David Clarke. How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth. Aurum Press, 2015
In this book David Clarke, Britain’s leading ufologist, through his personal reminiscences and interviews provides a portrait of the rise of the UFO mythology. He recounts how seeing a (particularly dire) UFO documentary sparked his interest in the subject. The result was that he started to consume the literature on the subject and became an avid supporter of the ETH. He became an avid fan of Close Encounters, attended his first UFO meeting in which a speaker (Arthur Tomlinson of DIGAP?) rattled on and on, searched local papers and found reports of airships and other strange things in the skies. He got out his dad’s tape recorder and went to interview his first witness. He decided he wanted to be a reporter when he grew up and specialise in interviewing UFO witnesses. He set up a young people’s UFO group and wrote for the children’s UFO magazine Magic Saucer.
However as time went on he became less enamoured of the ETH and, influenced by Jacques Vallee and John Keel, became interested in local folklore and was intrigued by Paul Devereux’s earthlights hypotheses. However while researching the airships David Clarke came into contact with Nigel Watson, who introduced him to Magonia, “the beacon that shone through the fog'.
The bulk of the book consists of David Clarke’s interviews with a range of people, from true believers to sceptics. In the first chapter Clarke takes us to the beginnings of ufology in Britain, with the earliest (as far as known) UFO club, the Bristol based British Flying Saucer Bureau, with an interview with its then young founder, Dennis Plunkett, now the doyen of British ufologists.
The BFSB was affiliated to Albert Bender’s International Flying Saucer Bureau, and the Plunketts, seem to have bought into the whole MIB scenario. Plunkett reports that his family were similarly visited, by the MIB but his mother took them for Russian spies and just sent them away with a flea in their ear! Dennis Plunkett however has stayed true to the UFO faith and showed the same sense of persecution and grandeur that one associates with the field: he is so important that the press have to fabricate a story about his organisation so as to divert attention from some “disclosure conference“ in the US.
David Clarke reminds us that similar views were held by Gordon Creighton of FSR, who believed that 'they' were going around taking UFO books off the shelves of Britain’s libraries. The truth was much simpler, they were either stolen by ufologists who didn’t want to pay for their own copy, or became so filled with added comments in green ink that they had to be withdrawn. But of course I am a retired librarian and therefor am part of the conspiracy.
The discussion of the BFSB leads on to a wider discussion of the early years of ufology, from Kenneth Arnold to Roswell, and the myths that have grown up around them
In chapter two Clarke discusses a local UFO sighting, which turned out to be flock of birds, and this leads to his discussion of the famous pelican explanation for Kenneth Arnold’s seminal experience, and the wild hostility with which this was greeted by even relatively rational UFOlogists, so much so that the term 'pelicanist' must now have turned up in some major dictionary. Clarke shows that critics do not actually come up with alternate explanations; they just want to conserve the mystery. In reality the pelican theory, as Martin Kottmeyer points out, actually makes far more sense that the ETH. Why would space craft fly in formation like birds?
This leads on to a wider discussion of the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, and the ease by which perfectly ordinary things can be anything from just misidentified to completely misperceived or misremembered, using the work of Allan Hendry as a base. One thing, I suspect that my lie behind this is that these days most things we see in the sky are aircraft, so the temptation is to interpret anything that looks odd in the sky as a craft of some sort.
Chapter Three takes us to one of the most dramatic examples of misperception, David Simpson’s famous - or infamous - Warminster photo hoax. Despite having built in clues as to its fake nature this was taken as evidence of the exotic nature of the “object”, not just by the typical wide-eyed amateur ufologist but by the likes of Dr Pierre Guerin, an actual scientist. In fact unknown at the time, and still relatively unknown in the English speaking world, there was an even better example David Clarke could have used; the famous Premanon landing case, endorsed by the likes of Aime Michel, Jacques Vallee and numerous ufologist. It was a hoax, and confessed as such weeks later, by a bright, bored 10 year old boy, who got his little sister on the act. Scientists were fooled because they could not for one moment imagine that they could be fooled by not only a child, but, horror of horrors, a peasant child.
