Friday, September 30, 2016

Real Conspiracies and Conspiracy Stories that Sell – Part 2

My last post was raising the question as whether the content of UFO-related conspiracies is actually possible. This question was not asked based on whether extra-terrestrial life is possible, nor if it is possible to produce technological devices to travel the vastness of interstellar space. The actual veracity of UFO conspiracy has never been proven (i.e. what is allegedly hidden), so this is not an issue that can be addressed in any meaningful way. Similarly, the question was not about how human can invent such narrative about conspiracies and get such narrative spreading throughout popular culture. Social scientists have already studied this issue in great detail. No, my question is in many ways much more sociological in nature, and it is about whether humans can actually enact such conspiracies?

There are many variations of the UFO-related conspiracies, and it would completely unrealistic trying to assess them all. So, I intend to focus on the main characteristics rather than specific elements that might be unique to one version or another. The narratives linked to UFO conspiracies are not a new, and pre-dated very much the Roswell story that emerged in the late 1970s. Very early in the 1950s, the issue as to whether the American government was not truthful about its knowledge of UFOs was raised by a number of authors. Just as an example, in 1953 Donald Keyhoe wrote that “the secret intelligence analysis should be made public, with all the evidence which led to the final conclusion. […] their massed evidence that the saucers are interplanetary […]” [1]. The same story is repeated a dozen years later by Coral Lorenzen, as she states that the layman “[…] is faced with the fact that official opinions often contradict the available evidence. He concludes that a ‘conspiracy of official silence exists’ concerning ‘true facts’ "[2].

These two examples illustrate the basic, or original, conspiracy about UFOs. Summarily, it can be described as “the government” (whatever that means) knowing the true nature of UFOs, which is that they are spaceships from another world and are driven by aliens visiting the Earth. The intents of the aliens are not clear, but “the government” knows what it is, and it may be an accomplice in having done some sort of deal with the aliens. For reasons unclear, “the government” refuses to disclose such knowledge publicly.
There is a more sophisticated version of the conspiracy story surrounding UFOs. It is less dramatic but also much less popular, and it is based on the notion that there are real anomalies linked to the UFO phenomenon, and people in “the government” know about it, but they do not really know what to make of it. They may have some small secret programmes to keep track of them, but these are not terribly successful. Yet, there is a fear that governmental ignorance might be seen as problematic by the population, and therefore “the government” prefers hiding the little it actually knows, and suppresses those who want to discuss it. This is actually a reasonable statement, and there is enough evidence to show that it was more or less true some time ago. Yet, “the government” also hides secret research programmes behind stage fake UFO events to confuse people, distract attention, and potentially trying to influence populations for purposes that are quite unclear. This is also a reasonable statement, as there is evidence to support it, but it dies not seem to be as extensive as one might imagine. Finally, the phenomenon being itself quite elusive, seems to be engaged in its own cover-up, independent from the one of “the government”. This last secret can be explained by the elusiveness of psi, and does not require a non-human intelligence to be. Jacques Vallée is a well-known representative of this view on UFO-related conspiracies. In his book Dimensions: A casebook of alien contact (1988), he has an entire chapter on this issue entitled the “Triple Cover-up".

