When The Tabooed Taboo

For Leslie Kean’s book “UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record”, the only social scientists I know who have written on UFOs, Alexaner Wendt and Raymond Duvall, wrote “a new essay … incorporating their ideas … into one designed for nonacademic readers, with some new thoughts added.” They say:

There is a taboo on this book – the UFO taboo. Not in popular culture, of course, where interest in UFO abounds and websites proliferate, but in elite culture – the structure of authoritative belief and practice that determines what “reality” officially is. With respect to UFO phenomena this structure is dominated globally by three groups: governments, the scientific community, and the mainstream media. … In public these groups share the official view that UFOs are not “real” and should not be taken seriously – or at least no more seriously than any other cultural belief. …The media reinforce this disinterest by rarely covering UFOs, and when they do it is inevitably with a wink and a nod, as if to reassure us that they don’t REALLY take UFOs seriously. …

Our thesis is that the origins of this taboo are political. … The threat is threefold. … very powerful “other” might actually exist … the UFO calls into question the states ability to protect its citizens from such an invasion. Second, … a confirmation of extraterrestrial presence would create tremendous pressure for a world government, which today’s terroritorial states would be loath to form. … Third, however, and in our view most important, … calls into question … [if] human beings have the ability and authority to govern and determine our collective fate. … human-centeredness is a modern assumption, one less common in prehistoric and ancient times, when Nature of the gods were considered more powerful that human beings and thought to rule. … In sum, the UFO creates a deep, unconscious insecurity in which certain possibilities are unthinkable. … akin to denial in psychoanalysis. …

The taboo has at least three weaknesses that make it … potentially unstable. … The kind of resistance that can best exploit these weaknesses might be called “militant agnosticism.” By “agnostic” here we mean that no position on whether UFOs are extraterrestrial should be taken until they have been systematically studied. … given our current knowledge, neither denial nor belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis is justified; we simply do not know. … To be politically effective, however, resistance must also be militant, by which we mean public and strategic. … That is, what is needed above all else is a systematic science of UFOs, on the basis of which we might eventually be able to make informed judgements about them, as opposed to simply reiterating dogmas one way or the other. …

Such a science will have to do three things. First, it will have to focus on aggregate patterns rather than individual cases. … Second, … focus on finding new reports rather than analyzing old ones. This is because existing high-quality reports are relative few in number and were collected by accident and through a variety of means, making it almost impossible to find patterns. Finally, … focus on collecting objective, physical evidence rather than subjective, eyewitness accounts, for only the the former will convince the authorities that UFOs “exist”.

Kean concludes:

A deeper understanding of the unconscious aspects of the UFO taboo -the ones otherwise beyond our reach – is essential if we are to finally close the door on old ays of thinking and move this issue forward. … With the launching of a new U.S. government agency and the liberation of new resources, science could take its rightful place in the study of UFOs. … One impediment is that instead of looking at the data and taking steps to acquire more, main scientists have tended to interpret the issue theoretically and then give a theoretical reason for dismissing it. …

We have seen that there are solid, three-dimensional objects of unknown origin flying in our skies, stopping in midair and zooming toward outer space, which are apparently not natural or man-made. They’ve come very close and landed as well, leaving physical trails in soil while shriveling the leaves of nearby plants. They interact with aircraft and have physical effects on them. Photographs have caputured their image on film, and radar blips have done the same on tracking monitors. … There is more than enough evidence to determine that something physical is there.

We in this group are also “militant agnostics”: we don’t know what this something is, nor do we know what it is not. We are not making an extraordinary claim, because we’re not claiming anything beyond the reality of a physical phenomena. … We ask those on the two sides of this outmoded contest between unwavering believers and nonbelievers to realize the fallacy of both positions, and to accept the logical, necessity, and realism of the agnostic view. … Isn’t it time to acquire the additional evidence needed to find out what it is? If we need extraordinary evidence, then let’s do our job and go get it.

So, they say, to overcome the taboo among elites against seeing UFOs as anything more than hoaxes, lies, or delusions, we must study UFO patterns, especially the physical details in new UFO reports. And much more funding should go for that. But only that. As theory has been used to critique UFOs, to fight the anti-UFO taboo we must keep UFO theory taboo.

That is, in response to any question of theory, it seems that they say the only acceptable answer is “I don’t know”. One must not express more refined degrees of belief, neither numerically nor in terms a more refined partition of possibilities. Regarding various possible hypotheses, one must not discuss their prior plausibility, the likelihood which which each one predicts various empirical details, nor the appropriate posterior beliefs that best combine prior plausibility and empirical fit. Just say “I don’t know” and shut up.

(Yes, they allow an exception for expressing confidence that hoaxes, lies, delusions, and honest mistakes don’t work as explanations. And for giving detailed reasons for this confidence. But only those exceptions.)

This anti-theory taboo among the “serious” who study UFOs seems to me quite wide-spread and it has been going for a long time. You can find a vast amount of UFO work on many particular cases, some work on patterns across those cases, and even some work considering concrete physical mechanisms to explain some common patterns. But you will find almost nothing among the “serious” people on less proximate more social explanations. They are okay with saying that UFOs often seem intelligent, aware, and responsive, but not with discussing the goals, agendas, origins, or histories of those intelligences.

Alas, I have seen this before, in other areas of social science. In fields similarly dominated by empiricists who keep throwing more data papers on the pile, but offering few rewards to those who might try to make sense of all that data. Often because they wouldn’t like the best explanations. It seems that UFOs is now such a field.

Apparently reports have been submitted on over 100,000 UFO encounters worldwide in the last 75 years. Of which 5-10%, or 5K-10K, seem quite hard to explain. Yes, the taboo may have discouraged reports on ten times that number, and yes some governments have actively taken or prevented some data. But the rate at which encounters allow concrete physical samples to be collected seems to have gone way down over the decades, and it isn’t obvious to me that we will really learn that much more from sharper and longer pictures, videos, and radar images.

So an anti-theory taboo risks us spending another 75 years in data collection, after which we may still not know that much more than we do now. The point of data is to inform theory, and it still seems to me that we now have plenty enough data, not only to judge if there is something real, but also to do some theorizing. Yes much theorizing so far has been motivated and/or sloppy, but honestly most of that has been done by folks not very experience or skilled at social science theory. Which is why it seems a shame that social theorists Wendt and Duvall explicitly endorse the anti-theory taboo.

Well I plan to continue to ignore both taboos, both the anti-UFO one and the anti-UFO-theory one. And I invite other experienced and knowledgeable social theorists to join me. It may be less fun at times to work on tabooed topics, but when the taboo is unfair you can have much higher of making valuable contributions on them. And the huge potential importance of this topic seems obvious.

The quotes above seem to me a bit hypocritical in invoking the usual presumption against taboos when complaining about anti-UFO taboos, while not working much to overcome that presumption when declaring a new taboo. Yes, that combination of positions could be coherent, but one should at least notice and address the apparent conflict.

P.S. I think that independent juries evaluating the hardest to explain UFO cases would usually agree that they support the usual pattern claims, to the usual civil preponderance-of-evidence standard. I’d be willing to bet on that, and to join such a jury, but I’m not really interested in litigating this in comments here or elsewhere. Such a discussion needs to get into details of particular cases, which requires more than a few brief comments.

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