Saturday, August 23, 2014

"Peak UFO": the decline of a cultural cycle

Peak UFO: Results of a query for "unidentified flying objects" in the JSTOR database, a collection of scientific journals. The number of articles mentioning the "UFO" concept is an indication of the scientific interest in the field. It peaked in the late 1960s and declined afterward.

When I came to age, in the early 1970s, the concept of UFO, unidentified flying object, was well entrenched in the worldview of the time. A worldview that included science fiction, space exploration, and UFOs together; a triad of different facets of the same idea: that space was the "new frontier" as President Kennedy said in 1960s, or the "final frontier" as it was repeated at the start of every episode of the first series of "Star Trek".

Time has passed, and the frontier has turned out to be too difficult to reach. After the moment of enthusiasm of the post-war years, space exploration turned out to be too expensive for a society which started to be burdened by the growing costs of mineral depletion and of pollution. With the final frontier becoming more and more remote, science fiction abandoned the genre of space conquest, moving toward epic fantasy and pseudo-medieval settings. And UFOs seemed to recede below the threshold of consciousness of the media.

But did UFOs really disappear? This summer, following a suggestion by "Corvide", I went back to this arm of the space triad of the 1960 and I read 

two books. One is "The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation" by John Michael Greer (AKA, the Archdruid), the other "UFOs for the 21st century mind", by Richard M. Dolan.

Both are recent books which attempt to evaluate the whole UFO cycle from its beginnings, that we may take as the late 1940s (even though the phenomenon is much older). Of the two, Greer's book is by far the better. Greer is skeptical about UFOs intended as manifestations of extraterrestrial entities, but the most fascinating part of his study is not so much about that. It is the part dedicated to how the UFO story was the origin and the test bed of the disinformation techniques which were then extensively used over and over, in particular by the US intelligence. Greer's book deserves a complete discussion which I'll try to tackle in a future post. Here, instead, I'll give space to Dolan's book which is also fascinating, but for completely different reasons.

About "UFOs for the 21st century mind" let me say that if there ever was an example of the concept of "beating around the bush" this is it. The book goes on for almost 500 pages (472 to be exact) of case after case of people claiming the strangest things seen in the sky or on the ground, but never the author feels the need to define what we are talking about. What does Mr. Dolan think UFOs are? To find some kind of an answer, we must go to chapter 10, where we find, buried in the mass of the book, a mere 29 pages of discussion on this fundamental question. And a very unsatisfactory discussion it is: we are told of the Hollywood-style features of the "Grays" and of weird speculations such as the fact that these creatures might be working on a long term breeding program for the creation of human-alien hybrids (p. 379).

The fascination with Dolan's book lies all there: in this startling contrast between a large number of claims that there is "something" up there and the extreme poverty of the interpretations of what this "something" could be. It doesn't help that Mr. Dolan thinks that we are victims of a conspiracy which has the government hiding the truth from us; the book has a distinct feeling of being badly outdated. Reading it feels like reading a science fiction story of the 1950s, with its space heroes yielding blaster guns against the alien invaders. Is it possible that in more than half century of discussing UFOs we haven't progressed even just a bit, with the "Grays" of today replacing the "little green men" of the 1950s? But that seems to be where we stand.

Not that it is a fault of Dolan, nor of other UFO researchers. The problem may simply be impossible to deal with, even worse than that of the P vs. NP in mathematics. Let me explain: it is perfectly possible that there exist other civilizations, somewhere, and that these civilizations could be technologically much more advanced than ours. I also have no objections to the concept that these civilizations could be neighboring us in ways that we cannot understand at present and being in contact with us occasionally, or even frequently.

Once this is stated, however, how do we proceed? So far, the most complex thing we know is the human brain and human brains have at least a fighting chance to study other, similar, brains. But what about something more complex (and perhaps much more complex)? We have at least one example of a high-tech civilization coming in contact with a low tech one. It was in the years during and after World War II, when the Melanesian islanders observed the arrival of the US army (and earlier on, of the Japanese army). The islanders were not stupid, but they totally misunderstood the meaning of what they were seeing. The result was the phenomenon that we know today as "Cargo Cult".

