Mar 03 2011
The UK has recently released some of its files on unidentified flying objects – UFOs. It does not appear that there is anything shocking in the reports. In the end it seems like the release will result in just another round of news headlines with “UFO” in the title, but nothing else.
The documents do provide further evidence for what I call the psychocultural hypothesis. UFO sightings and encounters are certainly an interesting group of phenomena – but are they evidence of anything alien. Many people I talk to (including a documentary producer just recently) are left with the sense that there must be something going on. No explanation seems satisfactory to explain all the accounts, and there is a residue of unexplained reports.
This is the “where there is smoke there is fire” argument. But I think it misses an important question – there may be fire (a phenomenon) but what kind of fire? I think the fire is a multifaceted psychocultural phenomenon.
What I find most fascinating is that we are living through the formation of a modern mythology. We can see the mythology evolve, and there is ample documentation of the process. The psychological aspects of the mythology are also well documented. Perception is flawed and lends itself to false positives – to seeing patterns that are not real, or to misinterpreting mundane stimuli as something bizarre. Disconnected lights may be mentally joined into a large ship, for example. Distance, size, and velocity can be grossly misinterpreted. Perception is contaminated by expectation. And then memory can be distorted through contamination, suggestion, and just morphing over time to embellish an event.
There are also specific neurological phenomena, like hypnagogic hallucinations – waking dreams that can be interpreted as alien abductions.
Into this mix are deliberate hoaxes, including faked videos and picture, models of spacecraft, and false reports of abductions.
These neuropsychological phenomena interact with the evolving cultural beliefs in alien visitation – including the typical design of the spacecraft. Images of spacecraft were common in science fiction, and ultimately settled on the “flying saucer” archetype. The term “flying saucer” was famously coined by a journalist who misinterpreted the reports of pilot Kenneth Arnold, who described boomerang shaped ships skipping across the sky like saucers. Other ship types are reported, but the flying saucer shape remains dominant.
Ideas about the aliens themselves also evolve over time, as any cultural idea might. In the 1940s and 50s aliens were mostly from Mars or Venus and were distinctly humanoid. A variety of other creatures were then reported, but eventually reports began to settle on the little gray alien with large black eyes. Joe Nickell documented the progression of alien reports over time, showing how initial variation eventually evolved into the little grays.
Overall we see a cultural pattern of a new idea emerging, and then spreading and becoming popular, even being retrofitted into previous reports. Alien abductions became popular after the Betty and Barney Hill affair. Decades after the Roswell incident, the little gray aliens were added to the story, without any evidence of contemporary reports. Alien implants make an appearance, and then become part of the standard alien encounter tale.
The details of the alien story are now so thoroughly embedded in the culture that pretty much everyone knows them. They are in cartoons, advertising, television, and movies. Even if you have no interest in the topic at all, you will be familiar with the basic details of the alien mythology.
The end result of all this is that reports of UFOs, aliens, and encounters of one kind or another are common and caused by a variety of phenomena. No one explanation will cover it all. Given the number of reports it is also likely that not every single report will be able to be explained in detail. There are just too many quirky and unusual things that can happen to result in a sighting or encounter, and the evidence might not be available to uncover the specific cause. In other words – one would expect a residue of unexplained reports even in the absence of aliens.
The new released documents fit well into the psychocultural hypothesis of UFOs – a hodge podge of hoaxes, vague sightings, and misinterpreted natural phenomenon all being interpreted in line with the evolving cultural mythology of alien visitation.
What is lacking is the one thing that is incompatible with the psychocultural hypothesis (at least as an exclusive explanation) and which would favor the alien hypothesis – actual material evidence of anything demonstrably alien. Even after decades of reports, with multiple governments involved, there is still lacking any smoking gun evidence of alien spacecraft, aliens, or any alien phenomenon. As the BBC reports:
At the end of the discussion the government spokesman Lord Stabolgi summed up what remains the official position now.
“There is nothing to convince Her Majesty’s government that there has ever been a single visit by an alien spacecraft. As for telling the public the truth about UFOs, the truth is simple.
“There really are many strange phenomena in the sky, and these are invariably reported by rational people. But there is a wide range of natural explanations to account for such phenomena.”
The UK government, apparently, was not impressed by the evidence. And neither am I.
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