Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 1952 UFO wave and Washington D.C.: A case study in parasociology (Part 2)

In the first part of this case study the phenomenological dynamics of RSPK was compared with the dynamics of the 1952 UFO wave, using Walter von Lucadou’s MPI. It is quite clear that from a descriptive standpoint, both RSPKs and the 1952 UFO wave share similar patterns. But it is crucial to understand that von Lucadou’s model is not just a predictive description based on empirical observation (he is not a Hume-like empiricist). His model is actually based on system theory and quantum physics, which gives it a much stronger external validity.

MPI four phases and pragmatic information

The MPI is based on the notion that psi effects are fundamentally manipulations of information through a pragmatic (or meaningful) intent by ways of what quantum physics calls “non-locality”. Pragmatic information is modified within two or more systems (which can be a person, an object, a weather pattern, etc) simultaneously without having any observable cause-and-effect (i.e. non-locality). In the case of paranormal events, the information can be expressed as either Extra Sensorial Perception (ESP) (precognition, telepathy, remote-viewing, etc.) or as Psychokinesis (PK) (telekinesis, apparitions, imprinting, etc.). In the particular case of PK effects, the concept of information means that matter’s shape or motion is actually information. Such information can be modified by physical means in a normal context (e.g. pushing a ball), or by non-physical psi means in a paranormal context.[1]

The notion of psi as information is quite useful to explain one of the key findings of scientific parapsychology: psi phenomena are inherently elusive. This may sound banal, but this has important consequences for researching and understanding psi effects. In short, what it means is that for a system to be modified through psi means there must be enough indeterminacy in it so that non-normal (or non-deterministic) outcomes can occur. To fully appreciate this issue, it needs to be decomposed further.

Information is not something static, and it is something that is fully reflexive. Those who create information modify information around them as well. This notion is called in quantum physics “preparing a system”. Quantum physics is now fully aware that just looking into a system is actually putting information into such a system.[2] The most common example in physics is that if an experiment is set to look into light and assumes that light is made of particles, then the light will behave as particles as a result of experimentation. Conversely, if the experiment is based on the notion that light is made of wavelength then the system will be observed as wavelengths. Such a process is called in quantum physics “preparing” a system, because the way we choose to look at a system prepares it to be a certain way. The same happens in the social sciences. When an anthropologists studies and report on a particular cultural, his/her work modifies such culture by creating a greater awareness of cultural practices among the studied people.

This notion of system preparation is fundamental to understand psi effects. The more intensely a system is observed, the less indeterminacy there will be in it. Observation increases the amount of order in a system through the added information, and therefore the less likely a psi effect is to occur. This explains the fundamental elusiveness of psi. Concretely, this has been observed by many “ghost hunters” where something strange usually occurs when the recording equipment is being packed up and people start to talk about other things than the haunting. In the context of scientific parapsychology, this phenomenon has been described by many authors like Owen and Sparrow[3], or Batcheldor[4], where every time that a PK effect occurs the recording system had either a malfunction or was not set properly. The malfunction or improper setting allowed the system to be not “too prepared” (in the quantum physics sense) and thus preserved enough indeterminacy in the system so that the psi effect could occur.

In von Lucadou’s model, it is described as a relationship between “Novelty” and “Confirmation.” A psi effect is more likely to continue to occur when it is something new and unanticipated; because of such novelty it makes people looking everywhere and anywhere for an explanation and thus, they do not focus on a particular system (i.e. they do not put a lot of information in indeterminate systems). The more people focus on a particular system to have confirmation that it is a paranormal event, the less likely it will produce a psi effect because by doing so they inject information into it. This is the fundamental elusiveness of psi. To put in von Lucadou’s words, “the system ‘can only behave as it pleases’ as long as one does not observe it with great care.”[5]

The 1952 UFO wave and elusiveness

The overall setting in the United States, in the early 1950s, was certainly one where “novelty” was possible. At that time, the country was the only one paying any attention to the UFO phenomenon through the collection and analysis of UFO sightings (mostly by military personnel), and channelled to a central repository called the Project Blue Book. This situation is perfectly understandable, as it was the only country at that time that appeared to experience an ongoing UFO phenomenon, an issue explicitly stated in 1948.[6] Yet, as it was underlined by so many ufologists, up to the 1952 Washington D.C. UFO incidents, the U.S. military was paying only scant attention to UFOs. In other words, they were able to observe the system, but they were not collectively really paying attention to it. Such are the key conditions for a psi effect to occur, according to the MPI.

The Washington D.C. incidents are full of examples of phenomena ceasing when confirmation became possible. For instance:

(1) In the night of 19-20 July 1952, around midnight, the airman William Brady at Andrew AFB saw the orange lights in the sky. He called his co-workers to have a look. When they arrived the balls were gone.
(2) On 20 July, around 3:00 am, as soon as the F-94 jet fighters could be seen on the ground radar screens, the objects immediately vanished from the radar screens. This scenario will be repeated a number of times during the night of 26-27 July.
(3) On the night of 26-27 July, F-94 fighter jets lost the objects from their on board combat radar as soon as they were able to get a lock-on.
(4) On both the 20 and 27 July, the objects disappeared as soon as there was enough sunlight to see them distinctly.[7]

Such elusiveness is very often interpreted as a sign of “intelligent” control, and thus many deducted that UFOs must be spaceships from another world. A similar deductive process occurs in RSPKs and hauntings cases where an evil spirit or the soul of a deceased person is “accused” of being behind the phenomenon. However, in light of the MPI, we, the living human beings on Earth, are the source of such apparent intelligence by reducing or increasing the indeterminacy within a phenomenon depending if we focus or not on it.

