Note: Lest I receive volleys of slings and arrows, let me be clear. I am not, in any way, trolling or attempting to subvert the projects of To the Stars, Luis Elizondo, Tom DeLonge, nor any other individual connected to this club. I remain romantically and open mindedly skeptical, critical and pragmatic. My six-ish years of active investigation, privately, or with local groups or with MUFON, into the anomalous has taught me a thing or two; chiefly being that no one has a damn clue as to what is going on or what they are doing. Moreover, it has taught me to be leery of those who make bold claims of truth and knowledge in a discourse that hinges upon the unknowable. With all that being said, I remain, as I think we all must, in the “I don’t know.”
For reasons both in and out of my control, I have been revisiting the works of John Keel and Gray Barker. I consider their body of work essential reading for any UFO or paranormal researcher and enthusiast, and not because they are “right” or “trustworthy.” Within ‘UFOlogy’ and paranormal research, there is no “right” or “trustworthy.” The phenomena itself never fits into these ideologies. Rather, they are worth reading because of their active and open agenda to enshrine one honest and fundamental principle; all paranormal research, be it into ghosts, UFOs, cryptids and other weirdness, is essentially an ever evolving mix of fiction and fact. That is not to say that these bizarre and strange events do not objectively happen, but that the interpretation of those events are not objective, but hang upon mythology, archetypes, symbolism and the current historical and cultural paradigms we dwell in.
The Contactee movements of the 1950s and 1960s saw Venusians and men from Lanulos named Cold, and flying saucers with landing struts. The 1980s into the present bore the imagery of navigationally inept grey EBEs who dined on strawberry ice-cream, evil reptilian abductors, and technologically clunky interstellar travelers armed with 20th century syringes for breeding hybrids (though the alien hybrid narrative was mentioned in Keel’s “The Mothman Prophecies” in the mid 1970’s). Today, we engage in much of the same interpretive operation. We track Tic-Tacs with gun cameras and radar, much like we used to stare at photographs of landing marks and crop circles. Countless hours used to be spent pouring over pictures of flying discs with magnifying glasses looking for filament wires or testing the veracity of poorly shot 90’s video footage, God help us, before the age of High Definition. Today, not much has changed. We continue to watch and re-watch “Gimbals” and “Go-Fasts” and “F4s”. We still lament the fact that much data is missing, and if the government truly was democratic, they would finally disclose the “reality” behind the phenomenon. We can trust the government and its former employees, and we can’t trust the government because it is lying to us. Everyone and no one is a disinformation operative. Rick Doty is an outcast who thinks the UFO community is going to the “shit house” yet, most recently, spoke at a UFO conference and has been welcomed back into the fold like the Prodigal Son (to be honest, he is a nice guy).
As the legendary Shirley Bassey and The Propellerheads so eloquently put it,
“The word is about, there's something evolving,
Whatever may come, the world keeps revolving
They say the next big thing is here,
That the revolutions near,
But to me it seems quite clear
That it's all just a little bit of history repeating.”
Every UFO enthusiast and researcher since Arnold landed his plane in 1947 has argued that their era was going to be the most important in all history. That 1948 would be the year that the lid would get blown of this thing. Or was it 1949? Or 1950? 51? 52? I honestly can’t remember because the same claim has been made for every year and every decade. To suggest that these paranormal pioneers were wrong or foolish is hubris. I have little doubt that in twenty years when I am a “UFOlogical dinosaur,” many new young guns will laugh at my belief that 2019 or 2020 or 2021 would chime in the revolution.
Keel points out in The Mothman Prophecies that paranormal enthusiasts have been playing this game before UFOs even became ‘a thing.’ Ancient shamans and prophets who spoke to their gods, medieval men and women of various religions who saw visions and prophesied, and regular everyday Forteans who found themselves communing with Lam or encountering the supernatural or paranormal have all bore the mantle of researchers of the strange, and have always made claims of great change, paradigm shifts, and sought official confirmation of some esoteric force. In all this, the phenomenon has existed. In all this, the phenomenon has evolved and changed with those who chase it. Like it or not, it will continue to do so long after you and I are dead. Barker and Keel never reached “The Truth.” Neither did Corso, Keyhoe or Hynek. Neither will Greenwood, Dean, Jornlin, Graham, Rutkowski, Lukes, Costa, Sprague, Damante, Corbell, Kloetzke, Knapp, Bigelow, Puthoff, Pasulka, Green, Nolan, Clark, Vallee, DeLonge, or Elizondo (and you and me for that matter).
The inherent wisdom that both Barker and Keel understood and attempted to impart upon their readers is that the ontological “Truth,” the destination, is and forever will be unreachable. What matters most of all in this paranormal theatre of the absurd is the journey. The path we tread stretches on well beyond us, and paths are not built all at once, but with the placing of one stone at a time. Those stones we place are the stones of our time. Our collective zeitgeist, our cultural and social ideologies which seem so vital and essential now but will change and evolve as the years progress. Tic-Tacs, Black Vaults, AATIP, and metamaterials will fade into the past as did Catherine Crowe (I bet you had to look her up), Richard Shaver’s stories (if you had to look this one up, you should be embarrassed), and Project Sign (no excuse if you had to look this up, just go back to ‘being normal’). However, those Tic-Tacs, FOIA archives, government programs and alien artifacts stand upon the same path great women and men have walked before us, and future great women and men have yet to trod long after we have become footnotes in the paranormal narrative.