Then, consider what could happen if the difference in complexity and technological level were much higher. Imagine yourself as a honeybee: would you be able to understand that your hive was built by human beings for their purposes? Would you be able to even perceive the existence of human beings? You see what the problem is. So far, the study of entities more intelligent and more powerful than us has been reserved to the field we call "theology" which starts from assumption not exactly compatible with the scientific method as we know it nowadays.

This is the big problem with UFOs, probably an unsolvable one. Listing thousands (or even tens of thousands) of cases of "mysterious things flying above" (or landing from said above) is not useful. We are just accumulating a sort of "bestiary" of aliens, a compendium of the kind popular during the Middle Ages. But we are not progressing in the biology or the ecology of aliens. We don't even know if what we are seeing is real, although deformed by our limited capabilities of perception and understanding, or is an illusion, vanitas vanitatum, like the dragons and the sea serpents of medieval bestiaries.

In the end, it seems that the UFO phenomenon was the result of the culture of the times when it was born. A result of the optimism of the post-war years and of the diffusion of the concept of space as the new (or final) frontier. Once that concept started to vanish from our cultural horizon, the same destiny befell on the UFO phenomenon.  

Is it over, then? Are we really alone and we have just been dreaming of more powerful entities visiting us (and, perhaps, benevolent and merciful entities?). The absence of evidence is no evidence of absence, especially if we don't know what exactly should the "evidence" be. So, there may well be, out there, higher patterns that we can't understand but that we may dimly perceive. It has been said that now we see darkly, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. And, who knows? The only unsurprising thing about the future is that it is always full of surprises.


  1. The lack of scientific interest for UFO is not a signal of a fading issue (see , rather the failure of scientist to enter in an arena that may destroy a career.

    Dolan produces a stunning amount of documented facts, about the UFO phenomenon. He takes no position regarding the nature of the phenomenon itself but makes a clear hypothesis about human reaction to it. The creation of a "Breack away Civilization" based on absolute secrecy, on black projects and funds not controlled by anyone. Not only is it not disappeared with the end of the Cold War, but today it is more powerful than ever, and push toward the establishment of an anti-democratic project.

    Returning to the author's approach to the phenomenon, I think that the depiction "is like reading a science fiction book" is not fair. The issue is not the book but the nature of the phenomenon itself.
    In his book The Cover-Up Exposed, 1973-1991 (UFOs and the National Security State) Dolan wrote:
    “the alien technology is so advanced and the beings are so strange that no one would believe it. Keeping the public and media away from what’s really happening isn’t difficult. It’s a story that no one wants to tell, that no one knows how to tell. The truth is stranger than fiction."

    Richard Dolan is meticulous in gathering all the facts and his statement can be easily controlled. Can not say the same of the book of Greer, which expresses a strong opinion without supporting it with original research.
    The two books come to diametrically opposite conclusions. According to Greer, there is nothing we can learn from UFOs, Dolan suggests that UFO are not only a scientific issue but urgent political matter.

    "In a world that is moving fast toward a nightmarish dystopia relieved only by the distractions of a mass entertainment industry, investigating such matters may not seem to be an attractive option for many. Yet in all societies at all times, there are those who care, those who hunger for that quaint anachronism called Truth"

    1. Corvo, you have a great point about academia being more uncomfortable with UFOs with every passing year (even as they become embedded in the pop culture). But I find your statement about "what can be learned" frustratingly vague. Greer was smart to point out that UFO research has not been at all useful to understanding science or politics so far, but is in fact a primarily subcultural and spiritual phenomenon. What are the specific things that Dolan thinks we can learn?

    2. In Dolan's opinion we can learn about the technology that UFO are using. In fact several witnesses declared that we did already:
      There are two types of UFOs – the ones we build, and the ones THEY build. We learned from both crash retrievals and actual “Hand-me-downs.”
      Ben Rich, former Head of the Lockheed Skunk Works

      and this:

      “We already have the means to travel among the stars, but these technologies are locked up in black projects and it would take an act of God to ever get them out to benefit humanity.” ---
      Ben Rich, former Head of the Lockheed Skunk Works

      such declarations are the original reason I decided to contact Ugo Bardi.
      As long term interested of System Theory applied to social system I believe that if we would have zero point energy and/or access to ultra light speed we could avoid the collapse.

