains essentially a psychological concept. The problem with Jung’s concept is that it is a very rigid one that identifies a number of specific archetypes (deep genetically rooted ways of thinking and feeling) which have failed to be empirically tested when it comes to socially-shared ways of thinking and feeling. Societies have shown instead very wide diversity in this regard. Yet, Jung’s concept is still useful because it opens a door to the study of paranormal effects through the notion of synchronicity (see Main 1997 for a detailed discussion). For Jung, synchronicity is a correlation between two events that are not linked by a cause-and-effect chain, but that are meaningful to each others. Jung proposes that synchronicity is an expression of the collective unconscious “making thing happen”.

Hansen (2001), a parapsychologist, proposed that paranormal events are a particular expression of the collective unconscious under the archetype that Jung named the trickster. The trickster is a metaphorical description of our dealing with ambiguity. As the human mind is not able to comprehend the entire reality, we have to make assumptions, to speculate, and belief in a lot of things to go through life. The net result is that our relationship to reality is always marked by a fair degree of ambiguity. The trickster is therefore this common human experience of having other parts of our mind challenging in unexpected ways the conscious but improvable assumptions we made about reality to deal with its inherent ambiguity. For Hansen, psi effects occur when the trickster archetype is activated because it creates a liminal zone between old certainties and new certainties. Within that liminal zone, for a brief period, everything becomes possible, including psi effects. It is in this context that Hansen considers that UFO events occur when the trickster archetype is activated within the collective unconscious at the social level. Although Hansen provides an interesting analytical approach to the UFO experience, it remains too generic, like all other attempts to link Jungian archetypes to the sociological analysis.

To develop a less generic approach to understand the impact of the collective unconscious, there are a number of avenues that remain to be explored. For instance the work of sociologists like Castoriadis (1975) and Leledakis (1995) on how social innovation occurs through the unconscious and the imaginary, and the work of people involved in group analytics such as Powell (1991), Dalal (2001), Zeddies (2002), and Thygesen (2008), may provide further thought to develop a more comprehensive model as to how the collective unconscious work. Such a model may, in turn, help to understand the processes behind the generation of social psi.

A proto-model

Based on the literature surveyed so far, it is possible to propose a tentative modeling of the social dimension of the UFO phenomenon. It appears that all three usual levels of analysis (i.e. individual, group, and society) have a part to play in various PEMIE events. It is not to say that they always play a role in each case, but they all can potentially play a role. It could be speculated that the most spectacular PEMIE events such as major Marian apparitions would occur only when the three levels are aligned cognitively and emotionally.

The proposed model could construed as a concentric graph moving from the most concrete elements of the experience towards the most subtle and yet most structuring elements. As well, two distinct sets of variables seem at play. One set I would qualify of cognitive, which includes individual beliefs, small group nurturing of the phenomenon, and the societal plausibility structures. The second set is more in line with other enablers to psi effects such as individual sensitivity to the paranormal, telepathic sharing, and social anxiety within the collective unconscious.

This remains, of course, only a tentative first cut at modelling UFO events based on the literature surveyed. However, it appears quite clear that the social dimension of the UFO experience cannot be ignored, and it appears to play a fundamental role in defining the phenomenon.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Reading Notes – Paranormal Beliefs

This post is reviewing Erich Goode’s book Paranormal Beliefs. Goode is a sociologist based at the University of Maryland, and proposes one of the few rigorous analyses of the social dimension of paranormal beliefs. This book does not provide any answer about the reality of paranormal phenomena, although it presents some of the key arguments for and against paranormal beliefs. This book raises a number of interesting questions about how paranormal beliefs emerge, why they remain present in spite of being constantly attacked by the scientific community (and the sceptics), and why science ignores paranormal knowledge in spite of being confronted with challenging evidence.

The full notice is:

Goode, Erich. (2000). Paranormal Beliefs: A sociological introduction. Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Moving forward without innovation?

