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The Great Silence: The Changing Face of Ufology

1973 was a pivotal year in the study of unidentified flying objects. While the Condon Committee’s final determination on the UFO problem the Air Force had previously been facing was a negative one, this didn’t seem to squelch the persistent rumors of strange things happening around the world, which involved flying aircraft of possibly exotic origin. 

In the latter part of 1973, Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker would have their famous meeting with “aliens” along the bayous near Pascagoula, Mississippi, a case that remains significant with regard to the possibility that there is something that could indeed be called “exotic” about some UFO cases (in other words, something seemingly non-human). A striking number of other cases from the era seem to entail cases where beings aboard these craft appeared more human, such as the encounter Travis Walton would have two years after the Hickson and Parker episode. Had these trends continued, whether the “aliens” witnesses described seemed truly alien, or suspiciously human in appearance, one might have assumed that a clear answer to the UFO enigma was likely to be right around the corner.

Instead, several decades later, many researchers who have examined UFO phenomenon of the past have been forced to admit that there is far less presumed UFO activity that can be called significant which has continued to occur today. Tabloids continue to report faint glimmers and photographic reflections under the guise of being “UFOs”, but the era where genuine mysteries inhabited our sky seems to be gone, or at least greatly diminished. Is this really the case, and if so, what lies at the root of the change?

hanks_redfern

My friend and fellow Mysterious Universe writer Nick Redfern recently expressed similar sentiments on this apparent problem, during an interview we gave on the Expanded Perspectives Podcast. In essence, the apparent presence of UFOs in our midst, taken at face value and based on the prevalence of reports from yesteryear, would have had many believing Earth was indeed under surveillance by alien intelligences. Today, that perception has changed due to a drastic decline in cases which involve actual presumed landings (and traces made by such craft), beings of exotic appearance, and plain and simple UFO reports that seem to convey a truly sophisticated aircraft (a saucer, a large triangular craft, etc), rather than ambiguous lights seen in the sky.

Writing about this issue here at MU, Nick points out that the role of UFO researcher may eventually entail more historical work than hands on investigation:

[M]any ufologists are already recognizing and realizing that if they are to get the answers to the UFO puzzle that they seek, it’s sure as hell not going to be by addressing today’s reports of “lights in the sky” and so on. The answers are to be found in history, in the past. It may well be that, 10 years from now, the primary role of the UFO seeker will not be to investigate current cases as such, but to take on the role of historian. And that would not be a bad thing.

Indeed, some of the better contributions to the historical research into UFO phenomenon continue today under the watch of researchers like Richard Dolan, whose historical surveys into the UFO phenomenon provide some of the more exhaustive (if not the most exhaustive) written works that chronicle UFO phenomenon in the last several decades. Interestingly, while speaking briefly with Richard on yet another year-end appearance we did on a radio program together, Richard did not share the view that Nick and I have espoused here, that UFO reports have seemed to diminish in both quality and number in the last few years. Perhaps there is some subjectivity to the viewpoint, which inevitably influences individual researchers and their opinions on such a notion; or perhaps Richard’s historical perspective on the phenomenon would simply differ from that of Nick and I, who seem to agree that, if there is a phenomenon, the evidence of it has nonetheless become less apparent.

This is not to say that all UFO reports stem from the 70s and 80s, in the opinion of Redfern and I at least. Sure, there are quality reports that still occurred well into the 90s and 2000s, with occasional reports still offered today that suggest the kinds of craft commonly associated with UFO phenomenon in years gone by might still be at work today. Who really knows what is going on? It’s anyone’s guess.

Richard Dolan

Of Richard Dolan, Nick Redfern and myself, I am often considered the most skeptical of the three in relation to my study of UFOs. While being skeptical, this does not mean, in my opinion, that one must take a derogatory or cynical stance toward the subject, as so many “modern skeptics” seem to consider requisite behavior. Instead, this has simply meant that I have grown very careful about leaping to conclusions when it comes to UFO phenomenon (such as asserting that UFOs are “space ships” piloted by beings from other worlds). While one cannot deny the exotic nature of many reports, we can’t say, with certainty, that extraterrestrials are anything akin to what we’re dealing with. An equally suspect position to take, in my opinion, would be to assert that all UFO reports of the last several decades are misidentifications, hoaxes, and mental aberrations. The statistical likelihood of this would seem questionable indeed, despite the fact that there is probably some psychological component that should be addressed in relation to UFO encounters, but that is a much broader conversation than what we seek to address here.