The attribution of the phenomenon’s cause to a particular agent (e.g. extraterrestrials) is necessary for the phenomenon to continue occurring, and that’s why von Lucadou calls the second phase “displacement”. If there is no displacement towards a presumed a particular agent, then the phenomenon would end right there. In 1952, the phenomenon was able to continue between the initial surprises of 19-20 July because the phenomenon was displaced through the press into a belief that “flying saucers” were observed, although the civilian and military aviation personnel did not appear to consider such possibility as a valid one. What this means is that by becoming an unexplainable phenomenon (i.e. flying saucers in this case, or an evil spirit in the case of RSPK) people’s look is being displaced to something else than the system at play, and therefore the indeterminacy can continue to be.

Here it is also crucial to note that as people are looking at everything and nothing in particular through the notion of “flying saucers” (or evil spirit in the case of RSPK), there are usually a number of false calls that get in the picture. As well, it is oftentimes an implicit invitation for pranksters to get involved as people are more open, for a short time, to various interpretations including incredible ones. In any macro psi event (including UFO waves), the notion of frauds, hoaxes, misperceptions and genuine psi effects should be put on a continuum of information production rather than be considered as distinct categories. This is because they all participate in either maintaining or reducing the indeterminacy in the system at play.

Going back to the 1952 Washington D.C. incidents, it is quite possible that misperceptions and temperature inversions produced information that was interpreted as “flying saucers”. The fact that these sources had nothing paranormal is not that important in the context of MPI, they contributed to reinforce the displacement towards “flying saucers,” for a while, and therefore continued to maintain indeterminacy in the system at play.

It is needless to say that after the night of 26-27 July, with press coverage that ensued, as well as President Truman asking what was going on, the civilian and military aviation personnel were on the high alert to figure out what was going on. As well, with the official explanation of temperature inversions given on 29 July, the system was observed as such, and the findings where corroborated that indeed there was a lot of temperature inversions. In other words, from that point on the system was prepared for a high degree of confirmation, and it is not surprising that it was at that very time the psi effects started to decline.

The suppression phase injects an even higher degree of information in the system, as it is formally defined by those who have authority and power as something inconsequential (e.g. temperature inversion, dreams and misperceptions, etc.). It is also important to note that modern societies tend to follow through with most official explanations, which injects even more information in the system at play. In the case of the 1952 events, it is difficult to know if the recommendations of the Robertson panel were really followed, but it was certainly a good indication of the mindset at the time. Once again, such suppression is not a matter of the people in position of authority hiding a terrible secret, but rather hiding their incapacity to deal with such phenomena. There is nothing unusual about this, as “impression management” is a key feature of any modern bureaucracy. Anyone who worked in a governmental policy-related position or any student in Public Administration or Government Studies knows that. The best example of that is the once classified and so-called “Pentacle” memorandum of January 1953, written in preparation of the standing up of the Robertson Panel, (and Ruppelt was one of the addresses), calling for establishing a large network of UFO surveillance.[8] Anyone who had any experience of writing for government can see that this memo was written by or for someone who was desperately looking for an answer and who was most likely under a lot of pressure from his superiors to deliver. The proposals found in this memo clearly show that information about UFOs should be curtailed from the general public, but also show that they did not know what UFO were.

The MPI phases and people

RSPKs are caused by people who unconsciously use psi to convey pragmatic information, or a message, to their environment; to draw attention to themselves and their problems. The typical RSPK is caused by a person (called the focus person) that has a lot of anger but cannot express it for various psychological reasons, and the paranormal means become an alternate but unconscious way of communicating with their social environment. As discussed above, the interaction with people in the environment (whether they put information in the system or not) will determine how long the phenomenon will continue. Hence, the focus person should not be considered as the sole cause of the phenomenon. As well, the focus person oftentimes does not realise in the early phases that he or she has something to do with it because it is caused by unconscious mental processes. There are other RSPKs where “the focus person seems to be much more passive, for instance, it is very often a person who suffers from depression and is not able to control anything in his or her life and also not in her environment. This in contrast to the active RSPK focus person where one gets the impression of a boiling pot, which is ready to explode, and the phenomena are just the sign of an ‘explosion.’ With the passive ones the opposite is the case.[9]

Whether the RSPK is caused by an active or passive focus person, there is always a similar cast of people in a RSPK.

Von Lucadou’s chart of the social organization of RSPKs [10]

The Environment is made of the people immediately around the focus person like the family, co-workers, neighbours, etc, and they allow the system to maintain its indeterminacy during the surprise phase. The Naive observers category is made of psychics, mediums and self-appointed parapsychologists who “come to the rescue”, as well as sensationalist journalists, and by displacing the interpretation of the phenomenon they allow the system to remain indeterminate during the displacement phase. The Critical observers category is made of various sceptics, professional parapsychologists, public health officials, etc, who by seeking confirmation reduce the indeterminacy in the system during the decline phase. Finally, the Society is made of those in position of authority and the rest of the society judging the situation usually through the “serious” press, and removes any indeterminacy left in the system during the suppression phase.

In the case of the 1952 UFO wave, the Environment can be clearly identified as the civilian and military aviation personnel, as well as flight crews of civilian jet liners and military fighter pilots. They were key figures in the surprise phase.

The Naive observers were the journalists that congregated in the radar room, and probably the many “saucer enthusiasts” who read the news clipping after the first incident of 19-20 July. They were the key actors during the displacement phase.

The Critical observers were the members of the Project Blue Book, Edward Ruppelt in particular, and other technical military personnel represented at the 29 July press conference. Their intervention was linked directly to the beginning of the decline phase.

The Society was the public, who read the “debunking” news about the Washington D.C. incidents, and the people represented on the Robertson Panel, and they were the central actors of the suppression phase.

What is missing, however, is a clearly identifiable focus person(s) that could help us understanding why a major UFO incident occurred around Washington D.C. in July 1952, and what was the meaning behind it (i.e. what was the content of the pragmatic information). Uncovering who were the focus persons will be the aim of the third and last part of this case study.

