The UFO UpDates Archive

'Psychosocialbabble' IUR 15.3 May/June 1990

From: "Jerome Clark" <jkclark@frontiernet.net>
Date: Mon, 18 May 98 15:13:32 PDT
Fwd Date: Mon, 18 May 1998 22:45:33 -0400
Subject: 'Psychosocialbabble' IUR 15.3 May/June 1990

Recent postings here bring to mind a piece I wrote for
International UFO Reporter 15,3 (May/June 1990).
It's titled "Psychosocialbabble," and I hope you find it
of interest. -- Jerry Clark

------------

History is a subject in which some ufologists seem profoundly
uninterested these days.  Recently a reviewer in a British
magazine airily dismissed Richard Hall's Uninvited Guests, with
its insistent but to the reviewer unwelcome reminder of what the
UFO evidence traditionally has consisted of (well-documented
cases more logically tied to extraordinary technologies than to
even more extraordinary "psychosocial" causes), as evoking little
more than the "nostalgic glow of youth."  What the reviewer
insisted the UFO evidence consists of is this (and hang on to
your hats, folks):

".... a folklore in which the man and woman in the street is
[sic] threatened by both the limitless power of the `wholly
other', from which not even the bedroom is safe, and the
arbitrary power of a state bureaucracy widely believed to go
round assassinating and intimidating those who have discovered
its appalling secret. Beyond the crashed-saucer stories lies the
fear that passionless symbols of pure reason are in command, and
somehow need to steal our passion and our physicality in order to
survive and reproduce. The atrophied `animal parts' of the alien
cadavers have their psychological counterpart in the `glacial
indifference' of the abductors. These are, of course, literal
`eggheads', the antithesis of the `red-blooded American male',
and thus the ultimate symbol of un-Americanism."  Elsewhere this
individual has written that American ufology -- and many American
UFO experiences -- are driven by a deep-seated fear of Hispanic
immigrants. Yes, he's serious.  They always are.

Such is much of ufology in our time, an exercise in -- what DOES
one call this sort of thing? Rubbish, of course, but rubbish and
writing about UFOs have a long, dishonorable and depressingly
documentable relationship; so our friend does not distinguish
himself here, not anyway when the John Lears and the Bill Coopers
(whose crazy and marginal views our British pundit seems to think
are representative of the beliefs not only of American ufologists
but of Americans generally) are abroad in the land. Perhaps what
makes these remarks notable is their quality of pseudoprofundity.
One who is not reading carefully, or who knows little of what is
being addressed (American ufology and American popular culture),
may nod approvingly, though without quite realizing what meets
his approval is only the elegance of the prose. After all, with
one exception (I confess the line about the "atrophied `animal
parts'" remains incomprehensible to me even after repeated
readings), the sentences start somewhere and end with some
discernible link with the opening sentiment -- not always the
case in ufological prose -- and there is only one grammatical
error.  There are the requisite intellectual buzz words and
phrases: not just the always reliable "symbol" and "psychological
counterpart" but "passionless symbols of pure reason," a real
mouthful, not to mention "the limitless power of the `wholly
other'" and "antithesis." And of course there is the implicit
Ameriphobia, always good for additional credit in some quarters.

If one reduces the UFO phenomenon to an exercise in literary
criticism (in other words, to meditation on a bunch of ideas and
images patched together in narrative form) as opposed to a
collection of investigatable experiential claims, the remarks
above would have some meaning, not as profound insights (they are
not that in any context) but as the sort of harmless fodder hack
academics grind out to satisfy humanities-department heads that
they are indeed able to publish SOMETHING and thus are worthy of
continued employment at some less-than-first-rate provincial
university. Merit, or even intellectual coherence, is not always
the prime concern in these circumstances.  But of the course the
UFO phenomenon, to those who encounter it directly or to those
who study its effects in field or laboratory, is at its core an
EVENT which, when circumstances are right, can be recorded on
radar, film, videotape, and photograph providing instrumented
evidence that typically confirms the honesty and accuracy of the
accompanying human testimony .

