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UFOs: Some Context for the Discussion

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Things to beware of in 1997:

Israel.  In the aftermath of a major disastor on the European continent
Israel may no longer feel constrained to flex its might.


UFOs:  Some Context for the Discussion
(c) 1995 by Barton Paul Levenson


    Theories of the nature of UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) seem to
fall into seven main groups:

    I.  *UFOs are known natural or artificial phenomena.*  These
include, but are not limited to, airplanes, weather balloons,
human-launched satellites and spacecraft, sundogs (reflections of the
Sun on cloud formations), ball lightning, the stars Sirius and Procyon,
and the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  Cases of these being
mistaken for more unusual phenomena are widely documented and have
occurred repeatedly.

    II.  *UFOs are a previously unknown natural phenomenon.*  The
physicist Phillip Klass has suggested that some UFOs are a plasma
phenomenon similar to ball lightning and associated with high-voltage
power lines.

    III.  *UFOs area previously unknown artificial human phenomenon.*
E.g., classified aircraft tests.

    IV.  *UFOs are a phenomenon of mass psychopathology.*  Technically
this could be grouped with Theory II, but it might be useful to
distinguish psychological explanations from physical ones.

    V.  *UFOs are extraterrestrial spacecraft.*  The term "flying
saucer" became widespread after private pilot Keith Arnold followed nine
apparently saucer-shaped aircraft for some distance over North America
in 1947.  An entire subculture arose around this belief in the
industrialized world.  After a series of egregious hoaxes, some writers
in this field tried to create a more mainstream part of that subculture
by centering the discussion on "UFOs" in their original meaning.

    UFOs as ET spacecraft were investigated by the Air Force during the
1960s (Project Blue Book).  Some 90% of reports investigated were
explainable under Theory I.  The rest could not be explained, usually
due to insufficient available data, but none were unambiguously ET

    Dr. J. Allen Hynek, professor of astronomy at Northwestern
University, spent considerable time during the 1960s, '70s and '80s
investigating Theory V.  He is responsible for the breakdown of
incidents into close encounteres of the first, second and third kind,
corresponding to sighting, physical evidence and contact, respectively.
No unambiguous evidence was ever produced.

    VI.  *UFOs are advanced vehicles from a non-human terrestrial
civilization.*  Candidates for the home site of the vehicles include a
"parallel" or alternate-history Universe, an unconventional habitat such
as a layer in the atmosphere (cf. Robert A. Heinlein's short story,
"Goldfish Bowl") or a volume inside the Earth.

    VII.  *UFOs are spiritual phenomena.*  This could be broken down

    VIIa.  *UFOs are an angelic manifestation.*  This would be
    appropriate to Islamic or Judaeo-Christian worldviews.

    VIIb.  *UFOs are a demonic manifestation.*  This might also be
    believed under the above worldviews.

    VIIc.  *UFOs are a spirit manifestation that is not clearly either
    good or evil.*  This might be appropriate to Hindu, Buddhist,
    animist or "neo-Pagan" worldviews, and also under some early
    monotheistic theories.  (Some medieval Christians, for example,
    believed in "airish men" without believing them to be either angels
    or devils, but such a belief might be more appropriately listed
    under Theory VI.)

    It should be noted that none of these theories would be acceptable
to an atheist or other mechanistic worldview.  It is also possible that
some Saucers or Local Saucers (see below) are unacceptable to those with
certain religious worldviews; I have heard at least one fundamentalist
dismiss the concept of extraterrestrial life altogether on religious
grounds.  I can only say that while I, a born-again Christian, favor
Theory I, I certainly believe extraterrestrial life is possible and
would have no religious problem with flying saucers, though at present I
disbelieve in them for other reasons.

    These theories might facetiously be referred to by the following

THEORY                                                NAME

I     Known natural or artificial phenomena           Sundogs
II    Previously unknown natural phenomena            Plasma
III   Previously unknown artificial phenomena         Flying Wings
IV    Mass hysteria or memory repression              Hill Syndrome
V     Extraterrestrial spacecraft                     Saucers
VI    Nonhuman terrestrial vehicles                   Local Saucers
VII   Spiritual manifestations                        Spirits

    None of these names is meant to denigrate the beliefs involved.
They are simply a catchy shorthand which allows quick recognition of
which theory is being discussed.

    The Plasma and Flying Wings theories cannot be tested without
further research of some kind.  The Plasma theory could be tested if
UFO-like phenomena can be generated in the laboratory.  The Flying Wings
theory could be tested if the government (not necessarily ours!)
decidedto search the appropriate records and release details of any
flying-saucer-like craft tested since the '40s.  It would be
unprofitable to discuss either without further data.

    The Local Saucers theory is also hard to verify, and for the same
reason as the better known Saucers theory -- you have to have the
saucers under examination, or be able to talk to their pilots, to find
out where they came from.  "First get the letter, then check the return
address."  For the moment, Local Saucers will be considered a mere
auxiliary to the Saucers theory.  It might be right, but we can't
distinguish ETs from hollow-Earth or 19th-dimension people without
further data.