If we wished to be truly speculative (if only for the sake of fun, which I’m about to take great liberties in having), we might presume that the drop off in numbers of quality “meat and potatoes” UFO sightings could actually involve something many UFO researchers have proposed, and argued about, over the years. This involves the notion that Earth visitation might have to do with a survey being conducted by extraterrestrials. Stanton Friedman and others have argued that, if Earth were being visited, the use of nuclear weapons might have flagged ET’s attention in the first place. Then, throughout the height of the Cold War, UFO reports continued to proliferate, often in graphic detail. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of nuclear tensions between the Eastern and Western worlds, UFO phenomenon has tapered off as well. If we were even to casually assume for a moment that “aliens” had anything to do with what was transpiring with UFOs in those years, we might also conclude that they were managing a sort of threat assessment, and that with less threat of mutually assured destruction today, there is less necessity for UFO appearances, as well.

Granted, while I have steered further away from the ET approach to UFO studies over the years, this speculative observation may prove worthwhile nonetheless. Carl Jung had been one who often insisted that UFOs could be symbolic representations, perhaps in a majority of instances, stemming from people’s own inner fear of Cold War realities. Could social attitudes toward existential problems we face as a civilization indeed have some influence on our perception of reality, and thus be somehow related (perhaps in a psycho-social way) to UFO studies? This, too, can be entertained without having to assume that all UFO sightings are psychological manifestations. Even Jung, we should note, had been compelled by the radar traces in relation to some of the better UFO incidents, which thus compelled him to believe there was, in fact, some kind of physical phenomenon or technology at work.

One other perplexing problem comes to mind here, however, when it comes to addressing technology. With the advent of mobile cameras and other technologies that would lend far greater efficiency to the study of unexplained phenomenon in the modern era, it is curious, yet again, that rather than being able to collect more data about things like UFOs, the trend continues to steer toward there being less, save the prolific appearances of lights in the sky which, filmed from a mobile phone, could represent stars, planets, planes, mirages, reflections, drones, or any number of other things with equal efficacy to the hoped-for UFOs so many of us wish to see. It’s enough to cause one to wish that mobile phones had been in use in the 1970s, when the Waltons and the Hicksons and the Parkers and the like were having their encounters with craft and entities so strange it would rival the best science fiction.

Alien Encounters of the World

We may not have an answer for the apparent changes in UFO appearances, or to be more blunt, the modern lack of appearances when compared with the prolific reports of decades past. But perhaps in attempting to understand the disparities that exist, we would be wise to consider a variety of possible influences, ranging from the technical use of cameras and technologies that have become widespread in their use, to the psychological underpinnings that relate to UFO studies worldwide. Proper assessment may not only reveal that there is a phenomenon, but that there are human components in equal measure that contribute to the ups and downs of one of Earth’s most elusive mysteries.

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  • Paulo Freitas

    I think most of the ‘authentic UFOs’ seen during the Cold War period were secret military aircraft, and once the Cold War ended, the presence of secret military aircraft declined and as such so did the UFO cases.

    I also think the fact it’s so easy to edit videos nowadays and post them on youtube also discredited the UFO phenomenon as most modern videos are fake.

  • ivr

    Not that I want to be seen as an internet troll but to your article i say meh.
    You said “…despite the fact that there is probably some psychological component that should be addressed in relation to UFO encounters…” really? According to who? In what capacity? Also, “… psychological underpinnings that relate to UFO studies worldwide.” Man that is presumptuous! That dog won’t hunt! Been there done that ‘Mr. Condon.’ You are just as bad as the FAA grounding pilots for reporting a UFO. And, Just because all ‘modern’ UFO sightings could be hoaxed doesn’t mean they are all hoaxed. The potential that there is a mass of data being collected is as real (well almost) as constant and persistent hoaxing. The phenomenon of UFO’s is indeed mysterious and challenging. If things have changed, adapt don’t dismiss.

  • Micah Hanks

    IVR,

    Thanks for taking time to respond, as I appreciate it, whether or not you agree! :)

    Now that said, I’ve been compared to Condon before in the past, which isn’t something I mind so much, since you, or anyone else doing so, likely means that you simply don’t possess an understanding of what Condon was trying to achieve that is on par with my own, having studied this subject, and also having worked to interpret it as carefully as possible, for a number of years.