References for part 2

[1] For more information on the quantum/information theories of psi in parapsychology, please refer to Radin, Dean. Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in a quantum reality. New York: Paraview, 2006, pp. 250-266.
[2] For more on this please refer to Rosenblum, Bruce and Fred Kuttner. (2006). Quantum Enigma: Physics encounters consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[3] Owen, Iris M. and M. Sparrow. (1976). Conjuring up Philip: An Adventure In Psychokinesis. Harper & Row.
[4] Batcheldor, Kenneth J. (1984). “Contributions to the theory of PK induction from sitter-group work”. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 78(2): 105-122.
[5] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 106.
[6] Lipp Report in Steiger, Brad. (1976) Project Blue Book. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 213.
[7] Examples drawn from Randle, Kevin D. (2001). Invasion Washington: UFOs over the Capitol. New York: Harper Collins, pp. 32-74.
[8] A copy of this memorandum and an explanation of the context in which it emerged can be found on the CUFON’s website on Internet at
[9] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 110.
[10] Ibid., p. 102.

Eric Ouellet © 2009

Friday, December 25, 2009

The 1952 UFO wave and Washington D.C.: A case study in parasociology (Part 1)

This post is the second major parasociological case study proposed on this blog (the first being the Barney and Betty Hill story). It looks at the 1952 UFO wave in the United States, emphasizing the events around Washington D.C. in July of the same year. One of the main objectives of parasociology is to explore the possibility that social events might have paranormal or “psi” implications. UFO waves were selected as a prime research object because they are, in themselves, social events which are unexplainable through traditional scientific means. The central question, therefore, is whether strange events in the air are linked to and dependent on events on the ground?

To answer this question it is necessary to analyze the data in a meaningful way, and as much as possible by avoiding a reinvention of the wheel. As discussed in several previous posts, UFO waves seem to have a lot in common with poltergeist events, better known as Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) in parapsychology. The study of RSPK has progressed in the last 30 years, and one of the most potent models to study them is the one developed by the German parapsychologist Walter von Lucadou.

His model is called the Model of Pragmatic Information (MPI), and it is inspired by system theory, quantum physics and many years of empirical research on RSPK. Von Lucadou has a Ph.D. in physics, and a Ph.D. in psychology. He is the head of a research institute on the paranormal in Freiburg, Germany, which is funded by the German government. Unfortunately, even if he published many peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journal in English, his work is not that well-known in the English-speaking world. Hence, as part of this case study, a relatively extensive presentation of his model will be required, but it will be integrated in the case analysis.

The 1952 UFO wave: the basics

It is difficult to establish what constitutes a UFO wave because it has many undefined dimensions. For instance, how many sightings are necessary to have a wave? Over how long a period do we need to have a wave? Are waves only possible if there are newspapers to report them, and hence is it a mass media phenomenon? What percentage of sightings should be “unexplained” to be a “real” wave? Etc. As one can see, defining what constitutes a wave includes a large degree of interpretation. Yet, there are many pitfalls related to developing water-tight definitions for events that are essentially based on perception. To avoid such conundrum, it is proposed to look at the notion of UFO wave from both a relative and sociological standpoint. A wave would therefore be a significant increase in UFO observations compared to other time periods, and such significant increase in UFO observations gets the attention of a relatively large portion of a society. Given this definition, each society would have it own “list” of UFO waves. In the case of the United States, according to this perspective on UFO wave there would have been only 3 major waves: 1897-98, 1952, and 1973.

Statistically, the 1952 UFO wave was the largest one in the United States between 1947 and 1973. The famous ufologist Allan Hynek did a detailed review of all cases submitted to the Project Blue Book (from 1947 to 1969). His analysis was based on the 600 or so cases (out of 13,000) that were considered as "Unidentified."[1] Of those 600 cases, 242 occurred in 1952 (out of about 400 sightings over all reported to Blue Book for 1952), making it the peak year for the period covered by the Project Blue Book. 1954 came as a distant second with 46 “Unidentified” cases.[2]

If one pushes the analysis further within the year 1952, the peak month was July with 55 “unidentified” cases, followed by June with 40 cases, August with 28 cases and September with 27 cases.[3] Hynek did not extend his analysis to cases within the month of July 1952. However, if one uses the NICAP compilation of reports (which does not distinguish between “identified” and “unidentified”), there was three peaks in July: a small peak of sightings on July 12, a second peak between 21 and 23 July, and the biggest peak between 27 and 29 July.[4]

The 1952 sightings occurred across the United States, from the West coast to the East coast, as well as where there were U.S. military installations (Korea, Okinawa, Greenland, Newfoundland, Germany). This military nature of sightings was simply a reporting effect, as many cases reported to the Project Blue Book came as a requirement for military personnel to report such observations. The events that grabbed the most attention, however, were two series of sightings that occurred around Washington D.C., interestingly a day before each of the main peaks for July, namely on the night of July 19-20, and the night of July 26-27.

(Notoriously fake picture done with automobiles light reflecting on a glass)

The MPI model for RSPK: The 4 phases

To test the hypothesis that UFO waves would be “grand scale poltergeists,” it is essential to evaluated whether UFO waves share the same fundamental characteristics that of RSPK events. On the surface, these two types of phenomena appear completely distinct. RSPKs occur usually in a house or a work place, they tend to involve the inexplicable movement, destruction or disappearance of mundane objects such as glasses, cutlery, bookshelves, windows, mirrors, etc. RSPKs are often linked to a particular individual in a family or work context.

Yet, if one looks beyond the surface and compare the structural components of UFO waves and RSPKs, one can find striking similarities. According to von Lucadou, RSPKs go through four phases, where the phenomenon tends to increase in intensity at the beginning, peak and then rapidly disappear. The four phases are: (1) surprise, (2) displacement, (3) decline, and (4) suppression. Let’s compare these phases with the 1952 UFO wave.