Faced with Simpson’s hoax did ufologists face up to how easily they could be mistaken, of course not, instead Simpson was accused of being a 'government agent' (he worked for the National Physical Laboratory), and when MUFOB, as it then was, published it we were accused of being part of the conspiracy and of betraying ufology.
In the following chapter David Clarke looks at the official investigations into UFO reports and interviews some of those involved. On such was Alex Cassie, one of the document forgers for WWII's 'Great Escape'. Cassie's claustrophobia meant that he did not join the escape party, most of the members of which were re-captured and murdered by the Gestapo. Survivor guilt led to his interest in military psychology, and he eventually became the MoD’s chief psychologist.
It was in that role that he became involved in investigating UFO reports, including that of Angus Brooks at Moigne Downs in Dorset, which featured in FSR. Cassie found this his most baffling case, but eventually came to the view that some physical trigger, some ordinary object in the sky, or a floater in the eye, had triggered some sort of dream-like experience, and that Brooks extraordinary sense of precise knowledge, was indicative of this.
Delving into the official archives and his involvement with Freedom of Information requests finally got Clarke access to the 'Holy Grail', Britain’s official UFO study, Project Condign. Would this reveal the 'great truth'? Of course not, it turned out to be a naïve, garbage in, garbage out computer study of the sort ufologists undertook in the 1970s, and its talk of UAPs and plasmas seems to be taken straight from the books of Jenny Randles. This reminds me of the for a time notorious US Air Force paper on UFOs written for cadets which simply plagiarised the works of Frank Edwards and Jacques Vallee, but was hailed for a time as proof of inside knowledge
Needless to say these files did not contain the smoking gun; they were collections of stories that were basically the same as those collected by ufologists over the years. This of course does not convince the UFO Truthers, because the only truth they want to find is that the earth has been visited by aliens. Because David Clarke helped to get the files released and eventually curated the collection, he was yet another 'government agent' in the eyes of many ufologists. What the files actually demonstrated was what was already known; reports of UFOs and their occupants changed with fashion and tended to peak at the times when the subject was in the news. The old flying saucers are now replaced to a large extent by flying triangles for example.
One of the seekers is a retired British Transport police officer, Gary Heseltine, who clearly believes that the US government is hiding the truth, backed by the world’s media which are all engaged in a gigantic conspiracy. That the huge amount of documents leaked by the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contain no reference to UFOs doesn’t faze him; the media are all suppressing it. Heseltine’s arguments boil down to the usual ufologists’ doctrine of the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony “people have been convicted on less”. Indeed, if they are poor and black and live in the USA, but not so much here in the UK now. When I was on a jury the judge went out of his way to advise us to be extremely sceptical of eyewitness testimony.
Clarke then goes on the examine tales of crashed flying saucers and the suggestions that they were either some form of subtle cold war propaganda or a cover for some nasty domestic experiment that went terribly wrong. Fascinating though some of this material is, it lacks proof like other such theories. For example ufologists love to believe that the notorious APEN letters hoax was the work of secret government agents. The truth is much simpler, they were the work of Bryan Jeffrey a Cambridge university student, and seem to have been part of some sociological experiment that got out of control. That is of course just too simple for ufologists to accept.
It is obvious from much of this that ufology is really a religion not a science, albeit a primitive and largely disorganised one, so it is fitting that there are two chapters which are devoted to contrasting religious approaches to ufology; the promotional one of the inevitable Aetherius Society, and the negative one promoted by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians; one such being the former Rev Eric Inglesby, a one-time Church of England vicar who later converted to the Orthodox Church and became Father Paul. Like Gordon Creighton, late of Flying Saucer Review, he thinks they are the work of demons - though not necessarily card carrying communist feminist ones as Creighton maintained. One person who is often accused of promoting the demon theory was John Keel. Magonia have, however, always assumed that his 'ultraterrestrials' were a metaphor for the human imagination and culture, and Keel seems to have confirmed this in conversation with David Clarke and Andy Roberts.
