Who Knows

Håkan Blomqvist at his UFO Archives blog asks a provocative question:  “How to introduce esotericism as a profound philosophy and tenable worldview to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?” Blomqvist poses his question from within an esotericism for which Contactees such as George Adamski play a central role, so the question is easily extended to the matter of UFOs and ufology in general:  “How to introduce UFOs as a legitimate object of research to the intellectual, cultural and scientific elite?”

On the one hand, esotericism and ufology are topics for serious, scholarly research, only as cultural or social phenomena. Moreover, from the point of view of religious studies scholars, the various beliefs about UFOs and their pilots and the communities that form around these beliefs are, methodologically, treated as tenable worldviews. That is, as I’ve argued elsewhere, scholars can take UFOs seriously as long as they bracket the question of their reality. On the other hand, there are those both within and without the natural scientific institutions who are driven or press to have the question of “UFO reality” taken seriously, either as a topic of research in its own right or as a political / social concern, as in the case of those working toward “Disclosure”.

Since the earliest days of the modern era of ufology inaugurated by Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting there have been investigators who probed the phenomenon with more than a journalist’s tools:  one thinks of Aimé Michel, Jacques Vallée, J. Allen Hynek, James McDonald, Stanton Friedman, Harley D. Rutledge, and Peter Sturrock, among others, and even professionally journalistic ufologists, most famously John Keel, have contributed. James McDonald is an important case in point:  his public interest in UFOs sullied his reputation as a senior physicist at the Institute for Atmospheric Physics and professor in the Department of Meteorology, University of Arizona, Tucson. Because of the stigma attached to the topic of UFOs, many natural scientists interested in the subject pursue their research sub rosa, constituting what J. Allen Hynek famously called “The Invisible College”.

Not all curious scientists are as tactful as their peers in the Invisible College, however. Some dare submit their theories and hypotheses to the scrutiny of their peers, as members of, e.g., the Society for Scientific Exploration do. There is, at the same time (usually related to the perceived amount of public interest in UFOs), a media phenomenon that shadows these more socially marginal efforts, purporting to present “findings” and “proof” while in fact being at best infotainment. The most recent iteration is To the Stars Academy’s limited series Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, which promises, among other things, to

produce tangible evidence to build the most indisputable case for the existence and threat of UFOs ever assembled [and] reveal newly authenticated evidence and footage, interviews from eyewitnesses and former military personnel who have never spoken out before and extensive breakthroughs in understanding the technology behind these unknown phenomena in our skies.

Keith Basterfield at the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena blog sums up well the likely response of more conventional or institutionally-trained researchers: “While I, in general, support the work being undertaken by the TTSA [To The Stars Academy], the apparent direction for us to learn of the analysis results is hardly a scientific one—simply entertainment.” At the end of the day, the only scientific difference between History’s new series and the numberless YouTube videos of scientifiques bruts sharing their anti-gravity discoveries is production values.

But underlying these differing approaches to the question of UFO reality is a profound, social fault line revealed most recently by the advent of the internet but arguably reaching back at least to the Reformation.

A froth on the wave of political populism surging across the planet in recent years is a kind of epistemological populism afloat on the ocean of ready information, fake, partial, and otherwise available on-line. This “populist epistemology” expresses itself, most recently, in the voices of Flat Earthers and anti-vaxxers, who find arguments and data in support of their “theories” primarily online. Like believers in alternative cancer cures Big Pharma keeps from the general public to generate profits, these graduates of Google U often cast a paranoid glance at the institutions of power, political, legal, and scientific. Thus, ranked on one side are those “intellectual, cultural and scientific” elites Blomqvist remarks and on the other mostly ordinary folk empowered and emboldened by their sudden access to sources of information they uncritically marshal and seem hardly able to logically deploy.

Ufologically, this conflict between elites (government, military, and scientific institutions) and ordinary citizens is a cliché, a most famous instance of which is the Swamp Gas fiasco when J. Allen Hynek in the employ of the United States Air Force was forced to debunk a remarkable series of sightings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, much to the understandable surprise, disappointment, and disgust of the many witnesses. The haughtiness of such elites goes back to those French scientists who dismissed peasants’ stories of stones falling from the skies (meteorites) up to Stephen Hawking’s statement (@5:00 in his Ted talk on YouTube) that he discounted “reports of UFOs” because the phenomena appeared “only to cranks and weirdos?” Hawking is, of course, mistaken about the social status of UFO witnesses, which famously includes everyone from US Presidents to shipyard workers with the unfortunate surname Hickson.

Thus, throughout the history of UFOs, and forteana in general, one can discern a kind of class struggle between the more-or-less uneducated general populace, whose members see ghosts or are abducted by aliens or faery folk, etc., and those authoritative institutions peopled by educated elites, governmental, scientific, or ecclesiastical, which dismiss the claims and stories of the uninformed and credulous. This conflict, though traceable at least back to the Roman elites’ dismissal of the new, barbaric cult their bored wives indulged, is imaginably not unrelated to more historically-recent developments, namely the Reformation, where the interpretation of the Bible was wrested from the monopoly of a learned priesthood and radically democratized.

Conflict over the reality of the UFO in general, then, is a site of more general social struggle whose deeper historical context is, first, the Reformation, which gave each believer warrant to interpret scripture individually, then the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, that replaced the authority of the church(es) with that of Reason and its new, elite representatives. Today’s vulgate, driven, perhaps, by a well-founded frustration with the impotence of its universal franchise (given a vote but no choice) and the illusion of its freedom (merely to consume), extends its otherwise unrealized democratic claim to the purely ideal realms of truth and knowledge, where the vehemence of its voice and convictions is enough to disperse what verbal tear gas or deflect what truncheons of argument might be deployed by the tribunal of reason to police it.