Monday, June 25, 2007

60 Years of UFOs: The Success of an Idea

June 24, 1947

Yes, we all know. Kenneth Arnold with the Flying Saucers in the Private Plane.

Nothing wrong with it. Its an important part of cultural history.

But I get tired of hearing and telling the story. As Richard Dolan makes clear in his UFOs and the National Security State, vol 1., while Foo Fighter were something of a curiosity, ghost rockets in 1946 were anything but quaint or forgotten lore, they were the center of serious international concern and diplomacy. And the cases that are identified with UFOs started rising in quantity almost a month before Arnold's sighting.

There are plenty of good reasons to look back at that time. I think it is very important. But another "raise the glass" to Arnold's saucers, I just can't do it.

What I can do instead is note the vibrant success of the whole idea, sixty years on. A quote from a Wired magazine Arnold-60 retrospective got me thinking

"But never have flying saucers been a bigger part of the zeitgeist than they are now."

I initially scoffed at the notion, then I thought about it some more. The issue still gets overt government attention, whether to open files to the interested public or to continue investigating (as the UK does) . Reports of UFO sightings are made on a daily basis, though one must generally look to interested parties who collate reports to know this. And as strange as it sounds, some in the press give it at least a modicum of respect. For example, one wholy unscientific way to gauge this is using Google Trends, the search engine's tool that shows the amount of searching done on a topic. For example, lets pit UFOs against some other Spooky topics (click on the image to enlarge it).

I know we could use other terms for all of these four biggies, but these are the terms most likely to be used in the media. Ghosts beat out the other three dramatically in general searches by the public. But we have to assume this includes all sorts of uses of the word, since it is a common noun used in many ways. But for the sake of our unscientific argument, lets assume that applies to news stories as well. That's the interesting thing. The spread between "ufo" and "ghost" in the news media is much narrower than it is for the general public, and at times "ufo" eclipses "ghost." One could suggest, again on data that need more examination to really mean something, that the news media actually has a soft-spot for UFOs, as in Keith Olbermann's recent take on the reports of mile-wide UFOs over the English Channel.

I'm not sure why that is, because there isn't enough data yet. Most polls and studies show a college degree increases the likelihood of believing in paranormal or other similar topics, though a relatively recent survey of Oklahoma college students has extraterrestrials (not exactly UFOs, but close enough for most people) not doing so well in comparison with ghosts and psychics. Brenda Denzler's ethnographic work in Lure of the Edge (see book ads in sidebar) notes that education is much higher amongst those in the UFO community than in the general American populace. While academia largely ignores the subject, with the exception of Contactees and increasingly abduction, the media and communications professionals that attend these schools, and their peers in other fields, do not.

Beyond the media, much has been made of the decline of traditional UFO groups and organizations. But it has become clear that this is not due as much to lack of interest as to technological change, specifically the internet. As Brown notes in his book on Ghost Hunters of the South (also in the sidebar), none of the groups he interviewed existed before 1991, and he believes this is directly tied to the rise of the internets. And ghost hunting can be an inherently social activity, with organized hunts taking place on scheduled days planned in advance, occurring in groups, and having an element of fun. By contrast, most ufological activities cannot boast such appeals, and for this reason the field has a significant "loner" aspect (not antisocial, but the activities are often those of an individual, not a group) to it outside of the conferences.

Of course, the image of the UFO and its occupants is now a standard part of our cultural vocabulary now, to the point that the symbol can be used to reference outer space or related topics without any intended tie-in to UFO reports and the like. The UFO isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Loch Ness Applies as a World Heritage Site

An advocate group for the Loch and the surrounding area is going to apply to make the lake a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to the natural elements of the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, the monster is clearly part of the mix. This would of course make it an even more attractive tourism spot. The beginning of the summer season has already seen world wide news reports of new and unimpressive "Nessie" footage, as well as BBC coverage of a sonar-equipped tour boat to look for the beasts.

The Different Phenomena of the Social History of UFOs and Other Weird Things

On Monday, I started the section of my class on UFOs, slightly behind schedule. One of the points that I wanted to get across was a frustrating thing that I see all too often when columnists and sometimes academics pontificate on "the phenomenon": the broad brush appeal to big causes.

What I mean by this is the tendency people have to want to sweep the whole thing away with a pat pseudo-psychological or sociological or common sense explanation. For example, in his social history of UFOs, Watch the Skies, Curtis Peebles (1994) suggests that UFOs are more likely to be seen, and waves and flaps appear, in times of uncertainty. The vast majority of the book is a straightforward accounting of the changes in UFO beliefs and in UFO advocate groups, but in the last chapter, Peebles borrows the notion from Otto Billig ( ) that flaps and waves of UFOs appear in times of vague, poorly defined crises. He then proceeds to note crisis after crisis and fears, from the McCarthy era to economic downturns to presidential campaigns. This is a just-so story of the worst sort. Depending on how you define it, every day of our lives is a vague, poorly defined crisis, in fact several are probably going on simultaneously. Had Peebles not pushed this back to Ezekiel's Wheel and the Babylonian Captivity, I might not have to be so harsh. Yes, visionary experiences can arise from times of crisis, they're part of what anthropologists (in particular Anthony Wallace) call revitalization movements. But as in Wallace's excellent study, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, he points out the specific details, how Handsome Lake's visions came from the specifics of the Seneca having sold their land, being on new land, and becoming desperate and destitute. And furthermore, how influences specifically from neighboring Christian farmers were incorporated into Handsome Lake's visions. This level of detail is needed before even beginning to suggest a correlation.

A question I get asked all the time by academics is if I've read Carl Jung's (1978) writings (they typically haven't) on flying saucers. I have, and they're terrible. Mystical claptrap on how the saucer, being round, is a symbol of oneness in a dangerous age. Jung works largely with dreams and artwork that is only tangentially linked to UFOs. And yet because of Jung's name, this is top-shelf stuff. Saranov (1981) pciks up the torch and jumbles up a bunch of vague similarities between 19th century Airship stories and various folktales, says it is all symbolic of something, and calls it a day.

The list continues. Lawson (1984) is regularly cited for his idea that the Gray image is actually a memory of birth, of sterile doctors appearing strange in the eyes of a newborn. Of course, if you haven't actually read the article, you might not realize how heavily symbolic and divorced from attempts to verify the hypothesis the study actually is. Donald Warren's (1970) article in one of the world's most prestigious journals, Science, argues that people who are out of their expected social status or under social stress (aka educated white men in under-performing jobs and "Negro" women) will be more likely to see UFOs as a form of rebellion against the status quo. The article isn't much cited these days, as you might imagine, though George Cowgill (1971) took Warren to task the following year in Science by suggesting that what Warren found was statistically weak and did not explain sightings but explained interpretation (more on this below). Saler (Saler, Ziegler, and Moore 1997) leaves the details of Roswell to his co-authors and mostly talks about general notions of myth in his book on different versions of the Roswell Incident.

Many of these studies fail on one or two levels. First, they typically show minimal research into the topic before popping off. Second, presumably because of the first, they have no idea what they are studying. As an archaeologist, we are trained and constantly reminded that we must understand what it is we are studying as data: observations we make of remnants of material culture that have been modified by an unknown number of factors over the course of centuries or millennia. In addition to dealing with rigor in making our observations, we have to understand and communicate how we are making the bridging arguments that take us from broken bits of pottery to statements about past events and cultural trends. The studies would benefit from such explicit reasoning.

What is being studied? Where do the data come from? As I told my students, we can study people who are interested in UFOs and ideas about what they are. We can study people that create artwork (for mass media entertainment or not) inspired by or featuring UFOs. We can study people (ufologists and others) who have changed their lives in some fashion because of UFOs, in order to study them or otherwise engage the topic. We can study people who join religious groups that have beliefs concerning UFOs (contactees, a topic that has been studied extensively by anthropologists and sociologists because it is similar to small scale groups they have traditionally studied). And we can study people who report seeing UFOs.

What we cannot do is try to make those all the same people. Because if you do, your carelessness will simply muddy the water, and you'll just end up telling yourself a just-so story. These are different phenomena requiring different tools and theories to study. This happens all the time in conversation, or in informal study. Someone will put forth some vague broad brush notion to explain a social phenomenon. In this case, it might be "People see UFOs because they are concerned about some problem in society" or "People see UFOs because of status inconsistency" or "People see UFOs because of a symbolic need." But it then makes it into more formal opinion columns and essays in publications and blogs, and as I cite above, into scientific and academic articles.


This wouldn't be accepted in my archaeological work, why is it accepted here? Such ideas don't take into account the levels of analysis. That a sighting involves an interpretation of something seen as being a "UFO." That someone has to report it. Who they report it to, a ufologist, a reporter, the government, someone else. Whether that researcher or institution then publicizes the account, and how they do so. Westrum (1977) wisely does break this issue down. Then if you want to talk about waves or flaps and their relationship to some broad social trend, all of the above has to be understood for a large number of accounts. And all too often, authors will go that extra step, and conflate pop culture (AKA, was The X-Files on TV?) as part of their "UFO" evidence.

Not all studies do this. As mentioned earlier, Cowgill's small response to Warren isn't a study, but it does take this problem into consideration. Festinger, Reicken, and Schachter (1956), for all their other faults, made it clear that they were studing a Contactee group in order to test a specific hypothesis about cognitive dissonance in apocalyptic religious movements. Zimmer (1985) surveyed college students on their interest and belief in UFOs as extraterrestrial craft as a way of looking at interest in relationship to the students themselves, not sightings or popularity of the whole concept. Brenda Denzler (2001) undertook fieldwork with various elements of the UFO community, including investigators, people with interest in the topic, and abductees. She is careful with her terms and data (including demographic data), though she does offer some overall broad suggestions for interest in the topic. Matheson (1998) didn't do fieldwork, but instead undertook textual analysis of published books on abduction with the primary goal of analysing the authors, the abduction researchers. He too tries to, unfortunately, give a broad brush answer, but the data about the textual analysis is carefully discussed and separate from this conclusion.

While I have focused on academic articles, this is a regularly occurrence in less formal essays. I am reminded of the months after 9/11/2001. Article after article in the mainstream press, both opinion pieces but also news articles, discussed how ufology is on the decline. They would ask "Why don't people see UFOs anymore?" and then answer that we now had a more substantial hidden threat, terrorists, to worry about. These would also often include the news that some UFO group was disbanding after several decades, not noting that as private organizations the appearance and disappearance of such groups is a regular occurrence. And yet, there have been spectacular sightings all over the mainstream media in the last year, touched off by the O'Hare sighting, but continuing into the new year and being revived by pilot sightings, UFO flaps, etc. And on the pop front, as I just blogged yesterday, Roswell's UFO festival is booked up and healthier than it has been for years. Maybe I could construct some complex or broad social reason. Or maybe if I had actually been paying attention, I could note that there has been a shift in the management of the festival, with more activities and speakers, and more advertising. But that would actually be investigating the question, wouldn't it?

These same essays often took a similar tack to others after 9/11, about how the culture was going to have to be serious now, that we couldn't have the excesses and goofyness of the 1990s. Clearly, I for one am glad that American Idol doesn't exist nor is a top-rated show. Or that Paris Hilton never got famous and became a media sensation. Or that no one repeatedly aired Britney Spears shaving her head. Or Howard Dean's manufactured scream. Or that Deal or No Deal disappeared after the pilot episode. Or that the media and a couple of activists didn't fight full-scale wars over Christmas, or Janet Jackson's nipple. Thank goodness they were right, and had consulted all the requisite data.

Works cited

Cowgill, George
1971 People Who See Flying Saucers. Science, New Series, Vol. 171, Issue 3975: 956 - 959.

Denzler, Brenda
2001 The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter
1956 When Prophecy Fails. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Jung, C.G.
1978 Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Translated by R. F. Hull, C. MJF Books, New York.

Lawson, Alvin H.
1984 Perinatal Imagery in UFO Abduction Reports. The Journal of Psychohistory 12(2):211-239.

Matheson, Terry
1998 Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon. Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York.

Peebles, Curtis
1994 Watch the Skies!: A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, D. C.

Saler, Benson, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore
1997 UFO Crash At Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Sanarov, Valerii
1981 On the Nature and Origin of Flying Saucers and Little Green Men. Current Anthropology 22(2):163-167.

Warren, Donald I.
1970 Status Inconsistency Theory and Flying Saucer Sightings. Science 170:599-603.

Westrum, Ron
1977 Social Intelligence About Anomalies: The Case of UFO's. Social Studies of Science 7:271-302.

Zimmer, Troy A.
1985 Belief in UFO's as Alternative Reality, Cultural Rejection or Disturbed Psyche. Deviant Behavior 6:405-419.

Museums Embrace "Pseudoscience"

You know, for all the worry about pseudoscience, museums sure know a popular thing when they see it.

The American Museum of Natural History has just opened the exhibit "Mythic." NYTimes Review. The exhibit examines mythical beasts, including some still hunted by cryptozoologists. This is reminiscent, though apparently on a bigger scale and with an eye more towards science education than artwork, of the "Cryptozoology: Out of Time Place Scale" exhibit that travelled last year (Loren Coleman blogs about it here, here, and here amongst other posts).

A travelling exhibit "The Science of Aliens" (more here) is about exobiology, but opens with the Queen Alien from the film Aliens. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum has had exhibits to Star Wars and Star Trek for years. The University of Texas' Institute of Texan Cultures has an exhibit on Dragons, (official page) including sea serpents. Arizona State University's Anthropology Museum has an exhibition on UFO photos. The March Field Air Museum had an event explaining UFO sightings as misinterpretations of classified military aircraft. And last year a Discovery Science Center highlighted Chupacabras sightings in "the OC."

There is nothing wrong with this. I think it is a lot of fun, and learning will probably happen in one form or another. But I find it somewhat disingenuous to hear some debunkers still suggest that money from books or appearances is a major incentive for people to fake paranormal or cryptid or UFO or whatever experiences. Sure, it might be. But museums, in addition to media companies and others, definitely make money off these topics. Let's not kid ourselves. And they're not the only ones doing it. The controversial religious Creation Museum that recently opened in Kentucky may be preaching the Old Testament (and it does have an overtly religious and moral message for the present, as discussed in the review linked above, and is not just about the topics typically associated with Creationism), but it is full of animatronic dinosaurs, and the gift shop is themed with dragons and such. They know what kids like, and I'll bet a lot of visitors think Harry Potter is a gateway to Satanism.

Recently in my class, I noted that some Bigfoot research groups have people go on their research expeditions by paying a membership fee in the hundreds of dollars. Personally I am suspicious of this. But as I started to talk about this in class, I also had to admit to myself and my students that archaeological field schools are composed primarily of students who pay thousands of dollars to go dig in the hot sun (they do get college credit) and there are digs and projects where volunteers do pay large sums of money to dig or work (without college credit). I don't think these practices are bad, but it nonetheless it put a different perspective on things.

EDIT: An art installation takes this up a notch. Eleanor Fawcett has recreated Steve Feltham's trailer, the one he has permanently moved into along the shores of Loch Ness in search of its monster. Review here.

Update: September 2012. If you want a glimpse inside how and why museums do this, take a look at the comments section on this Doubtful News item. The National Atomic Testing Museum (a museum apparently affiliated with the Smithsonian) is exploiting the myths surrounding the Groom Lake Facility (aka Area 51). They've got several ufologists on board, and perhaps most surprisingly, George Knapp. If you don't know, Knapp is a respected television journalist in Las Vegas. But he's most famous for making Area 51 a household name by introducing the world to Bob Lazar, a supposed insider at Area 51 that even much of ufology doesn't take seriously anymore. Knapp is also a part-time host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast AM, and he's been involved in the "Skinwalker Ranch" activities underwritten by Bigelow Aerospace (which are apparently involved in some fashion in the exhibit). He is the coauthor of the book Hunt for the Skinwalker, the account of supposed scientific investigations at the ranch, but an accounting that leaves a tremendous amount to be desired, and is more memorable for anecdotes of Sasquatch-like beings walking through portals and people meditating. And no useful pictures, videos, etc..

I can understand at least some of the idea behind this, but the comments over on the Doubtful News item (in which one of the posters relays statements from a representative of the museum, are not encouraging.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

UFO Tourism and the Roswell 60th Anniversary UFO Festival (I'm Not Going)

After a lot of deliberation this weekend, I decided I couldn't attend the big UFO festival in Roswell this year (July 5 - 8). I'd really like to go, but for financial and other reasons, it just doesn't seem like a good idea. Well, this weekend I nearly convinced myself otherwise, and looked into the feasability of going, and it looks like Roswell is pretty booked up (apparently, I'm not the only one who couldn't find a room). I attended in 2002 when the fest was substantially smaller (I use some pictures from that year's fest on my crashed saucer site), and from what I can tell the town is really doing things up this year. So much so, the cost of the festival appears to be double the initial amount budgeted by the city. If you take a look at the main festival website, there is a list of the speakers and entertainment that will be on deck. I'd like to hear and meet a number of the speakers that will be there, but this summer is just probably not the time.

As for the entertainment, it is a festival. The carnival aspect of Roswell is distasteful to some ufologists, but as an anthropologist I of course am interested. I've mentioned briefly before, Roswell isn't the only town with UFO Days. August 24 and 25 this year, Fyffe, Alabama will have their third annual UFO Days to celebrate sightings from 1989 (more on the festival in this report on the 2006 UFO Days), though the ties to the original case are not entirely clear. At least it has UFO in the title, instead of the UFO booth at Hattiesburg, Mississippi's May Fest, which revealed the secrets of "Area 41."

R. Lee at The Orange Orb blogged from the 8th Annual UFO Festival in McMinnville, Oregon (official website). For those not familiar with the case, it produced, in 1950, some of the most famous UFO photos. The University of Colorado study (aka the Condon Report) analyzed these photos, and that analysis and discussion of the case can be read on the nifty website of the Sign Historical Group (named after the first US military study of flying saucers, Project Sign, and dedicated to preserving and investigating early UFO history). Like Roswell, but unlike Fyffe, the McMinnville festival has ufologists give presentations in addition to costume contests, dealer's rooms, and alien parades. In this sense, they are reminiscent of fandom conventions, which are places to hear at least somewhat famous speakers, network with others in the community, see old friends, go have fun on the town, and spend money in the book room. Come to think of it, that's a fairly apt description of the professional archaeology and anthropology conferences I go to, except without the stressful job interviews.

Roswell, the go-to place for UFO tourists, has got bigger plans on the horizon. In the last couple of weeks, plans have been made public for a UFO theme park around Roswell. For their sakes, I hope it does better than Erich von Daniken's UFO and Ancient Astronaut-themed Mystery Park, which opened in Switzerland in 2003, and closed last year.

UPDATE: Shag Harbor in Canada now has a UFO Museum to go with their crash story. I'm actually reading up on Shag Harbor this summer so I can put it in the article I'm working on.