Failure Of The 'Science' Of Obergian Debunking
From: Jerome Clark <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Sat, 03 Oct 98 17:01:57 PDT
Fwd Date: Sat, 03 Oct 1998 18:31:30 -0400
Subject: Failure Of The 'Science' Of Obergian Debunking
This paper was written in response to a James Oberg paper which
won an award from a committee of UFO skeptics sponsored by a
whiskey manufacturer. It was subsequently published in the
British weekly New Scientist.
The rejoinder was accepted for publication but never printed,
apparently because of a strike which shut the magazine down that
fall. It later appeared in Frontiers of Science (November/
December 1980). It is a useful corrective to Oberg's
characteristically one-sided, self-serving view of things.
Ron Westrum, Ph.D., was and is a professor of sociology at
Eastern Michigan University.
The Promise Of Ufology
by Ron Westrum
In its October 11, 1979, issue New Scientist printed an article
by James Oberg entitled "The Failure of the `Science' of
Ufology." This article had won the 1000-pound New
Scientist/Cutty Sark Whiskey prize. In it Mr. Oberg argues that
although "ufology" may sound scientific, there is really very
little scientific about it. His essay contains many perceptive
and useful comments, but falls short of a truly objective
portrait of an area of study about which he appears to have some
As a sociologist who has been professionally involved for
several years with UFO groups and UFO research, I believe it is
important to clear up some of the confusion to which Mr. Oberg
contributes and to give a more fair and judicious picture of the
nature of ufology.
Let me summarize Mr. Oberg's arguments briefly. Ufology, he
argues, has failed to become a science because its practitioners
are unwilling to abide by the rules of the scientific method.
They are careless about the authenticity of the cases they
publish and they have little interest in developing falsifiable
theories. Given these general observations, he feels that
ufology cannot be even a protoscience, since an indifference to
such issues automatically deprives it of any kind of scientific
status. He supports these contentions with examples of
exaggerated claims made mostly by the press but also by some
Let us consider how much truth there is in Mr. Oberg's claims.
What Is Ufology?
Ufology is the study of UFO sightings, a fraction of which
remain unexplained after competent investigation. It should be
observed that the great majority (about 90%) of reported "UFO
sightings" turn out to be explainable in terms of natural or
manmade phenomena. A small percentage are hoaxes.
The competent ufologist is therefore conversant with a wide
range of phenomena which can give rise to spurious reports. The
true objective of ufological activity, however, is the search
for cases which resist explanation. The careful study of these
cases and their patterns is the focus of ufology. If there is to
be any significant contribution to our knowledge of the universe
from ufology, it will come from such study of "unexplained"
Mr. Oberg claims that ufologists assert that such cases must be
the result of some exotic cause since they are unexplained. He
argues that in fact they are a hodge-podge which scientists have
no real need to explain. This is a serious misconception. It is
_patterns_ among unexplained cases which make them significant
to ufologists. Serious ufologists are not particularly
interested in collections of cases which bear little relation to
Science in general is a well-institutionalized activity in
Western society. Ufology is not. Ufologists seldom claim that
what they do is science; they do not possess a body of well-
tested principles and laws, verified by dozens of replicable
Ufology is a proto-science, an area of study which aspires to
become a science but which, its practitioners recognize, has a
considerable distance to travel before this goal will be
reached. Major involvement of scientists in UFO research is a
recent development, less than a decade old. The amateur origin
of ufology is evident in the unevenness of ufological work. Some
researchers, particularly those with technical training, do
good, solid, careful work. Others pursue research in such a
casual manner that their results are worthless. One can, as does
Mr. Oberg, lump them all together and make the serious
researchers responsible for the faults of the non-serious ones,
or point to certain well-known gaffes and assert that these
demonstrate the unscientific quality of the field. The real
point, however, is not what the worst ufologists do, but what
the best do: is there good ufological practice as well as bad?