Keel got it right when he wrote,
“Many of the choicest tidbits in UFO lore were not actual events but were put into circulation by contactees who placed their complete trust in their contacters. The entities spun wild tales about crashed saucers being confiscated by the U.S. Air Force, farmers shooting and wounding spacemen, and so forth. Contactees repeated the stories to wild-eyed UFO enthusiasts and so they spread in ever-widening circles until they appeared in articles and books.” (The Mothman Prophecies, 1975).
UFO writers and supposed experts will continue to expound their theories and hypotheses concerning anti-gravity propulsion, raising the planet’s vibration, or the distant stars which allegedly house great civilizations who traverse space, time or dimension to communicate with little old us. Ashtar Command and the Secret Space Program will continue to manifest in different ways and under different names. We will continue to have conspiracies and ‘disinformation’ agents. More government intelligence officers will come forward to talk about their work and what they saw. All the while, the phenomenon itself will, to paraphrase Eliot, hold our coats and snicker.
I return to the expertise of the great Shirley Bassey,
“And I've seen it before
And I'll see it again
Yes I've seen it before
Just little bits of history repeating.”
This all begs a question; what is the point then? Why research at all? Why chase the paranormal or UFOs or the strange? Beyond the simple fact that it is so very fun, do not all human endeavours follow the same pattern? The long well walked roads of mathematics and science have not yet been completed. Future math will build upon contemporary math. Future science will rest its hindquarters on current science. Language, culture, and art are all constantly evolving, ever pressing forward, and never being totally finished. What is the point doing any of it? Because we must. In some strange odd way, it is our compulsion. We are naturally driven to see what is around the next corner or over the distant hill. Interestingly, the phenomenon, whatever it may be, seems to coax us. We are lured to it. Just when we think we are getting close, something changes. Flying saucers become Tic-Tacs. Landing traces become radar tracks. Black and white photographs become HD gun camera footage. Turn and look back every once in a while, and hope that those who come after you will look back also. The path gets longer. More stones will always be needed, so keep placing them down one by one.
- MJ Banias
In his ethical treatise, Nicomachean Ethics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle presents an ethical ideal which is commonly known as ‘the golden mean.’ Using a very Greek love of moderation, Aristotle suggests that humans ought to live in a harmonious middle way, staying away from excesses and extremes. Oddly enough, perhaps the UFO community could learn a thing or two from Aristotelian ethics?
In his work, Aristotle argues that eudaimonia, which loosely translates to ‘well-being’ is the highest aim, or duty, of practical thinking. In other words, how you act in this life should be governed by your desire for wellness.
Well-being, according to Aristotle, can only be achieved by making decisions and acting in ways that maintain a balance. In Book II of Nicomachean Ethics, he states,
“First, then, let us consider this, that it is the nature of such things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health (for to gain light on things imperceptible we must use the evidence of sensible things); both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly, the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.”
The ideal of “the mean” is to maintain a proper balance in the way we behave and act, and also moderate ourselves. As Aristotle points out, too much courage and bravery can make someone rash, reckless, and even a danger to the lives of others. Too little courage and bravery makes one a coward, and again, can endanger others. Aristotle would suggest that a person must find the middle line; courageous enough to fight for truth, beauty and innocence but not too courageous as to endanger those things.
While I admit to simplifying Aristotle, he argues (in a nutshell) that, we make decisions and communicate with each other based upon three constructs; ethos (our ethics and values), pathos (our emotions) and logos (reason and logic). Aristotle argues that these three constructs must exist in a tempered middle ground. In the case of UFOs and the UFO community, I want to specifically speak to the ideal of logos, the logic and rationality that form our decisions.
On a regular basis, I have, by many within the UFO community, been labelled a skeptic. Within Ufological, and indeed, paranormal discourse, “skeptic” is a dirty word. It holds discursive gravitas in the community; to be a skeptic is to be a heretic. Perhaps the purpose of my article here is to clear the air concerning my position on the phenomenon, but more importantly, to appeal to the logos of the UFO community; we all must walk a middle path.
I’ve written before that the belief system that surrounds anomalous phenomena is a sort of spectrum. It ranges between ardent and extremist believers who follow without question to closed-minded debunkers who refuse to accept the possibility that things exist outside of human understanding. Both of these extremes are, according to Aristotle, unethical and pull us away from eudaimonia. Our intellect is as important as our physical selves, and we have a duty to care for it, to make it “well.”
The Theravada Buddhist tradition even speaks to this notion of the “middle path” for its religious practitioners. In one’s practical life, but also in one’s spiritual and intellectual life, one must avoid excess and extremes as that can destroy the self. The Pāli Canon, one of the most extensive collection of Buddhist texts, states that,
“Avoiding both these extremes...it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment…”
Within any discourse, Ufology, paranormal study, and Anomalistics included, we must strive to maintain a balance between what we want to be true and what is true. Moreover, we must temper those desires. The phenomenon, whatever it may be, can be addictive. It can lead a person down a road of extreme obsession. The UFO community often falls victim to this metaphysical, social and cultural opioid.
It is unreasonable to take the position of, “I think what I think, and nothing can change my mind.” And, as Aristotle would argue, it is unethical. Significant time is spent arguing the finer points of various UFO themed organizations, investigative bodies, Pentagon funded programs, and characters from Ufology’s past and present. Ideological lines are drawn in the sand, and as the bile and venom gets spewed out by believers and debunkers alike, no progress is made. I, personally, am guilty of such actions. Undoubtedly, we all have fought our little crusades knowing full well that nothing would change. No one in this field is innocent of this, and if someone says they are, they are deluded.
