“Of all the questions the Gallup pollsters have asked the American public, why have UFOs struck such a resonant chord with the average adult American?” This was a question asked by Allan Hendry, UFO investigator for the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) throughout the late-1970s, whose work alongside J. Allen Hynek resulted in his book, The UFO Handbook: A Guide to Investigating, Evaluating and Reporting UFO Sightings.
Hendry observed: “It is true that the average individual is woefully ignorant of the way stars, aircraft, and balloons can manifest themselves. Yet so many of them have “flying saucers” registered in their subconscious and it is imprinted so strongly that there must be something about UFOs that has become important to our psychic makeup since the end of World War II.”
Many who become entangled in the slowly evolving quagmire that has become “ufology”—that is, the effort toward scientific study of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs), or, as I occasionally prefer, Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAP)—begin to get jaded with time. This is because, despite thousands of books written on the subject, and numerous studies conducted by scientific and investigative groups on both civilian and government levels, no serious headway has been made toward a consensus opinion about what the UFO phenomenon truly represents.
The majority of those interested in the subject, who advocate the existence of anomalous aircraft, gravitate toward an extraterrestrial theory of origin. However, this position remains controversial due to a lack of physical evidence that would conclusively help make this determination. Indeed, many leading UFO advocates would argue that there is no need for further “study” of UFOs at all; the data before us, scant though it may seem to any scientist, is already enough to have ushered in the era of “Disclosure,” which replaces ufology altogether.
This Disclosure, roughly defined, is the notion of pushing for release of government data about UFOs that may be withheld from the public, and it has become fundamental to the majority of the work carried out by UFO researchers, advocates, and personalities in the broader field of modern “ufology.” However, despite the passion and enthusiasm it has aroused in the UFO community for a number of years, there are a few reasons why it may not be the best focal point for obtaining knowledge about UFOs.
The Pitfalls of UFO Disclosure
The “Disclosure” idea, and the social movement that has formed around it in recent decades, is not without merit. It seems highly likely that at least some information on the UFO subject is being withheld from the public. History shows that groups like the CIA had secretly involved themselves in studies of unexplained aerial craft and other phenomena, while publicly downplaying the subject, for fear that knowledge of their role in ongoing studies might actually encourage belief in UFOs. As former CIA Chief Historian Gerald Haines has noted, this was considered undesirable at the time, since the CIA worried that rising interest in UFOs among the general public might foster social movements capable of destabilizing government authority (as had been a concern with many other, non-UFO social groups and movements, particularly throughout the 1960s and 1970s).
Thus, there is some historical precedent for why governments have withheld UFO data. However, as a ufological avenue of enquiry, the Disclosure movement may very well be a dead-end; certainly it is seen as such by an increasing number of researchers who hope to apply scientific study to the UFO mystery. By this, I mean gathering reliable information (as well as finding better ways to gather it, with the help of new, innovative technologies), and attempting properly to assess what that data yields.
This is not to detract from the idea of pressing for greater government transparency on subjects like UFOs. Nonetheless, a persistent danger exists in the presumption that such information exists, or that by lobbying for its release, something akin to an “Ark of the Covenant” for ufology will be revealed, laying out plainly, and for all to see, the “reality” behind the UFO phenomenon… whatever that might be.
Put more simply, overconfidence in the assumption that government agencies already have the answers, and that ufology is purely an aim toward gaining access to that information, may in fact be entirely counterproductive should it transpire that either of the following is true in relation to the UFO question:
1. No such information exists in the possession of government agencies, or
2. It does exist, but it continues to be withheld, despite political activism
I speak the above with full knowledge, of course, that many serious UFO researchers in years past have managed to garner new information through the FOIA process; three individuals that come to mind here are Stanton Friedman, John Burroughs, and Nick Redfern, each of whom I have spoken with personally about this subject at some length.
Thus, the argument remains that scientific UFO research, which really is the simple definition of the term “ufology,” is of utmost importance to the study of UFOs if it is to be determined that there is anything more to the subject than the simple misidentification of prosaic natural and manmade phenomena, paired with a variety of factors that contribute to the ways humans interpret it on a case-for-case basis.
Returning to Allan Hendry’s book, he offers the following analysis of the term “UFO,” as well as what it means, and how this applies to the scientific study of unexplained aerial phenomena:
The definition of a UFO given here is quite unusual, really; unlike other definitions that say what an object is or what it is like, this one describes a UFO by what it is not, or not like. If UFOs are, in effect, “everything in the sky that we don’t understand,” then this suggests that the number of kinds of UFOs is hopelessly large. Is this the case in practice? If ufology is composed of a chaotic jumble of dissimilar, unrelated events, then it can’t be amenable to study and therefore can’t really be a science.
This assessment, without additional context, may sound hopelessly bleak. Hendry, however, though scientifically skeptical in his assessment of the subject, had not been a debunker of UFOs (in fact, he argued against the ideology that, “if 90 percent of all UFO reports can be explained simply, then why not 100 percent?”). Anyone who takes time to read Hendry’s comprehensive analysis of the subject, as presented in The UFO Handbook, must see that it is among the most thorough, non-biased scientific studies ever to have been presented on the subject; in fact, it may be the very finest instance of scientific UFO research collated in a single publication.
On the varieties of the UFO experience—and the oft-asserted notion that the term “UFO” refers to all varieties of unexplainable aerial phenomena, Hendry wrote: “In the past, UFO theories have shared one thing in common: the reductionist opinion that all UFOs belong to one generic class, i.e. that all unexplainable accounts of flying objects, ranging from distant Nocturnal Lights to exotic encounters with UFO-nauts, share a common blanket explanation scheme.” Thus, the majority of Hendry’s book examines what UFOs are not, with detailed surveys that examine how easily (and consistently) common aircraft and other aerial objects or phenomena have been misinterpreted by observers.
Of particular importance is Hendry’s emphasis on the way that “flying saucers,” as a social meme, have broadly influenced people’s interpretation of unidentified objects seen in the skies, particularly at night. This has led to a consistent trend toward assessment of natural or manmade things as being “UFOs,” “alien craft,” or other similar things. This is carried over into close encounter reports, where many claims of interactions with UFO occupants (though not all of them, perhaps) seem to indicate fantasies conjured by the observer, in response to this ever-present “flying saucer” meme. Hence, the differences between reported experiences from one UFO case to the next are almost infinite in their variety, further complicating the serious scientific treatment and categorization of such data.
With all the aforementioned in mind, Hendry offers a number of breakdowns and designations, which include extrapolations on possible sources that may account for many UFO reports, while allowing for the possibility that a minority of these cases do involve exotic or, at least, as-yet unexplained phenomena.
Still, a lot has changed in the world since 1979. The proliferation of drone technologies has added to the number of things we see darting through the sky on a daily basis. Also, the prevalence of smart phones and other handheld devices have allowed for the effective containment of small UFO investigative facilities carried within one’s pocket, thanks to apps that range in focus from astronomy and star gazing, to oscilloscopes, police radars, and even satellite and aircraft tracking programs. Continued ...
“TOWARD A BETTER UFOLOGY: APPLYING SCIENCE TO THE STUDY OF UAP” by Micah Hanks is an extract from his contribution to UFOs: Reframing the Debate edited by Robbie Graham.