    That leaves Sundogs, Hill Syndrome, Saucers and Spirits.  We already
know the Sundogs theory is usually true.  Even strong believers in the
Saucers theory will readily concede that *most* UFO reports are due to
mistaken observation or hoax.  The question is whether the small
residuum of unsolved cases can be explained the same way, or whether
they would be better explained as Hill Syndrome, Saucers or Spirits.


    A great deal of UFO literature makes much of the fact that UFOs have
been seen by sober, competent observers -- airline pilots, police
officers; in general, people with no reason to lie.  This might impress
the public, but a criminal lawyer would smile.

    Eyewitness evidence is the most notoriously unreliable evidence
there is.  Jake Ehrlich describes a typical event in a law class -- a
man in Tyrolean gear suddenly opens the door and cries, "Federal
Herring!  You stole my marks!"  He levels a carrot at a front-row
student, a pop is heard in the hall, and the student falls.
Stretcher-bearers come in and carry him out.

    "Now I want you to put down everything you saw in the order it
happened," says the professor.  "Don't make anything up, but don't leve
[sorry, leave] anything out."

    The descriptions supplied by the classroom full of would-be lawyers
are wildly inaccurate.  The assailant's words are reported as "You are a
Marxist and are working to destroy our republic."  The decedent is
described as a white male in nondescript street clothes -- in face he
was a black male in ROTC uniform.  The carrot becomes a .45 Mauser, a
.38 snub-nose, a nickel-plated automatic.  The descriptions, in short,
are worthless.

    The fact is that people see what they expect to see, and when they
see something else, they get a blur.  But the mind *confabulates:*  it
provides plausible filler to complete the picture.  This is a survival
trait.  Our ancestors had to guess, on inadequate data, whether the
thing making the brush quiver was a predator or only a harmless deer.
The students were not trying to hoax anyone, and they were sober,
intelligent, *motivated* people trying to impress their professor with
the accuracy and detail of their observations.  We see what we think we

    In short, the fact that someone is sober and competent means
nothing.  Unless one is specifically trained to make a particular type
of observation, one is not a good witness, and that's that.

    Why did an Air Force pilot die chasing a UFO in 1949?  Probably
because he was chasing a sundog, not a UFO.  Why did Flight 19 disappear
on a clear day in the Bermuda Triangle in 1945?  First of all, it wasn't
in the Bermuda Triangle.  Second, it was cloudy and raining.  Third,
they disappeared because the instructor -- the most competent one of the
group -- got turned around and his trainees automatically followed him
away from the North Carolina coast until they ran out of fuel, crashed
and drowned.  It wasn't mysterious, just miserable and tragic.

    Of course, the fact that one mysterious incident is debunked does
not debunk the main question.  There are incidents on record that cannot
be explained away.  What of them?


    In 1963, a New Hampshire couple, Betty and Barney Hill, began going
to a psychiatrist to resolve a series of troubling dreams and anxiety so
extreme as to cause ulcers in Barney's case.  Under hypnosis, they
remembered that on a trip home from Canada in 1961, they were
intercepted by a flying saucer and subjected to an uncomfortable
physical exam by short, humanoid aliens.  Accounts of their hypnosis
sessions were published by UFO enthusiast John G. Fuller in 1966, and
the case was reexamined by Dr. Hynek (see above) in 1972.  From 1968 to
1973, Marjory Fish, an Ohio teacher and amateur astronomer, tried to
match a star map Betty Hill had drawn from memory (seen in the saucer)
to data on local stars.  She came out in the mid '70s with the statement
that the Hill saucer had come from the Zeta Reticuli system.

    I was working on the astronomy of habitable planets at the time,
including making a list of nearby stars likely to have habitable
planets.  Zeta Reticuli, a widely-separated binary with main-sequence G1
and G2 components, was at the top of my list.  There was considerable
excitement about Fish's star map at the time.  A favorable article was
published in a 1976 issue of *Astronomy,* a semi-popular journal aimed
mostly at amateur astronomers.

    But on reexamination, the map's validity seemed questionable.  Betty
Hill had originally matched it to a map of bright red giants and radio
sources in the constellation Pegasus in a 1965 New York Times.  Fish
matched it to local, single, main-sequence stars of types F, G and K
(i.e., those most likely to have habitable planets).  Charles W.
Atterberg in Illinois matched it to local sunlike stars and red dwarfs.

    Carl Sagan and a graduate student of his named Steven Soter
evaluated the various maps and found it statistically unlikely that they
actually meant anything, and there was a heated, if polite, exchange
between pro- and con-Hill-map forces in the pages of *Astronomy.*  For
my own part, I am no longer impressed with Fish's map, though I
certainly respect the work that went into compiling it (building a
scale model of local space with strung beads for stars, etc.).

    However, a great number of similar stories have received publicity
recently.  Many couples and individuals have gone public with their
stories of abduction and analysis by extraterrestrials.