Some people might say that people or artefacts actually came forward with the “real deal”. Yet, those stories appear to be make-belief events, as many analysts noted about Philip Corso, Bob Lazar, several of the Roswell “witnesses” and the quasi-totality of the Majestic papers, which after much verifications leave us rather empty handed.
So, what should we make of all of this?
As noted in the previous post, the first characteristic to keep in mind is that secrecy is a normal social dynamics found in every walk of life. To find secrets surrounding UFOs is actually normal. A complete lack of secrecy would be actually suspicious. The fact that many governments of the world have surrendered most of their UFO files over the years (as noted in  my book Illuminations), but have kept a few away from the public eye is actually a good sign. We are dealing with a “normal” secrecy situation. The next question should be: are there secrets worth trying to keep to maintain social relationships? Obviously, the military and the defense establishment have relationships with their parent state, which they are charged to defend. Secrets involving the protection of the state are therefore to be expected. As UFO-related documents are being declassified over time, every single UFO files that remained classified for a longer time had a component that, if revealed at the time of the first disclosure, would have endangered the relationship (e.g. individuals named in documents, sensitive detection system still operational, sensitive military activities, etc.). There are no big alien invasion stories, ever. There is only attempts to protect relationships of trust between various parts of the government. Furthermore, those declassified files illustrate that the direct or indirect admittance of governmental ignorance about UFOs was finally acknowledged. The cover-up about governmental ignorance is no more, because no one inside or outside government seems able to crack the UFO mystery in any meaningful way; there is nothing to be ashamed of anymore.

Then, there are relationships with industries involving at times massive amounts of money, which demand secrecy (to keep the technological edge of both the supplier and the client). New technologies are constantly developed and new military applications are routinely classified. This is perfectly normal. This illustrates that only something valuable need to be keep secret, the second characteristics of secrecy. Yet, once again, when a secret loses its value, the secrets goes away. A good example of it is about balloons and UFOs. The US Air Force historical service published in 1958 Contributions to Balloon Operations to Research and Development, an unclassified document. In there, (pp. 72-74) it states clearly that balloons were often mistaken for UFOs and they knew about it, and the chief scientist Gildenberg even wrote in the unclassified Holloman base newspaper about this issue. By 1958, balloon-based research had lost its edge, and there was no need to keep the secret about it. Gildenburg testified at the U.S. Air Force official investigation on Roswell in the mid-1990s, saying the same thing he wrote in 1950s…. Once again, no sinister secrets about alien invasion. Once the need to camouflage technological research into UFO stories is gone, people are quite open about it. Another example can be found in the Project Beta (2005), written by Greg Bishop, where he describes an elaborate UFO-related scheme that was put in place for distracting a ufologist to figure out the latest research on ground to satellite communications. Bishop, years later once that technology was no more a big deal, was able to uncover the whole story without major difficulties, people readily admitting what they did.

This leads us to the third characteristics, which is about that it is hard to keep secrets. People will talk, especially if they have an issue with those who keep them out of the secret. The UFO literature is filled with stories of people who were told to shut up, and one of the latest incarnations of these stories can be found in the various testimonies of the Disclosure Project Briefing Document (2001), produced by Steven M. Greer. Yet, a closer look at those testimonies shows that there were attempts to put a lid on UFO stories, not that their actual alien-related content was true or proven… A critical distinction. The document attempts to show that there was a conspiracy about the "conspiracy". From a sociological perspective, this needs to be interpreted in a sound perspective. Those who are kicked out of the secret tend to talk, especially if it is done in a hurtful way. That does not mean the had a good understanding of the secret, especially if they stumbled on the secret by accident. Yet, even more importantly, many other people who were “in”, once they leave in good terms, actually do speak as well! All those military people and officials who came forward telling their story about the “no big deal” are also participating in spilling the secret. Their voice cannot be ignored just because it is inconvenient. There stories are also quite clear that those UFO-related secrets were not about aliens from other space or bizarre and complicated social experiments conducted for nebulous reasons. The secret is consistently described as much pragmatic and down-to-earth in nature and quite localized in scope.

Finally, the last characteristics is about the ethical nature of secrets. The less ethical and the more people involved the harder it is to keep it secret. The vast majority of people in the military and defense establishments are actually very ethical people. Once they get engaged in something unethical, the secret is bound to come out, even if it takes some time to occur. One can think about the MK-Ultra experiment or the secret military operations in Cambodia during the Vietnam War or the Abu Ghraib scandal; people’s conscience will eventually act out. If the governments of the world would have a sinister grand deal with aliens going back all the way to the 1940s, it would have been out long time ago. Similarly, if grand scale weird, complicated, and risky techno-social experiment would have been conducted in various areas of the world, this would have come out too. Unethical conspiracies to be enacted by normally ethical people do not remain secret for long. 