Before analyzing what Goode has to say about beliefs in UFOs, and other paranormal phenomena, it is important to situate his book within the larger context of sociology and parasociology. Goode is very clear about the topic of his book: he is focusing on the sociological dimension of paranormal beliefs. Although he does not consider the actual reality of paranormal phenomena as completely irrelevant, he states that he does not pay much attention to such an issue. For him, the actual reality of paranormal phenomena is only relevant in contexts where solid scientific evidence about the paranormal are produced (according to the rules of science, and thus, should be accepted by science), but such evidence are either ignored or rejected without cause by the scientific community. Researches in parapsychology are a key example of such a situation. From that point view, Goode’s analysis is very much in line with “Newtonian” sociology, and although he may provide interesting analyses about an understudied topic, it cannot be considered as being innovative. He takes also, in my opinion, a very convenient position as he does not have to “get his feet wet” (i.e. without having to state his own position on the matter) by focusing solely of the belief dimension. However, because he does not dismiss off hand people who believe in the paranormal, like some other sociologists have done in the past, his book deserves some credits.

Goode is approaching paranormal beliefs in the way sociologists of scientific knowledge have studied scientific controversies. He is using the approach called symmetry, which implies that he puts on the same level paranormal beliefs and scientific beliefs (i.e. without granting any uncritical support to either side). As well, he recognizes that one side is dominant in Western societies (i.e. scientific belief) and has powerful social, political and economic bases while the other (i.e. paranormal beliefs) is the “deviant” one with limited support. As a sociologist, he is more interested in studying the dynamics at play, and tries to understand why in the context of scientific dominance there is still a very large portion of the population believing in the paranormal. Once again, his questioning is not based on “how can people be so irrational to believe in the paranormal”, but rather he implies that scientific beliefs may be dominant among the elites of Western societies, but not necessarily so among the rest of those societies. In other words, he sees this issue as one of knowledge power base divided along social and political class lines. I agree with this perspective. Various forms of knowledge will be considered as more or less valid in great part based on how much social and political power is behind them. For Goode, paranormal belief is therefore an alternate source of knowledge for those who are not powerful.

If Goode is right in stating that the validity of any knowledge is in great part dependent on its social and political power base, it is also important to understand that its validity is also based on how effective it is for people to relate with the world around them (i.e., any form of knowledge has also a pragmatic component). In other words, “deviant” forms of knowledge are not only maintained to assuage psychological needs not addressed by the dominant forms of knowledge (e.g. seeing aliens in replacement of religious forms of spirituality, see ghost because science ignores the spiritual, etc). The key issue that Goode does not address, because he is focusing solely on the social dimension of paranormal beliefs, is the fact that people believe in the paranormal because they are many who did objectively face situations that are incomprehensible to them and to the scientific community. Although I agree with him that if science would study such phenomena more extensively and find some serious and intellectually honest answers, then the belief in the paranormal would disappear because there would be no need to have an alternate form of knowledge to address what is ignored by science. This holds true for sociology too. If sociology is to provide useful answers, then it cannot ignore that there are some genuine and poorly understood dynamics at play behind paranormal phenomena. This reinforces my conviction that parasociology is a step ahead from “Newtonian” sociology by accepting and integrating, as a matter of principle, that paranormal phenomena have a degree of objectivity.

Beliefs in UFOs as alien spaceships

Goode pays a fair bit of attention to the UFO phenomenon. For him, UFOs are a paranormal belief when they are construed as being spaceships under extraterrestrial control (because it contradicts what science says about UFOs – particularly the improbability of interstellar travel). Then, he proposes an historical genesis of the belief by reviewing how in the early 1950s the ETH became firmly entrenched (p. 141). His analysis is very similar to the ones of Méheust (1978) and Spencer (1994), where he identifies that in the early 1950s, a few years before the beginning of the space race, technology was sufficiently advanced to create a “plausibility structure” where the notion of visiting spaceships was imaginable (p. 148).