I think we must engage in a polite way, and recognize that we have our own biases. When we make a decision to believe in this UFO event or that whistleblower, we may be making a case from pathos (our emotional needs and feelings) instead of logos. It is one thing to say, “I believe” or “I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt,” but those things are not tantamount to truth.
I am a firm believer in maintaining an open mind to multiple possibilities, as that is the definition of true skepticism. A true skeptic does not disregard but regards multiple logical and reasonable possibilities; possibilities that both do and do not concur with believers and debunkers. A true skeptic walks the middle path and operates in the ‘golden mean.’
The researchers worth their salt in the Ufological field are true skeptics. They engage in discourse with an open mind and work hard to be polite (and they will fail at times in this, as everyone does on occasion). They have the wherewithal to admit their mistakes. Moreover, they will not be convinced simply by fancy stories, flashing lights, and rhetoric. They need evidence for every truth claim; it can’t be circumstantial, and it can’t ‘sound true’ but must ‘be true.’ In a world where truth can be mediated and controlled by clicks of a mouse in Photoshop or Final Cut, and where people’s opinions on any given subject can equate to clicks on a website, YouTube channel, and money in a bank account, witness testimony, photographs and video footage must never be enough to hang the truth on.
Aristotle suggests that it is not enough to make conclusions, as those conclusions, at times, can change. Moreover, we must not be governed by the wish for something to be true, because wishing for something to be true “seems to be a good, though it is not.” Through transitive property, we can lump belief into this as well.
Working in the golden mean allows me to believe someone, but also be critical enough to know that my belief does not equate to fact. In other words, my belief can be incorrect, and I have the insight to know that. Moreover, expecting that others should believe, and stating that they are “blind to the truth” because they do not, does not make someone enlightened, it makes them a zealot. If you are going to express that something is a fact, and the evidence leaves room for a shadow of doubt, you have not done your job. A collection of circumstances, testimony and even a video or two is, in a word, compelling. “Compelling” can lead to belief, opinion and speculation, but not to the truth.
Perhaps we must work towards owning and calling out the differences between our beliefs and opinions, and what we know. We must work towards the mean and appreciate that we must be critical of others but also of ourselves. We must not be governed by what we want, but by what is. Let us return to true skepticism, to the middle path, because if we don’t, we are nothing but fools.
- MJ Banias
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Derrida
A friend sent me a link to a recent French study which links Creationist beliefs to those who believe in conspiracy theories. The research study basically asserts that faith in a higher power which created a universe for humanity is no different than those who believe in the Moon landing being faked or that the government is covering up the existence of aliens and UFOs. It is an interesting study, and while I mostly agree with it, we ought to be cautious buying into it wholeheartedly.
As I read this study, I was reminded of a quote from one of my favourite books, “Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency” by the late Douglas Adams.
“Don't you understand that we need to be childish in order to understand? Only a child sees things with perfect clarity because it hasn't developed all those filters which prevent us from seeing things that we don't expect to see.”
I want to focus on this idea of “filters.” I also want to touch on the myth of objectivity in science and link it all back to UFOs and the UFO community which, discursively, often engages in conspiracy theories.
The study hinges upon a common philosophical concept called Teleology. In simple terms, teleology is the idea that all things function towards some goal or end result. While big in Ancient Greece, teleology today is in contention with modern scientific ideology. For example, as the article presents, “the sun rises in order to give us light.” This statement contains a teleological bias or error. The sun does not rise to give light, rather, it “rises” due to the Earth’s rotation, axis, and that it is a star whereupon we are gravitationally stuck. In simple terms, it has nothing to do with “us” nor “giving.”
Aristotle argued that the purpose of an acorn was to grow into an oak tree. We can argue that this is not really true. The acorn simply is, and its state changes due to DNA and biology. The acorn, objectively, has no purpose or goals. The acorn has no destiny. It is simply existing as an acorn. As the study points out, the belief that a divine creator formed the planet out of mud and placed it on the back of a turtle is a teleological bias. Similarly, believing that the American government or some Deep State cabal faked the September 11th attack, murdered JFK, or is hiding dead aliens in a bunker also hinges upon the same bias. They view all things moving towards a specific end result, or a plan devised to lead to a certain result, when that may not really be the case.
The study itself was simple. The researchers,
“…conducted a survey of 157 Swiss college students designed to ascertain conspiratorial thinking, teleological thinking, as well as their abilities to analytically reason. They also analyzed a survey of 1,252 members of the general French population to look for a link between creationist beliefs and conspiratorial thinking. Lastly, the researchers recruited 733 more subjects to complete an online questionnaire to test whether creationism, conspiracism, and teleological thinking are correlated.”
What they concluded was that the teleological bias that “everything happens for a reason” is common amongst creationists and conspiracists. As the study’s author stated,
"By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events…We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called 'post-truth era’…Because teleological and animist thinking are part of children’s earliest intuitions about the world and are resilient in adulthood, they thus could be causally involved in the acquisition of creationist and conspiracist beliefs. However, our results do not rule out the possibility that acceptance of such beliefs could, conversely, favor a teleological bias.”
As I mentioned before, I generally accept the findings of this study. It makes sense. However, I wish to problematize a few key ideas which this study alludes to.
Before I continue, allow me a brief aside. Science, which I love by the way, will contend that it is an objective act or practice which leads to ‘truth’ and knowledge, and to understanding the reality we live in. Science is progress. The obvious and ironic point of contention here is the teleological bias which presents itself in the very function of science; science is end driven, it has a purpose which leads somewhere. The notion that science generates ‘true’ knowledge or leads us towards ‘true’ knowledge, while other things do not, is a teleological claim. It’s cute.