Sandwiched between these chapters is one on alien abductions, and it features perhaps the strangest person ever to have been a local councillor in the history of British local government. His tales of alien abduction, alien ancestry, wild conspiracy theories and the like shows how far the abduction narratives have come from the secular tales of the Villas Boas and the Hills. These stories seem to have more to do with traditional shamanism that any advanced technology.
In his penultimate chapter, Clarke returns to the supposedly scientific ETH, and shows how flawed it is. One of its proponents is Michael Swords, who argues that intelligent humanoids are the almost inevitable outcome of any biosphere, Though Swords argues “almost everyone agrees”, the truth is that very few evolutionary biologists believe this, most believe the contrary. Swords arguments are not basically, scientific, they are religious. He is a devout Roman Catholic opponent of Darwinian evolution, preferring a divinely directed evolution instead. Increasingly astronomers are coming to agree with a view held for long time by many biologists that we may well be the only techno-linguistic species in the galaxy. I suspect if that idea and its true implications became a widespread belief it would be far more destabilising to the world’s power elites than any spaceship landing on the White House Lawn.
One of the most interesting interviews is with the cosmologist Paul Davies, who describes his youthful interest in the subject, sparked by reading a library book by Donald Keyhoe. He thought that it must be true because it was in a library. He continued his interest Into his university days, where for a time he was in effect the British representative on Allen Hynek’s 'Invisible College'. He wrote a letter to Physics Bulletin criticising RV Jones for writing a critical article on the subject, and visited Hynek in Illinois and searched the files, but realised that there was no fundamental difference between the IFOs and UFOs, something that Hendry also came to accept. The reference to the letter sparked a dim and distant memory of writing a similar letter to New Scientist in about 1972.
In many ways I could see how David Clarke’s and Paul Davies’ trajectories had much in common, and how similar they are to several other people’s journeys towards a more sceptical position (mine included).
In the end David Clarke comes down firmly in the psycho-social camp, which he summarises as follows;
- There is no such as the UFO phenomenon, but there are lots of phenomena that cause UFO reports.
- There is no such thing as “True UFO”.
- Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
- Accounts of UFO experiences form the core of the syndrome but stories do not constitute “evidence”, they are folklore.
- Culture not experience creates the UFO interpretation but some experiences are independent of culture.
- The UFO syndrome fulfils the role of the supernatural “other”.
- The extraterrestrial hypothesis and other exotic theories cannot explain UFOs.
- The idea of a superconspiracy to hide the truth about UFOs is unfalsifiable.
- The common denominator in UFO stories is the human beings and see in believe in them. People want to belief in UFOs.
Summarising one might say that, even if a very tiny proportion of UFO reports were generated by novel physical phenomena or psychological processes, they would not be the UFO phenomenon, which would still exist in their absence. The real UFO Phenomenon is actually a collection of stories around which a huge folklore has accrued, and is a product of the individual and collective human imagination. It tells us about human beings not aliens or unexplained phenomena.
Ufology is a religion not a science, it exists in the realm of personal belief, and is centred around a technologized theology. In a time in which science is often seen as dispiriting, and robbing us a vision of a transcendental 'Other', but traditional religion is seen as antithetical to the modern world, the UFO religion offers an attempt at synthesis, in which the mystical powers are given a technological gloss.
It’s important not to confuse this psycho-social approach with simple debunking. It does not take the view that because UFO reports are essentially human documents and are in some sense or another products of the human imagination they are of no interest and can be just thrown away. Rather it argues that their roots in the human imagination is exactly why they are interesting and important.
I found this a really refreshing change after reading one naïve UFO book after another, and happy at last to read one which Magonia can wholeheartedly recommend. -- Peter Rogerson.