Another important element of his analysis is that the ETH cannot be falsified. In theory, all UFO sightings, except one, could be proven wrong and that would be enough to prove the ETH is right. It would require disproving all sightings, without exception, to refute fully the ETH, which is an unrealistic task. So, the ETH can live on the hope that one sighting will be proven to be of ET origin. The fact that in over 60 years no objective evidence about the presumed ET origins of UFO has yet surfaced is for the ETH believer completely irrelevant. From that point of view, it is clearly a belief system (i.e. it is based on the hope that one day they will prove that the ETH is right). This certainly constitutes the fundamental sociological dynamics behind the ETH.

Goode proposes a similar analysis about the Roswell conspiracy. In spite of having no evidence, that there are at least six versions of the story, that there are seven photographs of the debris that matches the Mogul project description, that Cavitt (who accompanied Marcel) did not see anything unusual about the debris, the ETH ufologists are still pursuing that story in the hope that one day real evidence will emerge. For Goode, the fact that the Roswell story emerged and stuck in the late 1970s is not a coincidence. In the post-Watergate years, the plausibility structure was in place for such a story to get lots of supports (which did not succeed to do so in the past, e.g. Scully’s and Keyhoe’s books both discussed governmental conspiracy in the 1950s).

It is unfortunate that Goode’s book does not address in any length the notion that there is an irreducible minimum of reports that cannot be explained away by science, and that those reports are essentially ignored by the scientific community. Even if one excludes the ETH as an explanation, these very strange reports still remain unexplained. It is therefore a scientific belief to consider all UFO sightings as irrelevant without looking at the evidence. Sturrock’s book (1999) is one of the rare exceptions. This situation fuels, in my opinion, the retrenchment of ufologists into the ETH. Because the scientific community does not touch the field, then other non-ETH explanations are not explored. The more the scientific community ignores these reports, the more it creates room for the ETH to flourish.

The parapsychology and sociology

Goode is more sympathetic to the cause of parapsychology. Although it is considered a paranormal belief system because it is in opposition to some key scientific beliefs about the nature of reality, parapsychology was able to produce evidence using the scientific method. He quotes many meta-analyses of parapsychological research to show that psi effects occur and are clearly beyond chance. Goode is very clear in stating that “something is happening but no one knows for sure what it is” (pp. 130 & 132). In this case, it is the scientific beliefs in the nature of material reality that are challenged, and ignoring or even ridiculing parapsychology represents an easy way out to avoid dealing with inconvenient evidence.

It is unfortunate that Goode did not discuss an important issue in parapsychology that is very much relevant to the topic. One of the most interesting findings in parapsychology is that psi effects are more likely to occur when people believe in the possibility of the paranormal. In other words, plausibility structures are not only conditions to allow beliefs to emerge, but also conditions for paranormal effects to occur. Hence, plausibility structures are also enabling conditions. These parapsychological findings are at the root of any thinking about the possibility of social psi. Goode, here, missed a great opportunity to link some key elements together. He wrote that “sociologists are very interested in the social ‘glue’ that binds members of a society” (p. 84). If it is true that belief systems can be a form of social glue, then the objective elements at the core of the belief should also be considered as being part of the glue. In other words, if parapsychology has clearly shown that there is “something” going on, then that “something” should be part of the glue as well because sociologically shared plausibility structures are key enablers to psi effects. Goode’s book, by focusing solely on beliefs, failed to see that there is a need to establish a bridge between parapsychology and sociology, and I think that parasociology offers such a bridge. But it is clear that if sociology studies only paranormal belief systems, then sociologists will have only an incomplete approach to understand the paranormal.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reading Notes – Gifts of the Gods?