Phase one: the surprise

Von Lucadou describes the first phase in those terms: “Generally, their onset is completely unexpected and they develop dramatically. As long as those involved believe that the events are due to external factors, like someone who is fooling them, impulses in electrical circuitry, leaking pipes, etc., the phenomena become stronger and grow into a real demonstration. Those involved feel ever more insecure and try to find external assistance, for example from the police, firemen or from institutions who can provide technical assistance. In this way the phenomena attract wide attention. In many cases there are a number of respectable, reliable and independent witnesses, who feel completely desperate about the causes of the phenomena. We call this the ‘surprise phase.’” [5]

The 1952 events in Washington are very similar in their structure to the surprise phase. Around 11:40 pm on 19 July 1952, the air controller Edward Nugent at the National Airport noticed on the radar a strange blip showing a high rate of acceleration. He called the senior controller, Harry Barnes, to confirm the radar returns. They then verified that their equipment was functioning properly, which was the case. They asked and got confirmation from a second radar station at the National Airport. Another controller, Howard Cocklin, saw orange lights in the night sky in the direction where the radar returns were coming. They asked confirmation from the radar crew at Andrews Air Force Base (AFB), and there was no return, but two military persons in different locations, William Brady and Bill Goodman, saw orange lights in the sky. [6] It is interesting to note that Nugent and Barnes did not know what to think of all this, but they never thought that these returns were “ flying saucers” or Russians aircrafts, and that if they did not appeared to be manufactured objects, they seemed to be under intelligent control.[7]

Later on during the night, 3 different radar stations had the same strange returns. F-94 jet fighters were scrambles during the night but to no avail, the objects disappeared.

Phase two: Displacement

The second phase is described as thus: “It is followed by the first hunches that something supernatural might be going on. Indeed, the media, such as newspapers, radio and television show up. Depending upon the socio-cultural background, the phenomena may be attributed to phantoms, spirits, the deceased, witches, poltergeists and parapsychological powers. Only at this point do parapsychologists have the opportunity to get involved. Quite often the previous phase of hunches has already attributed the phenomena to one or more persons, and has coupled general desperation and anxieties with curiosity: the "displacement phase". During this phase, the interpretation of the phenomena shifts from external to internal sources. The same displacement takes place in the phenomena themselves. New types of events manifest, replacing those that had become familiar.” [8]

On the 21 July 1952, newspapers were reporting that “flying saucers” were seen in the sky of Washington D.C., but the coverage was relatively limited. Yet, the story was now out. During the second set of sightings, on 26-27 July, there were several journalists in the National Airport radar room. [9]The story repeats itself in many ways, but with some differences. The first sightings occurred during the day, in the afternoon of 26 July that are noticed visually and on radar at Langley AFB. Then, the crew of an airliner of National Airlines saw glowing lights around 8:30 pm. It is only around 10:30 that the National Airport radars returned something unusual, and the controllers started the process of getting confirmation.

During the night, several F-94 jets fighters were scrambled and in some occasion were able to see strange lights and even had briefly their combat radar locked on those lights. But then, too, the object just vanished to come back later during the night. Although no one had any confirmation that the objects were solid as there was only radar returns and the visual sightings of lights, the press on the next morning did not hesitate to talk about D.C. being swarmed by “flying saucers”.

Phase three: Decline

The third phase is von Lucadou’s model is the one of decline. “As bad as matters are, worse is still to come. Journalists hungry for sensation, self-appointed "parapsychologists" or "exorcists" will plague those involved. To the external curiosity is added an ever-stronger pressure to reproduce the phenomena, which are still strongly confirmed by the initial eyewitnesses. The stronger this pressure grows, sometimes even enhanced by the parapsychologists who rush to the scene, the less the phenomena occur: the "decline phase" has begun. Many of those who expected sensational effects are now disappointed and leave. Often enough, the person who evoked the events is found to make use of manipulations or fraud during this phase.” [11]

This phase occurred also in the 1952 wave. The word was out, and even President Truman wanted to be informed about what was going on. The journalists were on the alert for more, but no more major sighting occurred in the Washington D.C. area, and in fact the 1952 wave started to decline in August, as discussed above. The most significant event of this phase is the 29 July military press conference at the Pentagon, where senior military officials and head of technical services of the Air Force concluded that it was a big misunderstanding and that the radar returns were most likely caused by temperature inversion while the lights in the sky were simply stars having the appearance of wobbling because of humidity in the atmosphere. In other words, all the witnesses were wrong even if they were experienced technicians and military personnel.[12]

Phase four: suppression

The last phase of the MPI model is called suppression, and should be quite familiar to those who know the ufological literature. “Decline is followed by the final phase of poltergeist cases: ’suppression.’ Fraud is more or less openly discussed, the people and witnesses involved are often ridiculed and discriminated in the mass media, witnesses may even deny (in court) their previous statements and debunking articles are published. The process of social suppression starts: a ‘conspiracy to cover it up,’ as Fanny Moser (1977, p. 30) termed it.”[13] Such conspiracy, however, is not caused because people have secrets to hide, but rather because they not want to be seen as being ignorant or powerless. As von Lucadou wrote, “neither society nor governmental institutions are fond of the anarchy of poltergeist cases. Their objective is to command (or govern) reliable systems.”[14]

In the case of the 1952 UFO wave, the suppression was done mostly through the efforts of the so-called Robertson panel[15], that also concluded that 90% of UFO sightings are mistakes or hoaxes, and the 10% remaining could be accounted for by temperature inversion phenomena and other more exotic natural phenomena. The panel also recommended that a mass public education programme about UFOs should be put in place so that the U.S. Air Force would not get swamped by reports from civilians. Although the report was classified, several parts of it became public in 1956 when Edward Ruppelt, who was head of the Project Blue Book up to the end of 1953, published his book The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects.