To respond to this question, we must confront two more serious
misconceptions on the part of Mr. Oberg. The first of these is
his assertion that most ufologists have a "total disregard for
the authenticity of evidence." This assertion, while dramatic,
merely demonstrates Mr. Oberg's lack of acquaintance with his
subject matter. He is apparently unaware that the great majority
of exposures of mistakes and hoaxes are the work of ufologists
and that debates over the authenticity of cases fill the pages
of ufological publications.
Even more serious is Mr. Oberg's misconception that "ufologists
reject the concept of `falsifiability' of scientific theories."
Ordinarily, of course, theories them- selves are not considered
falsifiable but rather hypotheses derived from them.
Nonetheless, if it were true that ufologists were unconcerned
about the falsifiability of hypotheses, Mr. Oberg's assertion
that ufology cannot be even considered a proto-science might
have some merit.
To demonstrate the falsity of his contention one has only to
open the _UFO Handbook_ (1979) written by Allan Hendry of the
Center for UFO Studies. Here one finds careful critical
examinations of data, hypotheses tested -- sometimes verified
and sometimes proven wrong -- and theories scrutinized. Can it
be that Mr. Oberg knows so little about ufology that he has
never heard of such eminently falsifiable hypotheses as
"orthoteny," the "Wednesday phenomenon," the "law of the times"
or the "inverse population density" hypothesis?
All of these had been examined (and in some cases rejected) in
the light of data of which Mr. Oberg appears unaware. That this
process is not yet institutionalized in refereed journals is
symptomatic not of ufology's unscientific aims, but rather its
What Can Be Learned from Ufology?
The most obvious answer to this question is that ufology may
reveal the existence of new natural phenomena. A great many
sightings investigated by ufologists appear to be natural
phenomena similar to the controversial "ball lightning." Since
the existence of this latter is still questioned by some
persons, it is evident that much remains to be discovered about
the properties of these plasmalike manifestations. Our main
evidence for them, however, is human testimony. Their transitory
and frightening nature usually allows them to escape the camera.
Even Philip Klass, the most prominent critic of ufology, feels
these phenomena should be more carefully studied, as he
recommends in his book UFOs -- Identified (1968).
The more exotic motive for studying UFO sightings is the
possible detection of artifacts of non-human intelligence. Even
after the "plasma" UFOs are eliminated from the "unexplained"
category, there still remains a residue of cases which include
features strongly suggestive of non-human intelligent origin.
Is it sensible to believe that artifacts of non-human
intelligence could reach our atmosphere? A priori speculation on
this issue is valuable. Ultimately, however, to use the phrase
of Albertus Magnus, "in these matters only experiment makes
certain." Looking through the UFO literature and finding
hundreds of cases with alleged physical effects, "humanoid"
sightings and kidnappings, it is difficult to avoid the feeling
that these are matters which ought not to be dismissed out of
hand, but should be carefully investigated.
Huge sums have been proposed to construct radio telescope arrays
to detect signals from intelligent life in distant solar
systems. One of them, Project Cyclops, was to have cost some
$116 _billion_. If we can consider this type of funding to
detect possible signals from life in distant star systems, we
can certainly contemplate spending more moderate sums to
investigate alleged manifestations of such life in our own
Such research might present some problems not ordinarily met
with in the natural sciences. The object of investigation, after
all, could be intelligent -- even more intelligent than we are
-- and contrary to what many people simplistically assume, might
well engage in activities difficult for us to interpret.
One of the characteristics of intelligent life is its ability to
display strategic behavior. This might not necessarily make a
visit to the United Nations the first priority. As a sociologist
I am well aware of the difficulties of understanding human
behavior. The possible complexities of the behavior of
extraterrestrial intelligent life stagger the imagination.
Nonetheless, the potential payoffs from such research would make
it seem well worth the effort, if not indispensable. As an
intelligent species aware of the possibility of life elsewhere
we have no alternative but to be involved in ufology. The only
question is whether such research will be carried out with
adequate funds and scientific talent. Ufology has not failed, it
has just begun. Our effort should be not to stifle it, but to
push it further along the path from proto-science to scientific