Sunday, January 10, 2010

What is ufology?

Michael Swords poses that question (What is ufology) over on his blog. It's a thought-provoking essay, in which Swords suggests that the boundaries of "UFOs" have basically disappeared to include every sort of weird thing imaginable, from channelers to crop circles to cattle mutilations, and so on, and that this hampers the study of UFOs, since one can't even know what they are studying. He contrasts it with the original consensus, of studying structured craft in the sky, and suggests something open to new data, but closer to the old consensus than say a Keelian "anything goes."

I think that in addition to, as Swords notes, the cases where high strangeness and UFOs go together without any interpretation by a third party, there is a simpler element here. The vast majority of UFO studies, regardless of level of rigor or seriousness, are studying human-told accounts in order to understand not the accounts, but something the people telling the accounts may have witnessed. There are exceptions (physical trace studies, radar studies) that go along with the accounts, as well as some that may be contained without accounts (some photos or videos).

But in general we're talking about accounts. And this is to a large degree why other "weird" fields intersect with UFOs. Most other field sciences study either physical samples, or in some of the social and behavioral sciences, they may study testimony, but they study the individuals giving the testimony and their communities, and are not trying to get significant insight into something else they may have seen (usually). This leaves, a couple of fields as potential scientific or science-like inquiry models: history and folklore.

History does indeed want to get at past events utilizing human testimony (in contrast with archaeology, which studies material culture discarded by humans, a very different affair). However, in order to do so, a significant part of the work of history is analyzing those accounts in order to better understand them, and very possibly to reject them. Such methods become problematic in investigating something like UFOs where rejecting such accounts may either hurt the feelings of the living, of the family or friends of the recently deceased, or by proxy, insult those who have made similar accounts. This situation is only exacerbated by the fact that much of the money to support the activities of ufologists (or other weird-ologists) comes from the presentation fees, book and DVD purchases, and other revenue largely provided by people who have some stake in particular desired research results or directions. This phenomenon is not completely foreign to academic studies of the past (history is a powerful tool for influencing present events, and many a project has been designed with a specific political intent in mind, by the funders at least if not the researchers), but I'd guess that in most cases, the effect isn't as strong as in the weird fields (get labeled a skeptic or a debunker, and whole audiences no longer care what you have to say except in opposition).

Folklore of course studies the accounts themselves, their structure, their cultural and historical context, their importance, and in many cases is not concerned if they describe some reality (though in some cases that is also an issue). This has made folklore, as well as sociology, anthropology, and psychology, slightly safe harbors for studying UFO accounts, but by doing so, they are in the skeptic category.

Other suggested models have been something akin either to intelligence work or journalism, both of which take accounts from the living (who are expected to potentially be duplicitous), possibly quite fragmentary accounts, in order to understand and describe events and trends either large and abstract, or limited and specific. Unlike the sciences, however, these fields are generally fairly confident they can model what they are after: human networks of interaction and behavior. While there will be surprises of one sort or another, an intelligence analyst knows the general sort of thing they are looking for (a military operation, a spy network, a terror cell, an economic pattern), as does a journalist (a scandal, a cover-up, a network of criminals, a social trend, a crime). As Swords notes, this is not true of ufology, though it largely was at one time.

Ufology studies, in the main, human testimony (at times in conjunction with other kinds of evidence) in order to study what that testimony describes, and it generally does not do this from the perspective that all of the accounts can be explained by mundane observational error, cognitive or neural events, or cultural or psychological factors, as to do so would bring ejection from the field. What the "thing" described in these accounts should be, is Swords' question.

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