Phases and pragmatic information

These four phases are not simply descriptive characteristics of a RSPK, they actually represent a process of transferring pragmatic information necessary for psi effects to occur. Such information flow will be the topic of part 2 of this case study.

References for Part 1

[1] Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report. New York: Dell, 1977, p. 264.
[2] Idem.
[3] Hynek, J. Allen. The Hynek UFO Report. New York: Dell, 1977, p. 263.
[4]NICAP. “The 1952 Sighting Wave” on the Internet at: , consulted 27 June 2009.
[5] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 100.
[6] From Randle, Kevin D. (2001). Invasion Washington: UFOs over the Capitol. New York: Harper Collins, pp. 32-34.
[7] Ibid., p. 39.
[8] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 100.
[9] Randle, Kevin D. (2001). Invasion Washington: UFOs over the Capitol. New York: Harper Collins, p. 70.
[10] Ibid., pp. 68-74.
[11] Lucadou, Walter von and F. Zahradnik. (2004). “Predictions of the Model of Pragmatic Information about RSPK”. Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention 2004 (99-112), p. 100.
[12] For the full transcript please see the NICAP website on Internet at
[13] Ibid., p. 101.
[14] Ibid., p. 105.
[15] For more on the Robertson Panel, please see the Durant report on the CUFON website on Internet at

Eric Ouellet © 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Deep disturbances in morphic fields

This post is looking into a particular application of Rupert Sheldrake’s concepts of morphic field and resonance that may have significant value for parasociology. Sheldrake’s concepts have been developed to help describing at least three fundamental characteristics found in nature. The first one is about how new forms and behaviours become the norm within a specie, an issue that Sheldrake calls “formative causation.” The second is linked to the first one, is that new forms and behaviour emerge out of habits, and such habits accumulate through a collective memory not resident in the biological forms themselves. In other words, with time, a form or behaviour becomes a permanent fixture, and this is what he calls a “morphic field” (morphic meaning “something becoming into being”). The implication is that such form or behaviour is not pre-determined by mechanistic laws of nature, but rather emerges in ways that cannot be predicted, and looking in the brain or genes of specie will not lead to finding the memory repository. The last characteristic is that such habits spread within specie in “normal” ways, but also through “non-normal” ways that cannot be explained through mechanistic science. That is what he calls “resonance” and this is the part of his theory that got much of the criticism from the scientific establishment. Sheldrake also extended his theory to other notions outside biology, like how ideas spread among humans, and this led him into research about telepathy and ESP (i.e. examples of “non-normal” resonance).

There are a number of researches that certainly point in the same direction as Sheldrake’s theory. One of the most applicable of such researches for parasociology is the one conducted on monkey colonies in Japan by Lyall Watson. He observed the monkeys developing a new technique (i.e. animal showing capability for innovation) of washing food that was given to them. The findings are even more astonishing as the new learning spread to other islands (where the monkey colonies had no contact with each others), when a certain threshold is met. As stated by Watson:

“But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone in the colony was doing it [washing sweet potatoes]. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerine crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies on other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiyama.” (Watson 1979, 148).

Deep disturbances in morphic fields

One of the issues that Sheldrake’s theory is not well positioned to explain is how new fields come about. The explanations he offers are actually closer to a mystic discussion about a “super and primordial morphic field” that can be easily equated to the notion of divinity. Given that such notion implies a fundamental belief as the key assumption, it is clearly outside the bounds of the scientific realm. Yet, if we keep in mind Watson’s research, for the monkeys the arrival of sweet potatoes given by humans appeared to be god-given, yet is was not.

I think there is a better explanation and it could reconcile traditional science and Sheldrake’s perspective. New fields emerge when old fields are deeply disturbed. Such disturbances are caused by the surrounding environment of a given field, which environment is made of many fields (many of which are probably not even known). The interactions between these different fields are so numerous, complex and with fields that we are not even aware of, that it is impossible to predict in a mechanistic way what would come out of such interactions. Hence, given the human limited capacity to grasp highly complex systems, to consider them as random would just as good. If one prefers to call this randomness the “mysterious ways of God,” so be it, as it would not change the explanatory structure anyway.

In private correspondence with Rupert Sheldrake, he agreed with me that this notion of deep disturbances is congruent with his theories. The key here, is not trying to predict in a mechanistic way when disturbances will occur, as we cannot do so given the high degree of complexity, but rather to identify which kind of disturbances leads to particular field breakdowns. To use an analogy, one could think of a group of people playing poker at a table. The field (i.e. the game) has rules and the players, with time, known other players’ ways of hiding their nervousness. The group of players have an accumulated memory, and sometimes non-normal resonance might occur when the players guess correctly (through telepathy?) the real hand of another player.

Then the table is suddenly push up in the air from the bottom, all the cards and chips go up in the air, and fall down on the ground. This creates a liminal moment, the collective memory is temporary lost, and the game is suspended. Some time is spent to pick up the cards and chips, and the table is reset based on the players’ individual memory, which is likely not to be 100% what the collective memory had it before. During this liminal moment, it is very likely that some players might use the time to cheat (steal chips, lie about their hand, etc), as the power of the field is momentarily stopped, and anything can happen. Could, then, UFO waves, Marian apparitions or RSPKs be one of those liminal moment where anything can happen because some fields have been deeply disturbed?

Insights from a concrete example

In order to see what would be the fit of morphic resonance to understand some of the most difficult to explain paranormal phenomena, a concrete and mundane example is propose here. This is a bit of digression towards something else, but the insight for UFO and paranormal research is important.

I am using the example of Hurricane Katrina that hit New Orleans towards the end of August 2005. It is clearly a sudden and deep disturbance to a series of fields. But not all fields were actually disturbed, and not the ones that people usually tend to think of.

What happened with Katrina was a major physical event (i.e., a hurricane) that caused very deep disturbances to at least two physical fields, namely the “biological ecosystem to ensure survival “(access to food and drinkable water, dry places to rest, elimination of infectious material, etc.), and “physical communication infrastructures” (roads, phone lines, cellular towers, Internet cables, radio and TV stations antennas, etc.).

