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.

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!

The Jack Womack UFO Literature Collection

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The Washington Post has recently published a piece on a new catalogue of UFO literature from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s compiled by science fiction writer Jack Womack, entitled …Flying Saucers are Real!

I have not yet had a chance to look at the book, but it appears that for those of us who share an interest in the history of the UFO phenomenon, many of the usual canonical suspects appear in the volume.

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Especially exciting is the news that the Georgetown University library has acquired Womack’s collection and will be mounting an exhibit featuring works from it some time in 2017. According to the website Boo-Hooray:

Womack’s collection contains books, typescripts, pamphlets, tracts and magazines published primarily from 1948 to 1980. Totaling 242 individual items, the collection includes most of the major 1950s works on flying saucers, the works of all major contactees, bibliographies, compilations of so-called photographs, and a number of publications from the Saucerian Press. 19 of the books in the collection are inscribed or signed by their authors. Several books have supporting letters, ephemera, and press materials laid in.

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New Article: A History of the Mistrust between Ufology and Academic Science

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In 1966, the University of Colorado became the home for an expert commission, headed by American physicist Edward Condon, to scientifically study UFOs. Already before the release of its report in 1968, the group’s work was being greeted by many with skepticism.

I have just published a new article on the history of the UFO phenomenon. The journal Public Understanding of Science has released the early online version of my piece, which is entitled “Making UFOs Make Sense: Ufology, Science, and the History of Their Mutual Mistrust.”

The focus and general argument of the article is summarized in the abstract below.

Reports of unidentified flying objects and alien encounters have sparked amateur research (ufology), government investigations, and popular interest in the subject. Historically, however, scientists have generally greeted the topic with skepticism, most often dismissing ufology as pseudoscience and believers in unidentified flying objects and aliens as irrational or abnormal. Believers, in turn, have expressed doubts about the accuracy of academic science. This study examines the historical sources of the mutual mistrust between ufologists and scientists. It demonstrates that any science doubt surrounding unidentified flying objects and aliens was not primarily due to the ignorance of ufologists about science, but rather a product of the respective research practices of and relations between ufology, the sciences, and government investigative bodies.

While copyright does not allow me to post the article here, I am happy to share it with those interested. Simply contact me via the email address listed in the “About” section of this blog.

A New Development in Ufology: The UFO Detection and Tracking (UFODATA) Project

Since the beginnings of ufology as a field of investigation in the 1950s, many of those conducting research into the UFO phenomenon have sought to find a means to go about this work in a rigorous manner, such that any findings might prove compelling to the general public and especially the scientific community as a whole. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, ufologists like David Saunders (USA) and Louis Schönherr (Austria) turned to computer technology and developed codes for recording information on sightings that then could be entered into a computer database. The hope was that this would make it possible to detect patterns across the tens of thousands of reports out there. By the 1990s, however, many academic and amateur researchers remained unconvinced that these efforts had borne any fruitful results.

A team of international researchers is now pursuing a new angle. The UFO Detection and Tracking (UFODATA) Project emerged out of conversations between Mark Rodeghier (Scientific Director and President of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies) and Alexander Wendt (Professor of Political Science at the Ohio State University). As the organizers state on their website:

Our goal is to….[build] a large network of automated surveillance stations with sophisticated sensors that will monitor the skies 24/7 looking for aerial anomalies. After over two years of developing our ideas, making plans, and testing relevant technologies we are now ready to move into the next phase – a ‘proof of concept’ by developing our first working prototype of a fully functioning monitoring station. This station will have a core optical unit with cameras capable of detecting and recording both an image and spectra, a magnetic sensing unit, instrumentation to detect microwave and other radiation, and other sensors to record atmospheric and local environmental data. Alarm triggers will initiate recording by all the equipment, permitting capture of a broad range of physical data that can then be analyzed by experts.

The basic idea here is to take advantage of the “unprecedented convergence of high resolution digital camera technologies, off-the shelf scientific instrumentation, powerful low-cost computing platforms, and ubiquitous high-speed internet access” to study the UFO phenomenon in a more systematic fashion.

As has been the case throughout the history of ufology, the project is relying on volunteers (instructions on how to get involved can be found on the website) and is seeking to finance itself through crowd-funding.

For an article on the project written by a journalist involved in it, see this piece by Leslie Kean.