Re: E.T.H. - Extremely Tenuous Hypothesis
From: "Jerome Clark" <email@example.com>
Date: Tue, 19 May 98 10:49:15 PDT
Fwd Date: Tue, 19 May 1998 14:06:22 -0400
Subject: Re: E.T.H. - Extremely Tenuous Hypothesis
> From: "Mark Pilkington" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
> To: "UFO UpDates - Toronto" <email@example.com>
> Subject: E.T.H. - Extremely Tenuous Hypothesis
> Date: Tue, 19 May 1998 10:42:55 +0100
> E.T.H. - Extremely Tenuous Hypothesis
> John Rimmer
> The major part of the book is an attack on the 'New-Ufology'
> ideas of the sixties and seventies, particularly the works of
> John Keel and Jacques Vallee. Clark himself, like many Americans
> now settled into middle-aged, middle-class conformity, has
> problems about the nineteen-sixties. Clark's historicist view of
> ufology sees it emerging from the original sightings and contacts
> in the 'forties into two separate strands of thought: the
> 'saucerians' - pro-contact, space-brothers oriented, and the
> 'ufologists', scientific and sceptical of contact claims. There
> is a great deal of truth in this, although the separation between
> the two streams was never as total as Clark believes, and he has
> rather starry-eyed views on the scientific rigour of the
> 'ufologists'. At one point he claims: "To [ufologists] the ETH
> was something more to be assumed than to be speculated about
> [true, but hardly scientific]. Ufology's best and brightest had
> more interest in investigating reports and correlating data than
> in wondering about the Greater Meaning of it All". In your
> dreams, Jerry!
In yours, John.
What's striking about the psychosocial hypothesis (PSH, or Purely
Speculative Hypothesis) is its advocates' disdain for the
pragmatic business of investigation and documentation. Of course
there is a lot of silliness, naivete, and gullibility over the
course of UFO history. No one knows that better than I, having
read probably more UFO literature than all but a small handful of
my fellow humans; see the 93 pages of small-print bibliography in
my just-published The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed.: The Phenomenon
from the Beginning. That, however, is not the end of the story,
much as the PSH types desire it to be so; there also a bunch of
firstrate investigations conducted by the heroes, sung and
unsung, of ufology. If the PSH types are aware of their
existence, they are maintaining a tactful silence on the matter.
The fact that they don't want this stuff to exist won't make it
go away. It is also true, as I wrote and as John would know if
he had made the effort, that in ufology's early days the ETH was
more often assumed than speculated about. Even I was surprised
to find that out.
While I was researching the UFO Encyclopedia, I was pleased to
see, often buried deeply in NICAP and other archives, thick files
on case investigations, in which the investigator or
investigators left no stone unturned. No airy pronouncements
from the armchair, but richly informed judgments from the field.
In this sort of material (as in Blue Book records, Condon files,
and elsewhere) one finds the core of the case for UFOs as
anomalous physical phenomena apparently under intelligent
I am amused to find myself labeled a "conformist" and an "ardent"
supporter of the ETH. Reading stuff like this, I am reminded
again of why, long ago, I abandoned ideology for pragmatism. The
latter didn't force me to reinvent the world to conform to my own
> In fact it would be hard to find a UFO magazine in the fifties
> and sixties which did not from time to time waste a great deal of
> paper in vague, speculative rambling articles - what Hilary Evans
> memorably describes as 'deserts of arid speculation' - about life
> and the universe. The magazines that didn't, presumably Clark's
> data correlators, were simply listings of cases; mostly
> uninvestigated reports from newspapers. These were, and are
> still, very useful in their way, but hardly represent the 'hard
> work and shrewd analysis' which Clark claims as a hallmark of the
> scientific 'ufologists'.
For a full account of how ufologists (beginning with Fort) have
treated the ETH, read "Extraterrestrial Hypothesis and Ufology,"
which appears in The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Ed. (374-93). An
abridged version of the same essay appears in the trade paperback
The UFO Book (199-218). As is typical of PSH writing, the above
bears some passing relationship to some things, and none whatever
to others. In short, speculation in the UFO literature has
covered the spectrum: from the naive and crazy to the sober and
intriguing. Having spent a good part of the last year reading
SETI literature, most of it written by credentialed scientists, I
can say pretty much the same of that literature. Until we know a
whole lot more than we know now about extraterrestrial life, that
is likely to remain the case.
> This cosy sub-division of the subject came under threat in the
> seventies with the rise of two of Clark's principal betes-noir,
> John Keel and Jacques Vallee. I agree that Keel was responsible
> for introducing a new element of anti-scientific irrationalism
> into the field of ufology, and in Magonia's '25 Years Ago'
> columns you will have read how Alan Sharp regularly locked horns
> with Keel over his lack of scientific credibility. In Keel's
> favour it must be said that his investigations (and when all is
> said he probably did more first-hand investigation than most
> so-called scientific 'ufologists') opened out the field of
> ufology, and yes, Clark is right, helped undermine the complacent
> acceptance of the ETH amongst most ufologists.