Does any proponent of UFO-related conspiracies actually try to make sense of them sociologically? After all, conspiracies are human-made and are therefore explainable by tools of social and human sciences! But of course, these proponents do not feel any need to meet such requirement. Why would they? It makes their stories a lot more interesting and captivating. It allows their stories to remain consistent with the original UFO narrative. In the end, it helps selling books of a particular genre. In other cases, it is partially unconscious, as some of those authors come to believe their own stories in spite of the blatant lack of evidence, and their complete inability to explain why such grand and risky conspiracies would be put in place. This explains why such dynamics can go on forever.

In fact, if there is a conspiracy it is the one put forward by the numerous UFO-related authors going back all the way to the 1950s and their unscrupulous publishers (and now audio-visual producers)who are maintaining alive the narrative about conspiracies. Like in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum we have a conspiracy about imagined conspiracies. But let's face it: this little dirty secret has been out for quite a while. It is seriously time to move on.

[1] Keyhoe, Donald. (1953). Flying Saucers From Outer Space. New York: Permabooks, p. 217.

[2] Lorenzen, Coral. (1966). Flying Saucers: The startling evidence of the invasion from space. New York: Signet, p. 278.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Real Conspiracies and Conspiracy Stories that Sell – Part 1

Finally, I am able to resume the blog. I apologize for my long silence.

I attended a symposium a little while ago on UFOs, parapsychology, and other related topics. The symposium was attended by first class researchers and writers, and it made me think a lot about the notion of conspiracy in the UFO world. The two notions of UFO and conspiracy are inextricably linked to one another, particularly in the United States. One must be aware, however, that it is much less the case outside the U.S., even in neighboring Canada. In Europe and elsewhere, research on UFO tends to focus on the new physical science aspects, the social dynamics, and to a lesser degree on the paranormal dimension.  
This post is looking at what we actually know about conspiracies, and how this knowledge could be helpful to make an assessment of UFO conspiracies, which are otherwise opaque in nature, and their place in framing our understanding of the phenomenon.
A number of authors in the U.S. have studies the belief in conspiracy theories in general, and on UFOs in particular. For instance, one can refer to Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy (2013), the edited volume of Debbora Battaglia E.T. Culture (2005), Jodi Dean’s Aliens in America (1998), UFO Crash at Roswell (1997) by Saler, Ziegler and Moore, or the classic book by David Jacobs The UFO Controversy in America (1975). These books and others, in one way or another, look into why people believe in conspiracies, why conspiracies are enduring even if no substantive facts emerge or when counter-proofs are provided, what kind of people believe in conspiracy, and how conspiracies theories evolve and mutate. These questions are certainly legitimate social science research issues to study, and these books provide a very illuminating analysis of the American society, and of the inner social dynamics of the UFO buffs’ world.  

What has been much less done is to study UFO-related conspiracies from the point of view of the sociology of conspiracy; to try understanding whether UFO-related conspiracies make any sense from a sociological perspective. After all, conspiracy is a real social phenomenon with its own dynamics like project management, or bureaucracy. The sociology of conspiracy is in fact quite old and can be traced back to an article from the well-known sociologist Georg Simmel in a 1906 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, entitled “The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies”.