It is incredible that in 1990 one should have to say this, or
that an examination of actual evidence, as in Dick Hall's fine
book, should be denounced as irrelevant and, yes, "provincial"
(read "American") as if only a naif would hold that UFO sightings
are relevant to a discussion of the UFO phenomenon. It is
remarkable indeed that in many quarters ufological speculation by
(ostensible) noncranks should bear only the most passing
relationships to empirical evidence. (One psychosocial
speculationist even acknowledges that the cases on which he
builds his theories are worth "next to nothing as scientific
evidence," then proceeds to draw on them to argue a hypothesis he
clearly believes to be scientific.)  No wonder actual UFO
investigation has fallen into disrepute; some organs of
psychosocial ufology now actively defend the armchair as the
place from which one gets the grandest, clearest view. Grand (or
grandiose) the view may be, but clear it ain't.  Apparently the
requirements of science, of even of good journalism, are
invisible from this vantage.

How many armchair psychosociologists does it take to construct a
falsifiable hypothesis, or even to know what one is?  Try to
prove that little gray humanoids are NOT "passionless symbols of
pure reason."  Or, for that matter, that they're not "symbolic"
of our deep unconscious fear of dentists (remember Barney Hill's
teeth?). Or short people. Or bald, skinny people. Or people with
cold, unblinking stares and long, thin fingers. Or -- most
horrifying of all -- short, bald, skinny, thin-fingered JUNGIAN
dentists who glare frigidly at their terrified patients.  The
possibilities are endless.

Some months ago I had occasion to read or reread every major
piece of writing in the English language on the psychosocial
hypothesis.  As I plowed through this by-now-considerable
literature, I kept one question in mind all the while: what
EMPIRICAL evidence justifies the various writers' pronouncements?
The answer is "none to speak of." ...  In the psychosociological
works the noun "psychology" and the adjective "psychological" are
ubiquitous but function more as mantras than as indicators of
genuine scientific insights or possibilities.

One prominent writer fills his books with accounts of anomalous
experiences and follows them with pontifications on the "needs"
that caused these poor, unenlightened folks to believe they had
encountered gray-skinned humanoids or other need-we-
say-nonexistent anomalous entities.  It turns out that these
speculations about "needs" are based on a sort of off-the-cuff
analysis of persons the writer "knows" only through a few short
sentences he has read about them in books on ufology, psychical
research, or religious visions; many of these books, of course,
were written by persons who had never met them either.  In real
psychology the theorist pays heed both to the dictates of
scientific inquiry and to the truth, understood by all observant
human beings, that human personalities are complex and often
inscrutable. Thus he would feel obligated to base his
speculations on enormously more evidence, including but not
confined to psychological inventories and interviews.

Moreover, hypotheses would be framed in such a way that, if
wrong, they could be proven to be so. (Biologist R. C. Lewontin
remarks that the difference between a falsifiable hypothesis and
an unfalsifiable one is that the first is "what characterizes
science, while the second kind is just storytelling.")  Beneath
all the verbiage lies nothing more than this simple tautology:
Why did X think he saw extraterrestrials?  Because he had certain
psychological needs. How do we know he had these needs? Because
he thought he saw extraterrestrials.

This same writer asserts that hallucinations of alien beings
occur when the percipient is in one or more of the following
psychic or social states: relaxation or excitation; boredom or
ecstasy; isolation or participation in a group; concentration or
distraction; a crisis of faith or an unquestioning faith; anxiety
or peace of mind.  When none of these conditions obtains (if that
is conceivable), the weather, the phase of the moon, or the
individual's diet may trigger the imaginary encounter. It may as
well be argued that the psychological state in which one is
likely to imagine extraterrestrials is being alive -- also the
state, an impolite observer might add, in which conceivably one
could encounter REAL extraterrestrials.

Elsewhere the writer says that CE3 accounts surely could not
involve extraterrestrials because the perceived ETs' behavior is
"illogical, no matter how much allowance we make for the
possibility of ET logic may be different from ours." Scarcely 50
pages of the same book later we read that CE3s cannot be
interpreted as alien encounters because the supposed ETs'
patterns of behavior are "humanlike in so many ... ways."

