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.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)