Simmel wrote that: “The keeping of secret is something so unstable, the temptations to betrayal are so manifold, in many cases such a continuous path leads from secretiveness to indiscretion, that unlimited faith in the former contains an incomparable preponderance of the subjective factor. For this reason those secrets societies whose rudimentary forms begin with the secret shared by two, and whose enormous extension through all times and places has not even yet been appreciated, even quantitatively—such societies have exerted efficient disciplinary influence upon moral accountability of men. For there resides in confidence of men towards each other as high moral value in the companion fact that this confidence is justified”. (p. 473)
Here are some of the insightful observations from Simmel about how secrecy and conspiracy decorticated. First of all, secrecy is one of the oldest form of social dynamics. As soon as you have three people or more, then we have at least three pairs of people who have their own unique one-on-one relationship, who will inevitably not share 100% of the relationship with the other pairs. Hence, secrets are born. This observation at the micro level also stands at the macro level. People have work and family secrets that do not cross into the other realm. Similarly, large organizations have secrets that are shared only internally to their members, and it can become a key issue of competitiveness between organizations, like between Apple and Samsung. The same can be said of intelligence agencies that have a hard time sharing information with each other because they want to protect their own sources.

The second point is that secret information becomes valuable because only those who are in have access to it. It is true in creating special relationship between individuals. The secret moments are what make their relationship special and valuable. This is also true for large organizations, which compete against each other. Conversely, once the secret is spilled, the information loses its value. Sometime, it is not the content of the information that actually brings value, but simply the existence of a secret. The classic example is Freemasonry, which has it rituals published in many different books over years, while its true value is in “having been there” when the ritual is performed. The real value in this case remains in the common experience rather than in its content.

A third characteristics is that secrets are very hard to keep! Bragging about being part of a secret is a phenomenon that goes back to beginning of time, and it is how the police today very often catches small time criminals. Then, revenge against those who wronged you, or selfish calculations to obtain favors in exchange for information are the story of modern spy recruiting. For instance, Oleg Penkovsky was profoundly disgusted with the actions of the Soviet Union and became a volunteer spy for the West who had a key role during the Cuban missile crisis. Richard Ames simply sold crucial American secrets to the Soviet Union for money.

Large organization based on secrecy are well aware of those problems and try establish various measures to protect their secrets. One of those measures is to ensure that those entrusted with secrets are sharing the values behind the secrets. For instance, the secret of the cryptographic work done against German signals during World War II at Bletchley Park was a very well guarded one, and this many years after the war was over. The people were fully dedicated to protect Britain and the Western world against fascism, raid bombing, and U-boot attacks. They had very strong motivations to keep it secret. The Mafia, on the other hand, tries to keep secrets based on family values, and try to recruit among family members. But their goals are much less noble, and eventually someone talks. That’s what gangsters’ stories are made of. The Watergate scandal was easily uncovered by two journalists because of the immorality of what was done. People were willing to talk and provide proofs.

Another measure is fear and intimidation. This can work up to a point, but eventually people reach a point where they have nothing to lose, and they spread the secret. Once again, organized crime is a classic example of using fear and intimidation, and yet people eventually talk. Witness protection programmes have been created to give these people a second chance after they reveal the secret. State intelligence agencies can use the threat of prosecution and jail time, or even worse, if people reveal their secrets, and yet we have people like Snowden who was willing to risk it all.

Lastly, organizations are using secrets as a way to get people motivated to keep secrets! It is essentially done by getting more secrets over time, and moving one closer to the inner circle. Cults are classic examples of it, but organized crime is the same. Intelligence agencies provide high clearances as people get promoted to upper ranks. Yet, this does not always work. For instance, Oleg Gordievsky, the Soviet resident in London, which was a pretty high position in the KGB, defected to the West when he could.

Ultimately, the morality or immorality of a secret is often a defining characteristic as to whether a secret can last for long, assuming that people in are essentially normal people. A secret that supports a cause that is construed as noble and moral will last long. The exception are immoral secrets that are kept by profoundly depraved people, like in the case of pedophile rings. Such secrets tend to be held closely because of the serious consequences for those in if the secret is revealed. But it also imposes a limitation on the size of the secret group, as when the circle enlarges too much, sooner or later someone will have problems with his/her conscience. Many modern-day terrorist plots were stopped in this manner, as the circle becomes larger.

In light of those sociological characteristics linked to secrets and conspiracies, how well the UFO secrets and conspiracy fare?