Several symbolic fields (i.e. human fields) were not disturbed after all, in spite of what the media were reporting at the time. The chaos and lawlessness on the ground was actually vastly exaggerated, although people’s suffering remained quite acute and real. A symbolic field that could be called “local solidarity” (people were helping each other according to many witnesses, many heroic acts) remained strong, and this was observed directly by anthropologists who came to help (Ethridge 2006) and by a series of subsequent surveys (Scott & Howitt 2006; Rodriguez, Trainor, & Quarantelli 2006). In other words, social order on the ground did not collapse.

Even the field of criminality remained what it is, even if it had expanded opportunity because the police was not functional due to the extensive damages to infrastructures. The looting occurred mostly in the few days after the storm when people’s situation became seriously desperate as there were no signs that help was coming (Lavelle & Feagin 2006; Sims 2007). This was survival, not criminality.

Finally, the ugliest part of it was that field of racism, which has a long history in Louisiana, that remained very strong as poor blacks were overwhelmingly affected by the events (before as they could not afford to evacuate, during as they were stuck there and the media portraying them as bad and ruthless, and after as they remain the least able to restore their life) (Lavelle & Feagin 2006; Sommers et al. 2006).

The symbolic field that was really affected was the one related to the power of those who have political authority: the government or the state (in its general meaning). The police, without its physical infrastructure could not function; the municipal, State and Federal governments were completely overwhelmed and seemed paralyzed in spite of having put in place a series of measures in the days prior to the hurricane. The general paralysis was so extensive that it is hard to explain without introducing the notion of “non-normal” morphic resonance.

The real interesting issue is that governmental auhtority (at all levels, and including the police and the military) has its power based in the capacity of using physical strength to impose its will; what we call order. Anyone having any education in political science will know that the state is best described by Max Weber’s classical definition: “a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” (Gerth & Mills 1946, 78). As well, the modern state has very much developed as a morphic field through habits. As brilliantly described by Charles Tilly,

"[…] transition to direct rule gave rulers access to citizens and the resources they controlled through household taxation, mass conscription, censuses, police systems, and many other invasions of small-scale social life. But it did so at the cost of widespread resistance, extensive bargaining, and the creation of rights and perquisites for citizens. Both the penetration and bargaining laid down new state structures, inflating the government’s budgets, personnel, and organizational diagrams. The omnivorous state of our own time took shape." (Tilly 1992, 25).

It was very telling that the sense of “order” was re-established in New Orleans , not when people were actually safe but when people started “to see so many uniformed men bearing machine guns, patrolling expressways and major intersections” (Scott & Howitt 2006, 29). These soldiers did not have any legal capacities to play a police role, nor were they helping with the delivery of aid and evacuation of stranded people. They real effect was to re-establish state authority, a symbolic field fundamentally based on the potential use of physical violence.

What all this means is that (1) some symbolic fields are directly dependent on physical fields (i.e. state authority is dependent on physical force to coerce), (2) that resonance occurs between fields that are akin, or more closely dependent, and (3) resonance occurs also when there are deep disturbances, not only when there are new habits created.

Prospective findings

If Sheldrake is right, then his theory should also work the other way around, and this has a very direct consequence for parasociology: UFO waves, RSPKs, and Marian apparitions (to name a few) would be disturbances in the symbolic realm (national identity and psycho-social field of the family), which resonates directly in physical fields dependent on the disturbed symbolic fields (as there are strange physical manifestations that can be observed). In other words, a UFO wave or RSPK would be physical disturbances created through resonance by “symbolic hurricanes”. The key question, then, is: what are those physical fields that are directly dependent on symbolic fields? This puts a very interesting twist to the notions morphic fields and resonance.

Post-specific bibliography

Ethridge, Robbie. (2006). “Bearing Witness: Assumptions, realities and the otherizing of Katrina”. American Anthropologist 108(4): 799-813.

Gerth, H.H. and C.W. Mills. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York: Galaxy Books.

Lavelle, Kristen and Joe Feagin. (2006). “Hurricane Katrina: The race and class debate”. Monthly Review 58(3): 52-67.

Littlefield, Robert S. and Andrea Quenette. (2007). “Crisis Leadership and Hurricane Katrina: The portrayal of authority by the media in natural disasters”. Journal of Applied Communication Research 35(1): 26-ff.

Rodriguez, Havidan, Joseph Trainor, and Enrico L. Quarantelli. (2006). “Rising to the Challenges of a Catastrophe: The emergent and prosocial behavior following Hurricane Katrina”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604: 82-ff.

Scott, Esther and Arnold Howitt. (2006). “Hurricane Katrina: Responding to an ‘ultra-catastrophy’ in New Orleans”. Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government Case Program, Case no. C15-06-1844.0.

Sims, Benjamin. (2007). “’The Day After the Hurricane’: Infrastructure, order, and the New Orleans Police Department’s response to Hurricane Katrina”. Social Studies of Science 37(1): 111-118.

Sommers, Samuel R. et al. (2006). “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, implications and future research questions”. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 6(1): 39-55.

Tilly, Charles. (1992). Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1992. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Watson, Lyall. (1979). Lifetide. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Eric Ouellet © 2009

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rupert Sheldrake’s The Presence of the Past

As announced a few posts ago, I am reviewing one of the main books of Rupert Sheldrake. The one chosen is trying to link observations in the social and cultural realms with his concept of morphic resonance. Although there are some interesting ideas in it, I must say that I am a bit disappointed, as it does not provide a whole lot more to what has already been discussed so far. Yet, it was still a worthwhile reading. The full notice is:

Sheldrake, Rupert. (1989). The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Vintage Books.