While exploring teleology in science is interesting, the study itself makes the assumption that science is objective, and therefore free of bias. I wish to address two specific sociological experiences which seem to cast doubt on the above idea; the ‘objectivity’ of science dwells purely within two very subjective realms; language and cultural paradigm. I then want to link this back to the UFO community and how it often engages with science.
Language, in really simple terms, is a series of filters. We use our senses, which naturally filter data from the ‘objective reality’ around us and transmits them into a series of sounds and symbols. That symbolism of language, letters and numbers, but more importantly, what words themselves come to mean through our cultural and social backgrounds also filter data and, in turn, meaning. Trying to think of any object, concept or idea without its specific symbolic representation floating around your mind is impossible. Now imagine trying to communicate those things to someone else without the use of symbols; good luck.
To keep this Ufologically relevant, let’s look at owls as an example. Owls, biologically, are birds. They fly. They are predators. They typically hunt at night. With all that information, consider your ideology here. Owl as predator and hunter versus owl as flying bird. They draw two very different interpretations, two different feelings, two different symbolic states of what an owl is, or perhaps more appropriately, can be. Toss some Ufological mythology into the mix, and owls become symbolic of alien abduction and/or contact, messengers between realms, screen memories, or a link between humanity and The Phenomenon. Owls, like anything else, coexist within multiple symbolic meanings, from simple biological bird to complicated mythological archetype.
Science, whether it likes it or not, functions within a linguistic reality. The study’s author uses the expression ‘post-truth era’ in the summary of the paper. That expression is hugely complex, not just politically, but symbolically. Furthermore, what do we mean by truth? Does this assume that there was an era of ‘actual’ truth where nothing was questioned? The current political situation within the United States also gives significant symbolic impact to the term, whereas fifty years ago, it would have meant something totally different. The very use of that phrase only adds credence to my claim; no discourse or practice is objective.
Another example often thrown around is the expression “anti-science.” Again, what symbols and myths are generated with this expression? Flat-Earthers and climate change deniers could be considered ‘anti-science,’ but what about someone merely being skeptical of scientific dogma and the current paradigm which suggests science is ‘the way, the truth, and the light.’ Is being critical of scientific ideology tantamount to being opposed to it? Last time I checked, criticism does not equate to open rebellion.
What we see here is that the scientific community, particularly established bodies of power within that community, have used the symbolic and mythological power of language to generate meaning in order to retain power. “Post-truth era” and “anti-science” are political and social terms designed to target those who are critical of established scientific ideology. The people and groups who fit into those two categories are considered irrational, yet “rationality” by its very nature depends upon consensus by the majority, and is not always objective. Many things we do on a daily basis are irrational, yet we have all agreed to do those things, therefore they have become rational. No one looks at you funny when you buy bottled water or decide that you need to own an automatic assault rifle, yet both acts, it could be argued, are irrational due to various reasons.
"Anti-science" creationists, conspiracy nuts, and scientists all work within the same framework. Language governs all of them. It creates filters which alters meaning away from objectivity but into the realm of mythology. The problem is that the more words you create and the more ideas you generate, the more filters get put up. As philosopher Jacques Derrida reminds us, language “differs” (I know what something is based upon everything it isn’t) and “defers” (The more words and symbols I add when I communicate, the more those words and symbols adjust meaning). The more information and data you have and provide, the more your ideological framework jumps around. Seeking ‘the truth’ is like walking down a path where every single movement of your body generates an infinite amount of more paths. Where scientists, creationists and conspiracists differ is that they all simply choose different paths. Where they are identical is that they all believe that their path is the correct one.
This leads me to cultural paradigms, and I am reminded of author and scientist Rupert Sheldrake. I am not a scientist, so I cannot comment on the validity of his scientific claims. His peers consider him a parapsychologist and he is often charged with dabbling in pseudo-science. While he very may well be a terrible scientist (I honestly do not know), the criticism hurled at him points to a clear dogmatism, and therefore symbolic mythology, present in the scientific community. An editor of the science journal Nature once charged him with “heresy” because his work openly criticized the scientific community.
As Sheldrake points out in his book, The Science Delusion, science and scientists are not the problem. Rather, it is the economics of science and the bodies which govern it. Disrupting the status quo within the scientific establishment leads scientists on a path towards professional death. Exploring concepts and ideas, even if the evidence points in that direction, that deviates from the standard and accepted ideologies will not be funded or, at times, even allowed to continue.
Sheldrake points out in the book that unconventional ideas are typically pushed aside because journals are only willing to fund research that gets a “high citation index” which really only benefits established scientific fields. What this all leads to, according to Sheldrake, is an “innovation deficit.” Scientists are not allowed to follow their data or evidence if it contains deviation or abnormalities, nor if they wish to study something off the beaten path. To the mainstream, any anomalous data is flawed, or the scientist has clearly lost their mind. What this leads to a slowdown in scientific development and innovation.
I am not suggesting here that science is wrong or bad. Such a statement is silly. Nor am I saying that Flat Earthers are ‘as correct’ as, well, everyone else. The Earth is not flat. Climate change is happening. I can go on. I love science.
