An interview about UFOs, the Cold War, and the Human Sciences

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This past spring I had an opportunity to visit with historians involved in The Hidden Persuaders project at Birbeck, University of London. While there, I talked with colleagues about the ways in which the UFO phenomenon became a subject of interest for many researchers in the human sciences during the Cold War.

The Hidden Persuaders project is a fascinating collaborative venture, examining forms of persuasion and “brainwashing” – both real and imagined – in the Cold War and the role played by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts in evaluating and developing techniques designed to alter people’s perceptions and views. Their website is well worth the visit!

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A History of Sleep Paralysis

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The Wellcome Collection – a free museum and library “exploring health, life and our place in the world” and funded by the Wellcome Trust – has recently posted a small review of the history of sleep paralysis.  Sleep paralysis is a “sleep disorder in which the body is temporarily immobilised at the moment of waking or the moment of falling asleep. It is a minor, yet common, body/mind malfunction that upwards of 50% of the population claims to have experienced at least once in their lifetime.”

UFO researchers are likely most familiar with the phenomenon as it relates to claims of alien abduction. Social scientists and clinicians have often argued that individuals claiming to have had such experiences were in fact experiencing a bout of sleep paralysis that, after the fact, was transformed into a story of extraterrestrial assault.

Check out the site for some interesting video footage as well.

UFO Researchers Look Back on Ufology

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With the 70th anniversary of Kenneth Arnold’s famous “flying saucer” sighting fast upon us (24 June), we likely can expect a number of public reflections over the coming weeks on the Arnold case and the history of UFOs in general.

Veteran UFO researchers Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos and Thomas E. Bullard have taken the opportunity to share their thoughts on the subject. Both have spent many years examining the evidence and collaborating with ufologists. They both speak of the great enthusiasm they had when they first started following the UFO phenomenon, but both admit – to varying degrees – that the venture appears to have lost much of its steam.

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Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos

Olmos puts it in rather stark terms:

Ufology not only fails to advance, it is a vicious circle.  Today we see UFO news publicized on the internet with the same old images of lens flares or aircraft contrails that seemed strange in the 1950s.  Because there are no academic or authoritative criteria universally accepted, and no hard evidence that exists as a certainty, past mistakes recur over and over.  Ufology is immersed in a loop that never ends.

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Thomas E. Bullard

Bullard, however, remains more sanguine about the work:

The reason behind these consistencies might be cultural influence or investigator bias, but actual observation in contrast to imagination might also be the cause.  At least the possibility is worth exploring.  So many IFO reports in the sample, so many human errors and shortcomings in descriptions plague the record that they threaten to smother the signal from the very much smaller body of UFOs.  In the past good minds have had to work with bad data limited in both quantity and quality, and the disappointing results come as no surprise.  Today we have much larger samples and data of better quality to escape the garbage in-garbage out problem that dogged earlier efforts.  I see reason to believe that some distinctive consistencies in the phenomenon may yet be forthcoming, and that reliance on quality cases as the database will reveal those consistencies in sharper relief.  At least the effort should be made before we give up the spaceship.

In any event, their exchange of views makes for fascinating reading and testifies to the hold that the UFO phenomenon has historically had on many observers.

Interviewed by Ryan Sprague from “Somewhere in the Skies”

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The podcast “Somewhere in the Skies” is a project of ufologist/UFO journalist Ryan Sprague. The latest episode features an interview he conducted with me a short while ago. Among other things, we discuss how I became interested in the history of UFOs, how science and ufology have related to one another, and what I am working on these days.

To my thinking, conversations like these are an essential part of the work of historians. As I have said before, I make no claims to being a ufologist. I am decidedly an outsider looking in (with all the advantages and shortcomings that come with that). But, from my perspective at least, sharing ideas, interests, and findings with those active in the field can only enhance and help refine all our research ventures.

Talk on the Changing Emotional Landscape of the UFO Phenomenon (London, May 4)

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For those of you living in or visiting London in early May, I will be there to give a series of talks on the history of the UFO and alien contact phenomenon. My talk “Belief in the Age of Suspense: The Changing Emotional Landscape of the UFO” is a public event that will be held on May 4 at 6:30 pm at The Horse Hospital.  The event is sponsored by the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotion. Do join us, if you can!