Morphic fields and sociology

This book represents further application of his biological ideas developed in A New Science of Life (1981) to the realms of psychology, society, and culture (p. vii). Yet, nearly half of the book is dealing with issues linked to the outdated 19th century mechanistic views of science that are still prevalent today. Among those views, one can find the hope of finding all the eternal and immutable laws of nature. For him, a central problem is that reality fundamentally changes, and thus our understanding of it must also evolve. It is to address this problem that he developed the notion of morphogenetic fields, which “evolve within the realm of nature, and they are influenced by what has happened before. Habits build up within them. From this point of view, mathematical models of these fields are only models; they do not represent transcendent mathematical realities that determine the fields” (p. 107).

Social sciences are about studying collective and long-lasting, but not eternal, idiosyncrasies which have “laws” of their own, but as these idiosyncrasies change over time, so the “laws” to explain them will change. If one translates in the language of the social science the above quote, it would look like this: social structuration in social classes evolves within societies, and is influenced by previous social forms. It is only with time that new social forms become accepted and integrated in a society, and the models and theories to explain them are specific to those societies, and do not determine social structuration. No one in social science would be shocked by such “translation”. It is certainly an issue and challenge for the natural sciences, but when it comes to the human and social sciences this is not a major issue.

Sheldrake appears aware of this, as he wrote later in the book, that sociology has abandoned in the 1960s such pretensions of finding eternal laws of society (pp. 254-255), especially through the disrepute of the functionalism and structuralism. From that point of view, it is clear that his book was not addressed to people in the social sciences. This is a bit disturbing, as they would be the only ones to be really able to embrace his concept in the context of what this books intend to do. It is unfortunate that Sheldrake missed such an opportunity to establish a dialogue with the social science community, but I guess his main “demons” were somewhere else...

This lack of dialogue appears to remain to this day. I did a relatively extensive search for social science journal articles that would use Sheldrake’s ideas, and to my surprise I found none. I think a number of reasons can be invoked to explain this situation: conservatism of those journals vis-à-vis his unconventional views (yet some of them in cultural studies are all but conservative); Sheldrake’s inability to reach out to the social science communities, as morphic resonance is expressed in ways that are not easy to integrate within existing models and theories from social sciences (something he recognizes himself – p. 309), etc. But I think the most important reason for this lack of interest is that Sheldrake’s ideas provide nothing new to the social sciences. This can be seen as a mixed blessing. On one hand, this confirms that most findings in sociology remain essentially valid, even with a morphic fields “update”. On the other hand, as it does not provide anything really new, then why should one bother using this concept?

Morphic fields and resonance in sociology

The notion of morphic field is actually quite similar to the way sociological concepts and theories are devised. Morphic fields are constructs that are comparable to the notions of social force and dynamics, which are common concepts in sociology to describe abstract realities that have a real impact, such as social classes, social institutions. But his approach is starting from the natural sciences and tries to go towards the social sciences. As Sheldrake wrote, “the hypothesis of formative causation, which the rest of this book explores, starts from the assumption that morphogenetic fields are physically real, in the sense that gravitational, electro-magnetic, and quantum matter fields are real” (pp. 107-108). It would be interesting to do the reverse exercise, using social science concepts to describe biology.

What morphic fields do, as a concept, is to provide an explanatory structure to understand why biological shapes and behaviours remain the same over time, and that they tend to spread without always have a direct cause-and-effect to account for it. Within a morphic field, there is a process that makes it stronger and more established through time, which he calls morphic resonance. “Morphic resonance takes place on the basis of similarity. The more similar an organism is to previous organisms, the greater their influence on its morphic resonance. And the more such organisms there have been, the more powerful their cumulative influence” (p. 108). In other words, according to Sheldrake, the more nature is the same, the more it will remain the same. This idea, once transposed, is very similar to the underpinnings of concepts such as primary and secondary socialization, and of institutionalization in sociology, which are built on the notion of repetition.

Sheldrake adds that “by contrast, the hypothesis of formative causation postulates a two-way flow of influence: from fields to organism and from organism to fields” (p. 110). What he means here is that not only the overall structure of the field influences individual organisms in terms of the shape and behaviour, but individual organisms also influence the field. Here too, there is nothing new for sociology. The overall construct of sociological theories is based on that very notion of a two-way process, where the structural and functionalist theories emphasize the top-down part of social processes, while the agency-based and critical theories are all about understanding how individuals can voluntarily induce social change.

For organisms to keep their shape and behaviour over generations, Sheldrake postulates that some sort of memory is required so that organism “knows” what to do. Hence, morphic fields are also memory containers. But he goes further in saying that the information contained in the field seems to spread without always having direct cause-and-effect. “Morphic fields play a role comparable to information and programs in conventional biological thought, and they can indeed be regarded as fields of information. Thinking of information as contained in morphic fields helps to demystify this concept, which otherwise seems to be referring to something that is essentially abstract, mental, or mathematical, or at any rate non-physical in nature” (p. 113). Once again, through key concepts like class and professional socialization, or Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, one knows that social behaviour is filled with information (such as rules of conducts, norms and values). Sheldrake acknowledges this similarity (p. 262). The main difference is the non-causal spread of information which is not really discussed in sociology. More on this below.

One more point, Sheldrake denounces strong determinism through his concept of morphic fields. If organisms tend to have similar shapes and behaviour, they do not have the exact same. There is room for variation (like African pigmies and tall Scandinavians are still part of the same specie). He wrote that “an essential feature of morphic fields is that they are intrinsically probabilistic; in other words they are not sharply defined but are ‘structures of probability” (p. 119). What he means is that within the range of possible outcomes that a field can tolerate, it is impossible to predict how a specific organism or individual would behave. This notion is well understood in sociology. For instance, someone who is born in a working class background has a greater probability to have later on habits, language, demeanour, employment, and housing congruent with what exists in general in the working class. But there are always a number of individual who will arrive to a different outcome, some to become very rich and powerful. Yet, it is impossible to predict which individual will change social class in such a way.