What I am trying to get at here is that the idea and act of science, and more importantly, the power structure of science, is entrenched within the same cultural frameworks as everything else. It has its own series of filters, ideologies, social and cultural pressures, paradigms, financial concerns, and desire to remain as the arbiter of human knowledge and understanding. Science and those who do it hold all the power. Those who disagree and challenge that power are considered irrational, stupid or ‘woo woo’ (which are all mythological and symbolic ideologies, and not based in any objective evidentiary truths). This includes those of us out here in the fringes, as well as those scientists who are also pushed to the edges due to their interests.
Within UFO discourse, we see science holding this curious dual position. On one hand, Ufologists often want science and scientists to be more involved in the process. MUFON allegedly investigates UFOs using scientific means, and one often sees great excitement when academic scientists get involved in the UFO debate, especially if they support ‘the cause.’ On the flip side, UFO discourse is quick to point out that science is elitist, embargoed by secret cabals, and, at times, the tool of skeptics and debunkers. Nowhere are the symbolic and mythological paradigms of the illusion of scientific authority more debated than within UFO circles.
We are at a curious place. The UFO community has plenty of scientists working in it, some of them engaged in Tom DeLonge’s To The Stars Academy, while others seem to be working alongside other investors or on their own. Have they found a little niche for themselves, pursuing the un-pursuable? Have they broken out of the established paradigm, appreciative of the fact that science is not so clear cut as their high school teachers may have taught them? Or, perhaps as that one editor of Nature put it, are they heretics?
Bearing the study in mind, the UFO community regularly engages in conspiratorial thinking. On the various online UFO forums and social media outlets, To The Stars Academy has often been labeled as a government program, or involved in purposeful perception management to disinform the public. Robert Bigelow’s NIDS and BAASS programs were also the target of such talk as well. While not directly, the study points to the fact that the UFO community does often suffer from teleological bias. Yet, at the same time, the very debate which circles around UFOs bluntly asserts my earlier points that while science may hold a lot of cards, it doesn’t hold all of them. While it claims higher truths and objectivity, it unfortunately dwells in the same muck as the rest of us. We ALL are governed by our symbols and ideologies.
To The Stars and Bigelow’s former programs, while connected to the government in certain ways, are not necessarily conspiratorial disinformation or intelligence programs. There is no actual evidence which proves some grand conspiracy, but only little circumstantial foot prints which one can follow in any direction. What actually occurs is the conspiracist “feels” something is going on, when really, it could be nothing more than simple coincidence.
The UFO community is a mixed bag. It is a curious collection of science and conspiracy, attempts at truth surrounded by myth. What becomes ever more difficult is deconstructing that jumble of symbolism and meaning into simpler parts. To be honest, it is impossible. The more we attempt to deconstruct, the more constructs we tend to form. UFOs, real and not, force us to question not only our own teleology, but also the teleology of science and other established power systems. Whether this is by citing conspiracies or scientifically driven ‘objective truths,’ we tend to end up in the same place. As Dirk Gently points out, we end up with filters on top of filters. This begs a big question; do all of our Ufological disputes, rivalries, and back biting simply all lead us down the path towards symbolic illusions? If so, the zealot believers and conspiracy theorists, and the skeptics and debunkers all seem to be pulling meaning from a place of teleology.
An Open Letter to the Producers of UFO TV Shows and Documentaries
To all television show producers and documentary filmmakers who create and produce content concerning UFOs; I am officially putting you on notice. Like it or not, you are the cultural gatekeepers to the discourse that surrounds the UFO phenomenon. The consistent ideological push for extraterrestrials and aliens from other planets as being the source of the UFO phenomenon is old, tired, and, much like a Hopkinsville goblin, needs a good shotgun blast to head. To all you folks at the History Channel or OLN, or any production company for that matter; it might be time to explore other avenues, as your work does not adequately or properly portray UFO discourse, nor the phenomenon itself.
In previous posts, I have explored the construct of the extraterrestrial hypothesis when it comes to the UFO question, and attempted to posit a few philosophical points which problematize it. I wish to explore the construct of the ET hypothesis further, and the inherent issues which are generated by its constant use in media, primarily, UFO documentaries and reality television shows.
To begin, we must appreciate that the vast majority of people who exist outside of the UFO subculture have not done appropriate research or investigations of UFO sightings or events. Those within the mainstream cultural milieu only experience the UFO phenomenon via television or film, and apart from being occasional tourists within UFO community circles, consume the messages within those programs wholeheartedly without further reading. In other words, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”
The women and men who produce and create these programs, such as Ancient Aliens, UFOs: The Lost Evidence, Hangar 1, and UFO Hunters, just to name a few are, in effect, the gatekeepers of the phenomenon to the broader popular culture. Their messages permeate the mainstream cultural fabric and generate the ideological illusion that the people who study, research, and investigate the UFO phenomenon all believe that aliens are visiting Earth in their technologically superior space ships. Any producer or editor worth their salt should know this is an oversimplification of the phenomenon and the discourse.
The German philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his essay, The Stars Down to Earth, explores the influence of belief in the paranormal upon modern society. While his focus is on astrology, New Age beliefs, and occultism, it is easy to bootstrap the extraterrestrial hypothesis and the belief in aliens to his philosophical framework. He suggests that modern day belief in the supernatural, and by extension, extraterrestrials, is a “secondary superstition” (49). He writes,
“They [the public] participate largely through the mediation of magazines and newspapers...and frequently accept such information as reliable sources of advice rather than pretend to have any personal basis for their belief. The type of people we are concerned with take astrology [or UFOs and extraterrestrials for that matter] for granted, much like psychiatry, symphony concerts or political parties; they accept it because it exists, without much reflection, provided only that their own psychological demands somehow correspond to the offer. (49)”
In other words, the vast majority of people interpret the UFO phenomenon in a ‘secondary’ way, not directly, such as seeing a UFO or having a close encounter, but via documentaries, television shows, YouTube channels, etc. that portray those events.
“...the individual’s own primary experience with the occult, whatever its psychological meaning and roots or its validity, rarely, if ever, enter the social phenomenon to which our studies are devoted. Here the occult appears rather institutionalized, objectified and, to a large extent, socialized....people responding to the stimuli we are here investigating seem in a way ‘alien’ to the experience on which they claim their decisions are based. (49)”
Adorno points out that the effect of mediating the paranormal via popular media sanitizes the phenomenon. It becomes part of the social and cultural system of ideologies, and simplified in order to be consumed by popular audiences.
The problem lies in this process of negotiation into mainstream ideologies. While many would argue that it is good to bring the message to the people, that is a flawed argument. The UFO phenomenon as presented via popular media, particularly on television, is inauthentic. It is an altered message, removed from its genuine state, washed and stripped of its originality, and sanitized for palatability. The result is that mainstream culture interprets the UFO phenomenon, and the subculture which studies and engages that phenomenon, as being ‘alien.’ It becomes a sideshow of freaks, rather than a portrayal of human beings who have experienced something anomalous and strange.
Furthermore, and perhaps more problematic, is that this oversimplified message only pushes UFO discourse further into the fringes of culture, reinforcing the already established taboo. Rather than portraying the UFO subculture as a community of people with varying beliefs, hypotheses, and rationales that continuously debate with one another, the media presents a single interpretation; an interpretation that forces the mainstream public to assume all who are interested in the topic believe in alien beings from other planets. Much like any group of people with disenfranchised belief systems, the mainstream ‘alienates’ the members of the UFO subculture. It paints them with the brush of the “Other.”
It is easier to taboo and alienate an idea when it appears unified. Take, for example, the all too common, and discriminatory, portrayal of Islam in the media. The current ideological bend is to portray the entirety of the Islamic religion as being linked to fundamentalism and terrorism. This ‘othering’ of Islam creates an attitude, a feeling, an ideology, within mainstream society that all Muslims are somehow linked to extremism. This is obviously an absurd and abhorrent construct purposefully designed to dehumanize a certain group for political and economic gain (primarily to justify continued military and corporate footholds in the Middle East).
This tactic is ultimately used on many groups, and while the severity of Islamophobia, and other religious and racial based discrimination is much greater than the alienation of the UFO subculture, the end result is the same.
It leaves the UFO subculture having to defend itself against a powerful ideological mechanism. The power of TV networks and production companies greatly outmatches the individuals within the community who interpret the phenomenon from varying places. In other words, the voices of actual members of the UFO community, and the people who have had authentic experiences with the phenomenon itself, are unable to have their voices heard when it counters the ideological framework portrayed by producers, editors, directors, and the corporate production companies that fund them.
While I do not have an answer on how to fix this, I would begin by asking those production companies to adjust the message and look carefully at the stories they tell. However, this is like asking the fox to watch the chicken coop. Rather, the UFO community should push its own members who appear on these programs to tell authentic and varying stories. This is no easy task. As with any field of study, one has to deal with ego and the desire for one to ‘make a name for themselves.’ However, it must be made perfectly clear that there are no ‘experts’ in the UFO field, and those who sit on their Ufological pedestals are only there because the community has placed them there. As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes reminds his readers, the collective is the true “Leviathan” ready and able at a moment's notice to depose anyone who opposes them.
Philosophy aside, one must ask themselves what truths they create by the stories they tell. When producing a television show or documentary about the UFO phenomenon, or anything for that matter, are these men and women duty bound to tell the whole story, no matter how nuanced or complex, or just a piece of it? Is omission a lie in this case?
This is not easy, I understand that. However, I challenge those behind these programs to explore the many variations of the phenomenon, and that the subculture that generates the UFO discourse does not wholeheartedly buy into one single theory. I challenge the production companies to tell these other stories, and to push for honesty rather than the lining of corporate pockets. Finally, I’d ask that the directors, writers, and creators of these programs do their research, and actually have a legitimate desire to understand the content of the discourse, and the people who engage with it. UFO discourse is complex, awkward, absurd, rich, and beautiful.
On a personal note, these shows are what got me interested in UFOs as a teenager, and I know they are necessary. If you are spending significant time and treasure in the production of a program to explore the subject, you must do so with love and honesty, otherwise, stay the hell away from it.
Continue the conversation below. What do you think of current UFO TV and Documentaries? What would you rather see? Are we running over the same old ground, or are these shows essential to the survival of 'Ufology?'
Why Skeptics Keep UFO Discourse Alive
In 1994, Larry King hosted his famous “Live from Area 51” broadcast. It featured many big names from the UFO community, and attempted to provide a debate which would settle the UFO question. Fact versus fiction. Real versus False. Right versus Wrong. Let’s just say the ‘jury is still out.’
However, the 90 minute episode did raise an interesting (exo)philosophical point which does need to be revisited. Larry King suggests at one point that much of the UFO debate hinges upon our capacity to ‘believe’ the witness. Set against the backdrop of the Nevada desert, and the infamous Area 51, the concept of the extraterrestrial reveals and renounces the ‘Truth.’
The UFO discourse exists in a dualism; a blend of attempted scientific method and research mixed with an open democratic ideological free-for-all. Objective and subjective simultaneously; both and neither. This places the UFO discourse into an interesting cultural state, and more importantly, fundamentally requires skeptics and debunkers as essential players in the UFO game.
One segment of UFO discourse hinges upon witness credibility, and that the UFO is an objective ‘thing,’ physical and present. It is something that can be studied. Furthermore, many within the UFO community push for a scientific approach to the UFO question. They argue that the UFO community must apply modern science to address these objects, and have ‘real’ scientists explore the UFO question. In essence, they posit that academic rigour, rationality and logic are essential to solving the riddle.
Others within the community, many skeptics and debunkers included, state that this scientific approach will achieve nothing. It is interesting to note that those members of the community who ‘believe’ in a more mystical UFO reality, and the hardline debunkers, follow a similar vein of thinking; scientific method has been attempted for 70 years, has solved nothing, and it is time to move on to something different. Furthermore, the argument goes that the UFO question does not turn upon human rationality and logic, but exceeds it as our human minds are too rudimentary to understand the broader cosmic reality. The abductee, the contactee, the witness, is more than a simple observer, but an ‘experiencer.’ The event intertwines with them in a mysterious way, divine, fetishized, and emotional. The object and subject are connected and indivisible. A person does not simply ‘see,’ rather they are in ‘communion’ with the Other.
This ideological duality within UFO debate and subculture, this simultaneously objective and subjective state, generates a spontaneous discourse, reflexive to the constant interplay and shifting of ideological constructs. In other words, the UFO debate is constantly evolving and adapting. It is a truly postmodern system of objects, subjects and ideas. UFO discourse allows for any and all realities.
The discourse is chaotic, both meaningful and meaningless. The lines between information and misinformation (or disinformation) is not only blurry, it is constantly moving. However, the subculture continues to grow, UFO headlines still make the news, and the discourse continues to generate ideas, thoughts, theories and hypotheses. It continues to function, even in the chaos. This begs the question, how?
Enter the skeptics and the debunkers who are ever present and fundamentally essential to the survival of Ufology and the UFO discourse as a cultural phenomenon.
UFO skeptics and debunkers are the glue that hold the subculture and the debate together. Mainstream science has basically excluded the UFO question from its ideological world view; it is this exclusion which allows Ufology to continue. Ufology itself has attempted to use the scientific method (albeit unsuccessfully) to turn various UFO hypotheses into ‘facts.’ A whole movement within the UFO community pushes for ‘Scientific Ufology,’ using the very academic discipline which alienates UFOs in an attempt to prove their objective reality.
Theologically, UFO discourse has negotiated many ancient and well established religious ideologies, predominantly aspects of Buddhism, Hinduism, and various indigenous Shamanistic practices, into itself. Discussions over universal consciousness, light beings, the Mandela Effect, spirit guides, energy crystals, prophesy, and divine visitors all exist within UFO discourse. Deemed as crazies and cooks, the mystical UFO believers have legitimized their own ideologies by suggesting their beliefs are ‘True’ while the rest of the world is blind to the facts. They’d argue that scientific understanding is irrelevant as it is a limited human construct. While this sounds a little out there, can any scientist truly argue and prove that the human mind, and the social constructs it generates such as science, is the pinnacle of all evolution within the cosmos? From an established philosophical perspective, this concept is pretty old hat. Metaphysics often deals with this, and many philosophers have dealt with God as a symbol of intelligence that exceeds that of humanity. I digress.
The chaotic nature of UFO discourse continues to pop up into mainstream culture due to the constant interplay between itself and the skeptics. The books and essays by Carl Sagan and Philip Klass legitimize the discourse, they provide the chaos with a bit of level ground that outsiders can stand on. The skeptics and debunkers, in a sense, contain the chaos, to allow for debate and discussion to occur in an understandable way. More importantly, the skeptics and debunkers are the ones who bring the UFO question to mainstream culture. The publicity they generate in their criticism affirms the UFO, and the UFO subculture simply pivots, and uses that criticism to grow.
It is interesting to consider the essential place of the skeptic and debunker in UFO discourse. Many within the community despise those who openly criticize their beliefs and experiences, however, without those voices of dissent within the UFO debate, the discourse itself would stagnate. To the broader mainstream culture not regularly involved in the nitty-gritty Ufological world, the skeptics and debunkers are hounds howling at night drawing attention to the darkness. Whether the critics know it or not, the more they speak, the faster Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
- MJ Banias
Archetypes, Tricksters, and Divisions in UFO Discourse
In an April 21st blog post, Jeff Ritzmann wrote,
“Folks have written me asking about the literary Trickster themes and how they play into, or pertain to the phenomenon.
Wikipedia says of literary Tricksters: "In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a Trickster is a character in a story (god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphisation), which exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge, and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour." Lewis Hyde describes the Trickster as 'boundary crossers'.”
Ritzmann explores the Trickster archetype in this blog post, and its connection to various paranormal phenomena, including that of the UFO. Reading through this article several weeks ago, I was drawn to it again by an interview with Susan Demeter-St. Claire and Greg Bishop on the Radio Misterioso podcast. A day later, I was given the opportunity to preview Seth Breedlove’s The Mothman of Point Pleasant, and as I was watching the documentary, my jaw literally dropped.
Just as the film’s narrator mentioned the name Woodrow Derenberger, the podcast and Ritzmann’s article came rushing into my mind. Just as the main ideas for the blog post you’re reading began to form, I was shown on the screen an animation of the man named Indrid Cold. I had to press Pause. I stood up. I went to have a think outside.
I’ll return to the above point in a moment.
I’ve mentioned before on my blog that there is a divide within UFO discourse. On one pole sits a belief that the UFO narrative stems from scientific nuts and bolts extraterrestrials from other planets. On the other, the UFO and associated events are somehow mystical in nature, an aspect of human consciousness, influenced by some Other (or not), that exists outside of our physical realm. This division, and the debate around it, is old hat. It’s been debated for decades. More importantly, it’s also merged into complex systems of beliefs that tie in both ideologies. Physical and spiritual. Nuts and bolts technology blended with metaphysical states of reality not totally clear to our everyday life.
That being said, the UFO community has yet to find consensus. It continues to engage in this exophilosophical debate, citing evidence, cases, incidents, events, and various other forms of data that attempt to prove “the reality of the situation.” This debate is not a bad thing. It simply is part of the Ufological discourse.
Back to Indrid Cold. In 1966, a sewing machine salesman by the name of Woodrow Derenberger was driving down Interstate 77 near the famous Point Pleasant, in his truck when he noticed a large object move past his vehicle and land on the road. Pulling up to the large object, the shape resembling “an old fashioned kerosene lamp chimney,” he witnessed a man exit the craft and approach him. Wearing a strange greenish metallic topcoat, and a strange grin, the odd man introduced himself telepathically to Derenberger as Indrid Cold.
The story of Indrid Cold is an old one. It was first featured in John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies, and received significant attention from the media. You can hear an interview with Derenberger here (#47). The man even went on to write a book about Cold, called the Visitors from Lanulos, and the two allegedly enjoyed multiple visits together.
Keel himself went on to claim that he received many phone calls while investigating the Mothman legend from a person said to be Indrid Cold. This story, this very bizarre story, leads us down an interesting path in UFO discourse. Many other people came to have experiences with a strange man bearing a huge grin, and their tales vary from stark contrast to identical similarity with the Derenberger event.
Before us lies odd situation, one that calls into question the Ufological divide that exists between scientific and the mystical. What is the difference between the two? What series of arguments can one make to suggest one side is right, and the other is wrong?
The sides would both use scientific language, such as “look at the evidence” or “use logic and reason” to establish their cases. They would dive into the realms of psychology, citing deep seeded genetic archetypes established by evolution. They dive into religion, Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, and even provide historical evidence to prove that the UFO phenomenon is spiritual or scientific, or some mix of the two. They would provide big data, UFO sighting information, shapes, sizes, colours, and the rest. Whatever form the debate takes, it will ultimately run into the ever present brick wall; what differentiates the mystical from the scientific? What objective fact present in UFO discourse will shout, “Eureka!” and end the debate?
Nothing. There is no fact. No objective truth. That is the point of Indrid Cold. No member within the UFO community can claim with any objective truth that one Ufological event occurred, and the other did not. There is no fundamental difference between a witness seeing odd lights in the sky defying the laws of physics, and one man on a lonely stretch of highway bumping into a grinning man in a shiny suit. What is the difference between twenty people staring up at a strange disc hovering over Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 2006 and twenty people having telepathic conversations with a man named Cold over several decades? Even the physical trace evidence can be called into question, is typically inconclusive, and is often fraught with issues concerning provenance and legitimacy. Does our interpretation of truth simply boil down to what sounds less crazy, and what fits more nicely into our consensus reality? It can be argued that both events are equally mind boggling. Yet, what evidence do we have for either case that proves one is true beyond the shadow of a doubt? What evidence exists that, without question, proves there is a UFO phenomenon, and it is caused by X?
Jeff Ritzmann’s definition of the archetypal trickster as that which “disobeys the rules and conventional behaviour” is the cornerstone to the UFO question. The debate rages around the extraterrestrial hypothesis, co-creation, mysticism, the psychosocial hypothesis, and many others because the UFO itself is that which “disobeys the rules.”
I do not claim that the Indrid Cold case is legitimate or a hoax. I honestly don’t care. What does matter is the symbolism of Indrid Cold, and that these three events lined up for me to write this post. Cold did not literally visit me in my basement as I watched Breedlove’s film that evening, but in a way, he did “tell” me something as his eerie visage appeared on the screen before me.
He showed me, as Ritzmann says, to explore the idea of being a “boundary crosser.” I do not believe in one UFO reality over another, and the luxury of my work within UFO discourse is that very freedom. Critical theory and philosophy allow me to dwell in many thought worlds, in the various systems of truth, and there are essentially no limits to logic experiments of the mind. This is the beauty of working with, what many have come to call, “exophilosophy.”
Some will argue that these thought experiments are useless, and only add to the “pile of bullshit” that is UFO discourse. Perhaps. To those who make that argument, I would ask them to provide tangible evidence that their scientific or mystical approach has made any headway. The filing cabinets and internet databases of sighting reports, cold case files, rehashed UFO events, charts, tables, declassified documents, hypnotherapy evaluations, psychological reports, and testimonies from ‘credible’ witnesses are all well and good, but they still form one big pile...and I don’t have to tell you what it all smells like to me. The razor cuts both ways.
Whatever is responsible for the UFO phenomenon, much like the trickster, it seems to sow chaos. Much like Derenberger on that night in November, we find ourselves in an unsettling place trying to figure out what is going on. As every second passes, we are left with only more questions, and significantly fewer answers. Praying that some light can be shed on this bizarre moment, we are greeted by a strange grinning man named Cold.
The Collective Unconscious and Engaging A Non-Human Intelligence
Non-human Intelligence and the Universal Other
An Exophilsophical Exploration of Alien Existence
The Spectrum of Science, Mysticism, and Exophilosophy