This post is reviewing a book that provides several interesting ideas, which are quite similar to the ones developed for parasociology so far. John Spencer’s Gifts of the Gods? was published in 1994, at a time where the Roswell/Majestic hysteria was at its peak. From that point of view, it should be considered as a beacon of light in the middle of darkness, but unfortunately it appears that it remained largely noticed. Spencer was the head of the British UFO Research association (BUFORA) and was clearly fighting an uphill battle against the dominant and uncritical ETH ufology emerging mostly from the United States. The full bibliographical notice is:

Spencer, John. (1994). Gifts of the Gods? Are UFOs alien visitors or psychic phenomena? London: Virgin Books.

Mythmaking and psychosocial dynamics

Spencer introduced several sociological ideas in his book without referring to them directly by their scholarly names. One of them is that the extraterrestrial interpretation of UFO events is socially constructed. To demonstrate that, Spencer does what we would call an archaeology of a particular form of knowledge (to use a concept for which the philosopher Michel Foucault is famous). It is interesting to note that the press, in the very first newspaper articles about Ken Arnold sightings in 1947, was already speculating about the extraterrestrial nature of his sighting. The tone was set from day one and the popular press, as Spencer explains, always had a vested interest in presenting UFOs as alien spacecrafts in order to boost readership and sales. As well, “odd balls” like Adamski who claim to have had many contacts with ETs (so it not just seeing UFOs in the sky) are also by definition good stories for the popular press because they are fundamentally entertaining. In such a context, it is predictable that UFO and alien stories not only are the ones retained by the popular press, but also over time the story needed to be “spiced up” to keep the readership interested.

So, the progression from the gentile aliens of the contactees era to the ever complex abduction scenarios on one hand, and the sighting of flying saucers to a worldwide governmental conspiracy on the other hand, was built on natural slippery slope. All this occurred, of course, in a context where no one is able to offer a single piece of positive evidence open to objective analysis. In fact, it is the lack of evidence that allowed the story to evolve, because it was fundamentally communicated through the popular press: the UFO story was framed as an ongoing entertainment issue, not as a scientific research one. With the advent of the Internet, as one can notice by a simple search, a single UFO story can be echoed by thousands of web sites, but in the end there is only one source (usually unverified) for each story. So, the UFO ETH web dynamics remains essentially the same as the one found in the tabloid construct. Any substantial and verifiable empirical anchor into reality would simply kill the story. Ironically, it is in the vested interest of ETH ufologists to not find any positive evidence open to objective analysis, as it may very likely show that there speculations were completely wrong.

In this regard, Spencer proposes another interesting sociological analysis, comparing the Watergate scandal to the UFO conspiracy. The Watergate is the single most important conspiracy and scandal in recent US history. It was uncovered in two years by two journalists after what appeared to be a simple burglary in the Watergate building got their attention, leading ultimately to the resignation of President Nixon. How come hundreds of ufologists over several decades could not find any serious tangible evidence of a governmental UFO conspiracy? As Spencer notes, people talk and can provide serious tangible evidence, and any good journalist knows how to make that happen. In the case of UFO conspiracy, this would have involved many more people than the Watergate and a burning secret even more difficult to keep. Yet, nothing of substance can be found. As Spencer wrote, “The UFO conspiracy was knitted long before the ‘evidence’ ever surfaced it to support it. Real conspiracies work the other way around.” (p. 72). Once again, the narrative structure surrounding the UFO conspiracy story can only exist if it is actively maintained through the production of inconclusive evidence. Indeed, the UFO conspiracy is a business that can only survive by continuously embellishing a myth.

Spencer also proposed, like Méheust, that the emergence of science fiction as a popular genre was also a key factor in easing the almost automatic sliding from UFOs to alien spacecrafts. However, he does not mention Méheust, and he mostly focussed on post WWII sci fi. I think that what Méheust found was the basic collective unconscious conditions allowing the emergence of UFO-as-spaceships construct, while Spencer’s analysis explain how more recent sci fi maintained and reinforced such collective unconscious conditions.