Sheldrake acknowledges that his theories are difficult to test in a human setting as there are too many variables at play (pp, 183, 186-187, and 188). As well, he recognizes that social and cultural realities, if they can be understood as morphic fields, they have to be studied in their own terms. As he underlines, “social and cultural fields are of a nature similar to the morphic fields that organize biological and chemical systems, although they are not, or course, reducible to these biological and chemical fields. Like the morphic fields of systems at all levels of complexity, social and cultural fields are stabilized by morphic resonance from similar systems in the past [...]” (pp. 254-255). Lastly, he recognizes that his concept of morphic fields does not explain well how new morphic fields emerge, while in social science the issue of how social change occur is the fundamental question (pp. 114 and 246).

A bridge not so far

In spite of these limitations, I think Sheldrake provides some interesting points that would be well received in social sciences, or at least better received than in natural sciences. For instance, Sheldrake provides a convincing analysis to show that the notion of instinctive behaviour through genetic explanation is over-rated (p. 158), and this is congruent with the devastating critique opposed to socio-biology.

As well, Sheldrake is very critical of those who try to reduce human behaviour to brain chemistry; a critique whole-heartily shared by most sociologists. “According to the hypothesis of formative causation, the morphic fields that organize our behaviour are not confined to the brain, or even the body, but extend beyond it into the environment, linking the body to the surroundings in which it acts” (p. 198).

Another linkage can be made with the study of social institutions, a key notion in sociology and anthropology. The famous anthropologist Mary Douglas described in her master piece on social institutions, How Institutions Thinks (1987), how institutions does the thinking for individuals in providing mental thought patterns as to how we should look at the world; what she called the classification schemes. Sheldrake proposes a similar construct to understand how information is stored in morphic fields. “From the point of view of the hypothesis of formative causation, such schemata, hierarchies, or organizational factors can be regarded as morphic fields, organized in hierarchies and connected together in multiple ways through higher fields” (p. 200). Institutions behave in a manner that is congruent with the morphic field explanatory structure.

Sheldrake provides also an interesting way of re-energizing Durkheim’s concept of conscience collective, which has lost favour in sociology. Conscience collective is used to describe something that could be also called group mind, to explain social behaviour. Conscience collective could be seen as a morphic field containing the conscious collective memories of a society (pp. 248-255), and that is built and maintained through ongoing generations of people getting the same story about their society (be it true or not, like in the case of nationalism, or Canada is the “most best” country in the world...).

Morphic fields and resonance and parasociology

Where Sheldrake becomes more contentious is where, I think, he is becoming more interesting for the purpose of parasociology. One of the key aspects of morphic fields is that the content of the information found in the field is not necessarily communicated through a normal cause-and-effect process. For instance, he considers that all individuals inherit their species’ collective memory (p. 159), but such memory is not necessarily stored physically and that the past can influence the present directly (p. 160). As he wrote, “if the hypothesis of formative causation is correct, then it should be possible for habit memories of one organism to influence another by morphic resonance, facilitating the acquisition of the same habits. Such an effect would not, of course, be expected on the basis of mechanistic theories of memory storage” (p. 168)

To support his view that collective knowledge is shared through non-direct means, he provides the example of some research done of unconnected groups of rats learning faster over several generations how to get through a maze (p. 175-176). As well, he presents the research on blue tits birds opening milk bottle foil caps, first noticed in 1921 and spreading across the UK and some parts of Europe. These birds are known to travel only within a short distance from their nests (pp. 177-178). Although he agrees that normal animal learning had occurred in this case, an additional explanation is required for birds learning the trick at the same time while living far from each other. This is an important nuance. Sheldrake does not say that “normal” explanations are not good, only that they need to be complemented by something like morphic resonance for what it cannot account for. This perspective reminds me of Brunstein’s (1979) notion that there is a need for an “Einsteinian” revolution in other fields like biology and psychology, and I would add in sociology too.

When it comes to people, Sheldrake wrote that “[...] the principal way in which we are influenced by morphic resonance from other people may be through a kind of pooled memory“(p. 221), and he links his views to Jung’s notion of collective unconscious. Unfortunately, he does explain much how this is occurring, and the verification tests he proposes to validate his ideas in the human realm are less than convincing. But this is certainly congruent with the parasociological notion that social order is, in part, possible through psi linkages.

Overall, what he proposes is that there are unknown and unseen dimensions at play, and morphic fields helps us to sense their presence. These invisible dimensions have been hypothesized in physics (p. 297) through various theories, including the notion of non-locality (p. 304). By logical extension, there should be additional sociological dimensions that are invisible, but still having an effect on societies. This is certainly the goal of parasociology to investigate such invisible dimensions. The concept of morphic resonance can be useful, but it needs to be tested empirically in a true sociological context.

Paranormal phenomena are good candidates for such empirical testing, as the “normal” explanations are not working. UFO sightings, hauntings and alien abductions share many characteristics of morphic fields. The content of such experience is carried on in a non-causal way, and tends to stabilize over time but never become perfectly identical; the more people believe in it, the more it occurs; some individuals (like Barney and Betty Hill) can have an influence on the field, as the field can influence many, etc. With respect to spontaneous but relatively short-live paranormal events like UFO wave and RSPKs (poltergeists), Sheldrake’s concept is maybe less helpful, as it has to describe new, intense but short-lived fields. Maybe these are special forms of morphic field, or example of abrupt disruption in morphic fields. In ecology, for instance, when an ecosystem is seriously damaged, it is possible to observe very strange animal behaviours (like polar bear eating their cubs). On the human side, the days after Katrina in New Orleans also showed what could happen when social order is shattered by environmental destruction. If these examples are good illustration of deep disruptions of morphic fields, then the analogy for UFO wave and RSPKs may hold.

Eric Ouellet © 2009