    This phenomenon comes at the same time that the phenomenon of
"repressed memory" in general is under scrutiny, because a number of
people, under hypnosis, claim to have been sexually abused as children.
This has led to law suits and criminal charges.  It is crucial to
establish whether repressed memory is valid or not.  If valid, it may
mean the extent of childhood sexual abuse is greater than previously
realized.  If invalid, it may point to another abuse -- of patients and
their parents by therapists pursuing their own ideology, if not their
own pathology.

    Consider that Betty and Barney Hill were an interracial couple.
Consider that Betty was a social worker and Barney served on the New
Hampshire Civil Rights Commission.  Consider, also, that although 1961
sounds comfortably recent for worries about race prejudice, it was three
years *before* the murder of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner at the height
of the civil rights movement.  Consider that Mississippi's law against
"miscegenation" was not repealed until 1967.

    Yes, one might say, but the Hills lived in New Hampshire.  New
Hampshire is free of race prejudice.  But if so, why did they need a
civil rights commission?

    Is it possible that the Hills were intercepted and abused on
September 19th, 1961, but that it was by humans and not
extraterrestrials?  Is it possible that the abuse was bad enough to make
it preferable to remember aliens and not, say, the Ku Kux Klan?  "He's a
Nazi," breathes a terrified Barney Hill under hypnosis.

    Add to this that Benjamin Simon, the psychiatrist who conducted the
hypnosis sessions, never believed the Hills had been abducted by aliens.

    A recent TV tabloid episode on repressed memories of alien
abductions showed a simulation of what one man remembered from a recent
camping trip.  He was naked, he said, and his friends were naked, and
someone was doing something to him, and he wondered why the others
weren't helping him.  This may sound like alien abduction to some.  To
me it sounds like a distorted memory of childhood sexual abuse.


    I know of no good evidence that UFOs are flying saucers.  I have
read terribly suggestive stories, however.  The following tales,
somewhat abridged, are from the BOOK OF LISTS (Wallechinsky et al. 1977,
pp. 440-442):

    # *In August, 1887, two children with bright green skin and slanted
eyes came out of a Spanish cave.  They wore clothes made of a strange
material, and spoke a language which experts from Barcelona were unable
to identify.  The boy died.  The girl learned to speak Spanish, and said
she had been transported to the cave by a whirlwind which had carried
her off from a country which was always in twilight.*

    # *During 1897...  On April 9th, Alexander Hamilton, a Kansas
farmer, saw a 300-ft. cigar-shaped airship hovering over his cow pasture
at a height of about 30 ft.  The carriage under the hull seemed to be
made of a glasslike material, and strange beings inside it...  talking a
foreign language...  lassoed one of the...  cows with a cable, and
pulled it inside their spacecraft.  On March 27th, a large object had
been seen flying over Topeka, Kansas, by 200 people, including the

    # *In 1885, a metal cube -- whose symmetry and composition led
experts to believe it could have been man-made -- was found embedded in
coal formed more than 12 million years ago.  Glass lenses, metal nails,
chains, a fossil screw and a battery have been discovered inside
geological formations.  Bulletlike objects have been taken from the
bones of prehistoric animals.*

    These are startling reports if true, and they ought to be thoroughly
investigated.  Wallechinsky et al. do not cite sources, but I have heard
the "green children" story elsewhere, and also that both children
eventually died.  That particular fact makes it easier for me to believe
that they were extraterrestrials.  I would expect ETs to be roughlu
human in shape, but with a radically different biochemistry -- still
hydrocarbon-based, of course, with water as a solvent, but not
necessarily the same genetic material, optical activity, etc.  Of all
science fiction conceits, the second dumbest -- after interbreeding with
ETs -- is the one where a human walks onto an alien starship and is able
to eat the food.

    If this story has any truth to it, it should be investigated.  And
the bodies should be exhumed and autopsied.

    The 1897 sightings seem to me most likely to have been real
sightings, but of early German airship tests, rather than ETs.  I would
expect Germans to eat cows, but I would not expect ETs to do so.  What
the Germans were doing over Kansas is hard to explain, but it is easier
to explain than what ETs were doing over Kansas.

    The metal cube and the other artifacts -- again, if the stories are
true -- seem to me very hard to explain other than by prehuman
technological activity.  A cube might be a natural metal crystal of some
sort, but chains and a screw are harder to explain.  It would be
interesting to have professional geologists (from later than 1885) give
their opinions on whether the rocks these items were retrieved from are
in fact of great age, and on whether they have subsequently been
contaminated by later material.  (Land does move, after all, and things
do fall into holes.)


    As a born-again Christian, I do believe that both angels and demons
are active in our world.  I would consider such explanations last,
however.  Considering natural explanations first makes sense and has
very old precedents; e.g.; a 16th-century Pope who advised exorcists
that most "demon-possessed" people were "far more in need of a physician
than an exorcist."


Fuller, John G., 1972.  THE INTERRUPTED JOURNEY.  Dial Press.

Hynek, J. Allen, 1972.  THE UFO EXPERIENCE.  Henry Regnery Co.

Wallechinsky, David et al., 1977.  THE BOOK OF LISTS.  New York:  Bantam

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