Socialization and perception

One of the ideas defended by Spencer, based on presenting a number of cases he personally researched, is that people who have UFO close encounter experience have in fact a paranormal experience. What happen is that people interpret their own experience as an alien-and-spaceship one because of (a) their prior socialization from childhood through sci fi and other means, and (b) they were lead to such interpretation by ETH ufologists who collected their story. Beyond the pervasive influence of sci fi through mass media, Spencer provides a good description of what psychology and sociology say about how our perception of reality is very much influenced by what we know and what we believe, be it consciously or unconsciously. Similarly, Spencer explains quite well how repressed “memories” are actually very easy to lead towards one particular way after the fact. They do not constitute memories as much but as attempts to make sense of a particular event. From that point of view, hypnotic regression is much more useful to uncover how people make sense of very unusual events rather than as a method of finding factual reality.

It is in this context that he introduced the work done by Ken Philips and Alex Keul on the anamnesis project that focuses on better knowing the witnesses, while putting less emphasis on the actual details of the sightings. The key here is that by knowing better the witnesses it is easier to understand how they interpreted the very unusual event they lived. This was clearly a step in the right direction of removing the ETH noise out of close encounter reports. Unfortunately, because Alex Keul had to return to work in Austria, and Ken Philips passed away a few years later, the anamnesis project was never resurrected. The key findings were: “(1) Close-encounter witnesses have a high rate of self-reported ESP. (2) Close-encounter witnesses also have a high rate of self-reported UFO and ‘flying’ dreams. (3) Close-encounter witnesses tend to be status-inconsistent [i.e. consider themselves to be in a position at work or in life below their real potential]” (p. 167).

The issue of leading ufologists is a well known one. Not only they have a vested interest, consciously or not, to get a good alien story, but the very fact that a witness called an ufologist in the first place to share his/her story means that it was already interpreted within the context of the ETH. This pattern is common to all reporting of paranormal events. For instance, the children in Fatima reported seeing a lady, not the Virgin Mary. It was only after believers and Church investigator got involved that it became a Marian apparition, as noted by Fernandes and D’Armada (2005). It should be noted also that Michael Carroll (1985) found the exact same pattern with the Marian apparitions in LaSalette (in 1846) and Lourdes (in 1858). The dynamics found in people are calling “ghost hunters” and psychics for help are also illustrations of this pattern involving a pre-interpretation of highly unusual events.

But let’s be clear here. For Spencer (and myself), the fact that very unusual events are given a particular interpretation based on both psychological factors specific to the individual witnesses and sociological ones specific to the witnesses’ own culture and society does not mean that nothing happened. Instead, it means that people have incomprehensible experiences, and like any normal human beings they try to make sense of it with the frames of reference available to them.

Is there a need for ufology?

Spencer thinks that ufological and paranormal events are the outcome of a natural force or energy that we do not understand yet. He does not use the word psi, but he could have used it as well. Many paranormal experiences not interpreted as an aliens-in-spaceship narrative share many characteristics of with those that were interpreted within the ETH construct. Among them, there are increased in sexual assertiveness (p. 130), which can be linked to Herbert Marcuse’s concept of orthon energy. Heath (2005) also saw a possible connection between sexual assertiveness and PK. A general change in life outlook towards a more spiritual attitude is also noted (p. 134). An increase of other types of paranormal experiences such as out-of-body experiences, telepathy, premonition, as well as a number of unexplainable synchronistic events (for instance see Fowler 2004) are reported (pp. 142 and ff.). Finally, an increase in artistic and creative drive is noted (p. 230). These findings are certainly consistent with the notion that through a PEMIE event, the mystical part of the witnesses’ unconscious mind has been made more accessible, and thus leading to further psi events, creative drive, and overall more spiritual attitudes.

In this context, if the UFO experience is essentially a particular idiosyncratic version of a more general class of psychic events, then it begs the question as to why should there be a distinct approach or discipline called ufology? Spencer did not discuss this difficult question, probably because he was the head of BUFORA, an ufological organization, at the time of writing his book. But such implicit conclusion certainly reinforces the original position took for parasociology.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet