UFOs: Reframing the Debate, edited by Robbie Graham
Reviewed by Chris Jensen Romer
This collection of essays sets out to bring new perspectives to bear on the study of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). The volume consists of a Foreword, the Editor’s Introduction, fourteen essays by writers from differing perspectives, a section on the contributors, full endnotes, and a reasonable index. The book is attractively presented and the paperback is of good quality, though the cover has a strange rubbery or perhaps waxy texture.
Almost since the beginning of the UFO phenomenon UFOlogy has been treated as something separate to psychical research, and proposed solutions to the mystery of UFO encounters have often been framed in terms of either secret military experimental aircraft or spaceships. The latter ‘Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis’ has always been dominant in UFOlogy, but researchers have also looked at UFOs and abduction experiences from psychological, psychical, and folkloric perspectives. Generally, however the UFO community has developed its own culture and publications, and while there may seem to be commonalities between say the study of apparitional reports and the study of UFO sightings, there has been some reluctance for either 'side' to examine what the other community is producing.
One generally reads a book from beginning to end but with an anthology this is not always the best approach. For those approaching the subject from a psychical research background the third chapter, ‘In for a Penny, in for a Pound: Moving UFOs Beyond Materialism’, by Joshua Cutchin, may be the best place to start. Cutchin notes the general acceptance of telepathy as a feature of UFO experiences by UFOlogists, then notes despite this their general unwillingness to discuss ‘High Strangeness’ cases that seem to imply that the experience is something other than seeing a ‘nuts & bolts’ machine bearing physical space aliens. Cutchin argues that in the 1970s UFOlogy was more receptive to the findings of psychical research and cites Jacques Vallée as an example of a researcher who was open to the possible links between the two subjects. He suggests that since that time scientific culture has become more entrenched in scepticism. He goes on to argue that the work of Ian Stevenson, Daryl Bem, Rupert Sheldrake, and research on near-death experiences demonstrates the importance of the parapsychological discourse and has potential implications for UFOlogy.
SPR members are likely to be sympathetic to Cutchin’s argument, though this reviewer was surprised at how superficial the coverage was, with all the above research presented as if compelling and unproblematic. And here lies the issue: if this reviewer were to write about UFOlogy and mention such important cases as, say, Gulf Breeze, the Phoenix Lights, Travis Walton or Hopkinsville, then my coverage would be just as superficial and lacking nuance. The UFO and parapsychology communities have moved further and further apart, and few contemporary researchers are heavily involved in both say apparitional research and UFO encounters, despite the obvious potential (though Robert Moore of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena certainly fits that description, as does Susan Demeter-St Clair who contributed a chapter to this volume.
Demeter-St. Clair’s chapter ‘Making Mountains out of Mashed Potato; the UFO as a Parapsychological Event’ is particularly valuable, in that it opens with an actual account of a UFO experience. For a book about the UFO phenomena they are rather sparse in this volume, which deals with the theory and culture of UFOlogy, and making sense of the experience, but rarely actually refers to concrete examples, and when it does often does so by name only, assuming the reader’s familiarity with the cases in question. She notes the discomfort of the parapsychological community in addressing UFO cases, and the fact the Parapsychological Association does not deal with UFO reports (and elsewhere in the volume we read of the discomfort of many UFOlogists in being associated with the “lunatic fringe” that they see as constituting parapsychologists). She cites honourable exceptions; the late D. Scott Rogo (mentioned in several of the chapters), Hilary Evans and Eric Ouellet whose Illuminations: The UFO Experience as a Parapsychological Event (2015) is a brave move at bringing UFOs back in to parapsychology, and much more explanatory and concretely situated in actual cases (Ouellet is Canadian Liaison Officer for the Parapsychological Association).
Demeter-St. Clair manages to cover a great deal of ground in a short essay, including social psi possibilities, where psycho-social tensions are seen as manifesting in the skies through some form of human psi projection. She says what many researchers have noted; that poltergeists, UFOs and apparitions all seem to merge and be interconnected in some way. Perhaps Charles Fort was right when he wrote “One measures a circle beginning anywhere” (Fort, 1931) – the Fortean approach certainly appears vindicated.
UFOlogy has since the beginning of the 21st century developed in different directions, and several of these initiatives are reflected in the essays in this book, though not all. The Disclosure Movement is a controversial tendency in UFOlogy of researchers that claim some world governments have information and contact with extraterrestrial UFOs. They believe the authorities are hiding this information from the general public and seeking slowly to prepare humanity for the revelation “We are not alone”. The Disclosure Movement seeks to force their hand by revealing what they see as proof of alien contact and are working towards this. Criticized by several of the contributors, none of the essays seems to represent that tradition.
Another group who have become important in UFOlogy are abductees or experiencers, that is, people who believe they have had direct first-hand experience of aliens (or whatever the inhabitants of UFOs are deemed to be). They have increasingly moved from objects of study to vocal advocates of treating contact and the experience seriously, and the second essay in the volume, ‘The Experience is Important’, by Mike Clelland, makes a passionate case for abductee-led research. While at first this seems a trifle rash, especially after Chris Rutkowski’s opening essay which calls for an objective and scientific approach, on reflection many psychical researchers enter the field after some anomalous experience of their own, and in some ways the divide reminds me of the tension between mediums and the wider research community in psychical research who do not have these experiences.
Reading about debates and conflict in UFOlogy has done much to provoke insights as to new approaches in psychical research, and I found it a valuable exercise. I have no hesitation in recommending this book, even to those who normally have little interest in the UFO mystery.
Fort, C, (1931). Lo! New York: Cosimo Books.
Ouellet, E, (2015) Illuminations: The UFO Experience as a Parapsychological Event. San Antonio, TX: Anomalist Books.