What this sort of circular logic leads to is a closed system from
which nothing can enter, leave, or lay claim to an existential
state independent of the psychosociologists' description of it.
It has nothing to do with science. That does not mean that
psychosociological approaches are not worth pursuing; it does
mean that their proponents have done a lousy job of arguing their
case, and it seems clear that even a more persuasively argued
psychosocial model (of a sort yet to be articulated) is not going
to help us much with ufology's most interesting questions, those
that are the field's very raison d'etre, namely the ones that
relate to such issues as physical and instrumented evidence,
multiple witnesses, and the sorts of cases dealt with in, for one
recent instance, Hall's book (and, for that matter, in Menzel's
and Klass' books; the debunkers worth paying attention to have
always understood that they have to do more than wave hands at
the evidence).

Reading the psychosocial literature, however, one would think
that the case for the reality of UFOs consists of Adamski-like
contactee tales (more plausibly accounted for as hoaxes than as
the products of exotic psychological processes) and anecdotes
about men in black.  It is difficult for those outside the
psychosocial belief system to understand what states of human
consciousness, altered or otherwise, have to do -- to mention two
instances of many hundreds that any informed ufologist could reel
off the top of his head -- with the Trans-en-Provence CE2 or the
Roswell case (though the latter was once "explained" to me by a
British enthusiast who said it came about because of Americans'
hysterical fear of "Commies" -- a peculiar argument to which he
brought neither evidence nor logic but to which he was, need I
note, thoroughly committed, even to the preservation of it in
print).

On its present course psychosocial ufology appears primed to
continue into perpetuity its sad infatuation with bad psychology,
bad sociology, and bad folklorics.  Its followers commit the
fundamental intellectual error so devastatingly critiqued by
behavioral scientist David J. Hufford in his paper "Traditions of
Disbelief" in New York Folklore, Winter 1982.  Writing of the
"standard skeptical view of supernatural belief -- a view that
has existed for centuries, probably millennia -- namely that
supernatural beliefs arise from and are supported by various
kinds of obvious error," he observes that the "research design
begins with the question `Why and how do some people manage to
believe things which are so patently false?' ...  Such a
perspective has its usefulness ... but ... it is necessarily
ethnocentric in the most fundamental sense. It takes a body of
knowledge and considers it to be simply `the way things are'
rather than a product of culture. It says over and over again,
`What I know I KNOW, what you know you only BELIEVE."

We can also expect psychosociologists to grow ever more dogmatic
in their rhetoric -- and it is rhetoric, above all else, at which
these pundits excel; there are, by comparison, relatively few
articulate defenders of the extraterrestrial hypothesis.  We can
anticipate an ever greater eagerness to psycho- scrutinize the
"needs" of those deluded souls who think radar/visual cases and
ground traces mean something.

For our part, those of us on the other side may be goaded into
proposing our own psychosocial hypothesis: that the psychosocial
hypothesis is itself a psychosocial response to the UFO
phenomenon, a nontechnical, nonthreatening model of the
phenomenon suitable to its English majors, librarians, Jungians,
and counterculturists who are its principal proponents. In a real
sense, in its elegant and strangely militant prose, in its
suspicion of technology and antipathy to falsifiable-
theory-making, it represents the revenge of the liberal- arts
majors against a ufology dominated (in principle anyway) by such,
from the psychosociologists' point of view, soul-deadening
concerns as documentation, verification, and reason -- also known
as the tools of science.

Our own psychosocial hypothesis, unlike theirs, is a falsifiable
one.  To be falsified, it needs only for the psychosociologists
to get serious; to get serious, they need to develop scientific
hypotheses.  In other words, our hypothesis will be falsified
when psychosociologists offer us falsifiable hypotheses. Till
then the rest of us can only watch and wonder anew at what the
UFO phenomenon does, again and again, to otherwise rational
people.