> Vallee is a scientist, and his first two books are still held up
> as examples of the kind of 'correlative' work that Clark assumes
> was the standard for ufologists at the time. The fact that they
> are still worth reading simply serves to demonstrate how little
> of that type of work was actually going on then. With Passport to
> Magonia Vallee moved into the realm of 'sixties counterculture',
> in Clark's view. I suspect that most of Vallee's interest in
> ufology was fulfilled by the time he published Invisible College
> in the late seventies, and his later books are largely re-hashes
> or diaries of his more productive period.
In The UFO Encyclopedia I have written extensively about Keel,
Vallee, and paranormal/occult UFO theories. Again, interested
readers are urged to go there for a full expression of my views.
> The real problem for Clark's thesis with both these writers is
> that they showed that the UFO phenomenon was not containable in a
> simple ETH pigeonhole. The problem was one of perception: the
> perception of what constituted a UFO report. Clark castigates FSR
> for carrying articles by the likes of F W Holiday about the Loch
> Ness Monster, and certainly they were tedious enough to read at
> the time. But at least they were able to demonstrate that the ETH
> was not the only unproven theory that could be hung around the
The ETH, right or wrong, is a perfectly respectable scientific
theory, as Michael Swords (conspicuously absent in the anti-ETH
broadsides from PSHers) has demonstrated in his long surveys of
the exobiological literature. Theories that attribute UFO,
paranormal, and anomalous phenomena to demons would strike most
of us as a tad on the irrational side.
> But we are simply told that "as eventually became all
> too apparent" the theory was suitable only for the dreaded
> librarians who wrote about ufology as "an exercise in literary
This, of course, is the principal problem of the PSH. It is
ufology reduced to literary criticism. Having been an English
major myself and a lifelong devotee of literature, I am all in
favor of literary criticism, and I know it when I see. I even
think it has its role in the discussion of UFO issues. Where the
PSH types go wrong is in believing, strangely, that literary
criticism when applied to all UFO issues possesses explanatory
power. Another reason I left the fold, for which apostacy I fear
I will never be forgiven.
> I think part of the reason why Clark has abdicated on his attempt
> to counter the PSH is that, despite such writers as Martin
> Kottmeyer and one or two other contributors to Fortean rather
> than ufological literature, it has never really been seriously
> promoted in the USA, and as is becoming clearer and clearer,
> American ufology like much of American society is tremendously
Here we get the whiff of Ameriphobia which always seems to turn
up in PSH polemic.
> This is understandable in a such a huge and diverse
> country, but it does reduce the range of influences and ideas
> which impinge on US ufology
Hey, John, has it ever occurred to you that we have looked at the
PSH arguments and found them unconvincing? Or that the first
full-length book to use PSH-like arguments -- Clark and Coleman's
The Unidentified (1975) -- was published here in this poor,
insular country? Could it be that there is an explanation for
American ufologists' rejection of the PSH that does not happen to
suit your convenience?
> On the last page this book is revealed as a prop for the ETH.
> Clark admits that humans do perceive a remarkable range of
> anomalous experiences: "as... psychosocial theorist rightly
> remind us... gods, monsters fairies, even merfolk... we can grant
> the legitimacy of fantastic experience without taking the further
> step of confusing it with event",
I love that sly use of the verb "admits." The sort of rhetorical
flim-flammery one encounters often in PSH discourse.
> except of course for UFOs. The
> core UFO phenomenon is the "daylight disc, radar/visual and
> landing traces (and, perhaps crash/retrieval)". The ETH, in these
> case has been shown to be "reasonable, testable and meaningful.
> At the least it has demonstrated the presence of a physical
> phenomenon with a technlogy which interacts with its immediate
And of course I stand by that. These sorts of cases always leave
the PSH flailing. Few PSH types even possess the technical
training to investigate them or understand the implications of
the evidence. That doesn't stop them from dismissing them
wholesale, arms flailing all the while.
My position on the ETH is far more qualified and nuanced than
anything I have seen among the hard-line dogmatists of the PSH.
My position is simply that the ETH is, "right or wrong, a
reasonable reading of the most evidential reports." I don't
claim it is proved; I simply hold that it is a reasonable
provisional hypothesis, and I think most thoughtful people would
agree. I am far less obsessed with final explanations and
conclusive causes than John and his cohorts are.
At the same time I hold the view -- which, if they held it too,
would save the PSH types a lot of trouble -- that not all of what
we call UFO phenomena are the same thing. I discuss this issue
in detail in the essay "On Anomalous Phenomenona" in my
Unexplained! (1993) and in abbreviated form in the introduction
to the new encyclopedia (xii-xiii). I really think we ought to
be more modest about what we think we know, and that should go
for everybody who wants to call ufology "extraterrestrial
research" to those who claim, with no empirical justification to
speak of, that anything not otherwise accountable for can be
contained in a Purely Speculative Hypothesis and swept out the
For a full history and critique of the PSH, see my Encyclopedia,
749-59, or The UFO Book, 492-504. For solid cases which remain
puzzling after extensive investigation and analysis, see those
books, too. (You might be particularly interested in the entry on
the RB-47 case.) They also contain extensive bibliographic
references so that those whose minds are not shut tight as
mousetraps can learn more.
In a sense, of course, one can't help envying John and the Purely
Speculative crowd. They have all the answers. I, on the other
hand, am still searching. I suspect most of the rest of you are,