      UFO research has not been at all useful to understanding science or politics so far
      I disagree on the subject of science. The fact that we have such a public perception can be traced on the Condon Report, that, interesting enough, was published exactly in the same period when the graph of this article collapse: 1969.
      This study was less-that-scientific,was a political move.
      But your point about the politics in 100% on the spot. In fact this is my main interest in the subject.
      I call it Ontopolitic
      To start with we need to enhance the original Max Weber definition:
      Ontopolitic is the study of the acquisition and maintenance of power in a Multi-dimensional ambience

      With such a definition we can start to consider how a "ontopolitic's control system" works. Interesting enough we find that happens through the creation of social structures that create social consensus. This is the result of the phenomenon. the establishment of new or the old myths of consolidation with the goal of aggregating human beings around practices that favor the interests of the intelligence behind the phenomenon. In this sense, the mythological explanation of Greer can be expanded: they are both parties that interact with the collective unconscious. Only the human part is passive, unlike the other.

    3. Perhaps the most urgent thing we can learn from the study of UFOs is the scope of the secrecy and deception imposed on us by our so-called "representative governments".

  2. The "absence of evidence" may not be "evidence of absence", but it certainly guides the way to wager.

    1. However, in this case, there is enough evidence to convince any one with the intellectual integrity to examine it that there is a real phenomenon that defies conventional explanation.

  3. Scientific advances, and indeed paradigm shifts, are ALWAYS preceded by raw observation of phenomenon that are thoroughly anomalous or unexplainable for their time,

    Such were the observations that led to the theories of Heliocentrism, Evolution, Relativity etc…

    The same is true for technology, electricity was a mere parlor amusement before its ramifications were better understood. Certain properties of electricity were observed and studied by the ancient Greeks, thousands of years before anyone had the scientific context or instrumentality to comprehend its deeper nature.

    Dolan's book documents the raw observations of the phenomenon by eyewitnesses, photos, films, radar data and physical trace evidence. From these observations we learn many things about the physical nature of the phenomenon, e.g. their flight capabilities, their ability to reflect radar,, and to absorb or deflect it, their apparent interest in abductions of livestock and humans, etc.

    This is no different from Astronomers who document astronomical phenomena that are completely at odds with our present understanding of Cosmology. Does the author of this review chastise them for not including wild speculation when reporting these phenomena in scientific journals?

    Dolan's book is an exposition of the state of knowledge about the phenomenon, akin to the observational writings of Charles Darwin before his "Origin of Species". Not only is it unnecessary for Dolan to speculate on an 'explanation" of the phenomenon, it would have been presumptuous and unscientific to do so.

    Speculation and hypothesis differ in that hypotheses are testable. In this unique situation where the subject of the hypothesis is capable of avoiding, confusing or preventing experimentation, Dolan is prudent to avoid speculation in this volume.

    For the reviewer to criticize Dolan for not speculating on the origins of the phenomenon is either disingenuous or astonishingly thick headed for a man in his position.

    I recommend he read some of my brother Peter Galison's books on the history and theory of experimentation.

  4. Ugo
    Cargo Cult

    I am reading anthropologist Mary Douglas 'Natural Symbols' (Edition 1996; new 1995 Introduction) who discusses studies of recurrent (at least up to 1970s) Melanesian cargo cults against the wider theoretical anthropological background, (p.bk. page 138-140). Douglas discusses such manifestation in the light of Melanesian social structure and compares these cults with other millennial cults, including Western contemporary manifestations. She ventures that similar events will have occurred before European contact, and will have arisen out of the nature of the culture where a high individual premium is put on "success" or on "being successful". The inherent moral tension (social weakness) over winners and losers cannot be resolved, unless some 'new men' can usher in by a new rite a new 'Golden Age' or in the modern instance a 'new cargo cult'. Quote: "Cargo, then, is not wanted for its own sake, but for the new relationships it will permit, when Papuan can exchange with European on fair and equal terms."

    I do not know whether there have been further studies, but I would value your opinion because of the subtlety and relevance of Douglas’ discussion.

    Personally, I think increasingly that, like language, there are none, or few 'primitive' cultures and that cultures do not need complex division of labour based on technology to spring 'emergent' complex properties.




Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)