    I mean no disrespect in saying this, of course, and if possible, I will try to further elucidate on this point for you here… but first, I should direct you to what is known as the “psycho-social hypothesis” for UFO research, which does not purely assert that people who observe a UFO are merely imagining it (as I must presume you had interpreted my statements regarding “psychological components”, which evoked such displeasure in your rebuttal). Instead, it represents the possibility that “UFOs are not ‘real vehicles’ in a physical sense, but can instead be explained as a product of psychological and/or social factors acting upon both individuals and large groups of people.” I think that this is one portion of several larger elements that should be addressed in relation to UFOs, rather than being criticized, or weaponized even, as many skeptics do for purposes of disarming UFO claims. You can read more about this here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychosocial_hypothesis

    Additionally, I’ve further expanded on my initial premise with this article in a piece over at my personal site, largely inspired by your welcome critique… I hope that perhaps it will help outline why I don’t think being compared with Edward Condon is such a bad thing… and that frankly, many UFO researchers and skeptics alike have, again, “weaponized” the Condon Committee’s findings, and Condon’s own statements, for purpose of presenting arguments against one another:

    http://micahhanks.com/ufos/sacred-cows-belief-skepticism-and-unexplained-aerial-phenomenon/

    At the end of the day, there are issues which must be addressed in order to move forward. Again, with respect, summing it all up by saying “meh” adds very little intellectual merit to this debate, and in reading the articles I have linked above, I hope you will see that I, in fact, endorse your more thorough position that “The phenomenon of UFO’s is indeed mysterious and challenging. If things have changed, adapt don’t dismiss.”

    All the best,

    Micah Hanks

  • Curt Collins

    Nice article, and food for thought.
    “It’s enough to cause one to wish that mobile phones had been in use in the 1970s, when the Waltons and the Hicksons and the Parkers and the like were having their encounters with craft and entities so strange it would rival the best science fiction.”
    The illustration you posted alongside that embodies the worst science fiction- bipedal humanoids that look like men in rubber monster costumes. I recently was distracted into looking in the 1917 Fatima Miracle of the Sun, and a photograph later produced claiming to document it. When it was exposed as a “mistake”, a representative of the Church said that it was unlikely that supernatural events could be photographed anyway! I’m beginning to think that most sightings are almost identical to spiritual visions.

  • ivr

    Thank You. I have been simultaneously schooled and educated! I can not match your reply with a parallel set of references and I do not have the attention span to clarify my thoughts at such a great length as you have done. However, I do feel compelled to respond if for no other reason than a sense of respect for your work.
    The Psychosocial hypothesis has validity. The Condon report has validity (mostly in the sense that it was even commissioned in the first place). Most UFO sightings can be explained through natural phenomenon. There were many experimental craft operated by various government agencies and so on and so forth. And yet, there always remains those accounts that don’t fit in any known explanation. This is why I find the UFO mystery compelling is there is no one ‘response’ to the question that works or can work for all sightings. The UFO question has been approached from so many angles that in a sense it has be come a circular firing squad with the researches holding the guns! What I find most troubling in UFO research is the attempt to interpret what is at best an incomplete message. Whether it is those that claim UFO’s are craft with our space brothers or those that claim they are mentally induced or societal induced aberrations, I find no satisfying explanations to cover the entire phenomenon. In conclusion why I took exception to your article is that, to me, it represents more speculation in a field that invites endless speculation to a mystery that has yet, if it will ever, to reveal itself in its entirety.
    Thanks

  • Micah Hanks

    Hey IVR,

    Aw heck, you haven’t been schooled, and certainly not by me. But you bring a very valuable approach to all of this, and of course, I value greatly when folks challenge my views, because it helps me check my own opinions… you’ve helped do that. So I would prefer to say that rather schooling, we have each helped one another see a new perspective of sorts.

    A criticism I could easily launch on myself, for instance, would be that while I highlight problems in the community, I could also work more diligently toward trying to suggest ways that investigation, data collection, or study of UFOs in general could improve.

    That’s all for now, but thanks again for the dialogue.

    Cheers,

    Micah

  • Tor Eirik Bjørkli

    Oh. They left in 1977, and even hijacked a tv-station to tell us ;) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afXKOt3A0xc