On 4 November The Sunday Telegraph posed the question that has been asked many times before: What is the point of UFOlogy (the ‘study of UFOs’).
“Having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that truth might not be out there after all,” writes Jasper Copping. “Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of ‘flying saucer’ sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all.”
This lack of proof, according to the Telegraph, could spell the end of UFOlogy as a subject by the end of the decade. But of course if you set out to prove either that UFOs are alien craft or don’t exist and spend years chasing a chimera you will inevitably end up either a ‘believer’ or a skeptic. As there is no evidence for visitations from aliens the only way to get around this problem is to believe, so making it a matter of faith rather than of evidence.
Which brings me back to the whole point of the article. The peg is that a special “summit on the future of UFOlogy” will be held at the University of Worcester on 17 November. Organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), a panel of speakers will ask if there is anything to be gained from rehashing the same old cases over and over and if not, whether the subject really is in terminal decline. So it is dead? Most seasoned observers will agree the numbers of significant and evidential UFO events have declined in the past decade as the debate has become increasingly focussed upon the twin myths of “saucer crashes” and alien abductions. As the obsession with abductions has died away, we have seen the resurrection of tired old sacred cows such as Roswell and the new Roswell (Rendlesham), both endlessly revived and re-revived for new audiences.
Meanwhile the closure of many long-standing UFO magazines and groups that once provided a platform for discussions on a range of alternatives to the ETH has reduced the subject’s internal pluralism. In its place, whole UFO communities have migrated online where discourse has grown increasingly polarised and extreme. UFOlogists have always been obsessed with government cover-ups but the influence of conspiracy theories and the arrival of Exopolitics have taken these ideas into more extreme and alarming directions.
One beacon of light is the venerable British UFO Research Association (BUFORA) which held its 50th anniversary conference in London in September. According to founder member Lionel Beer it was “standing room only” at the association’s first conference in 1962, when the subject was fresh and exciting. Membership may have dwindled since then but according to blogger Andrew May most of the British UFOlogists who attended were less single-mindedly fixated on the extra-terrestrial hypothesis than their American counterparts. Officially, BUFORA styles its approach as “scientifically factual” and lectures included references to “political, cultural and social influences” on UFO reporting. Investigations chief Heather Dixon pointed out that 95% of the 500-plus sightings received each year have rational explanations. But in a perceptive feature, BBC journalist Jon Kelly noted that scientific UFOlogy was its own worst enemy as the rank and file membership don’t want to hear about misperceptions and IFOs: “Questions from the floor tend to concern whether they think a spacecraft landed at Rendlesham Forest or if the American government is covering something up at Area 51.”
Is UFOlogy dead or alive? I predict ASSAP may be posing the same question in 2022 but as far I’m concerned the subject remains interesting as an example of living myth. The question ‘do aliens exist’ is actually nothing to do with ‘do UFOs exist’. Of course UFOs exist, in that people see unidentified things in the sky. Their stories and interpretations of what they have seen remain interesting for a whole series of reasons, none of which have any bearing on the existence of extraterrestrials. The bottom line is that UFOs = aliens is a dead end.
Postcript: The Sun published a by-lined version of my argument under the headline ‘Closed Encounters: Is it time to admit aliens don’t exist’ on 7 November. Ironically, the standfirst introducing my article says, “…here National Archive UFO expert argues why he has concluded aliens are little more than a myth.” The implication being that myth = false. My argument is actually far more nuanced. UFOs are a modern myth but a myth is simply an explanatory system of belief to which people turn to explain phenomena they don’t understand. Journalists habitually equate myth with falsity, but that’s not the original meaning of the word. I think that may have been lost somewhere in translation!
A far better exploration of the issues raised by the conference, quoting Dave Wood of ASSAP, Jenny Randles and myself, was published by The Huffington Post on 14 November. The comments received by journalist Lee Speigel following publication are worth reading. They reflect the central position the UFO myth plays in the lives and belief systems of many people. The mere suggestion that interest in UFOlogy may be in decline has been interpreted – wrongly – as an attack on an article of faith. The comments simply validate my opinion that the UFOlogy is a religion not a science.