As a sweeping generalization, British UFO researchers are less single-mindedly fixated on the extraterrestrial hypothesis (and concomitant beliefs such as alien abductions and government conspiracies) than their American counterparts. Of course there are exceptions on both sides, but British ufologists do tend to adopt a “more things in Heaven and Earth” approach to the subject. This was certainly the message that came across during the first day of the BUFORA (British UFO Research Association) 50th Anniversary Conference that I attended yesterday.
There is no doubt that during the 1970s the police Special Branch (whose responsibility was national security and counter-insurgency) took a strong and active interest in UFO groups. That’s a well-documented fact. But it’s not the same thing as saying that they took an interest in the subject of ufology. The British authorities in the 1970s weren’t all that paranoid about an alien invasion, but they were paranoid about far-right anti-government extremists. The authorities believed that certain far-right political activists were infiltrating UFO groups in order to recruit new members. That sounds very unlikely to me, because I’ve never met a far-right UFO enthusiast in my life (although I’ve met many far-left ones)... but the fact is that it’s what the authorities believed. And it’s certainly true that if you’re looking for people with a deep-seated hatred of the establishment, a UFO group is as good a place as any to start.
Many people will dismiss this sort of talk as “scepticism”, but it’s really the only way to go about serious ufological investigation. In the real world, it’s inevitable that some UFO reports will turn out to have perfectly mundane explanations. At the same time, other cases—the ones Heather calls “High Strangeness” cases—defy rational explanation. Something is going on that science can’t explain. But that still doesn’t mean it’s extraterrestrials. Many people in the Western world, seeing something they’ve never seen before, will mentally pigeonhole it as a UFO because that’s the way they’ve been brought up. You sometimes hear patronizing statements about primitive peoples along the lines “of course, if they encountered extraterrestrial aliens, they would interpret them as gods or angels or spirits”. But why not the other way around? If a sci-fi geek encountered a god/angel/spirit he or she would interpret them as a space alien!
An interesting point John made is that the contactees of the early 1950s—people like George Adamski—recounted long conversations with the Space Brothers, in which the latter warned the people of Earth in dire terms about the dangers of nuclear weapons. But in those days, every thinking human being on the planet was worried spitless about the threat of nuclear weapons. The Space Brothers never thought to warn the people of the 1950s about something they weren’t already obsessing about, such as ozone depletion, greenhouse gases or global warming.
John’s take on the Roswell incident was also interesting. This took place in 1947, of course, but when I started reading about UFOs in the late 60s and early 70s it was never mentioned. Books of that time never bothered to mention the biggest UFO case of all time, even though it had occurred more than 20 years earlier. In order to believe in Roswell, you have to believe that the United States government is capable of lying, scheming and deception on an industrial scale. Cultural tracking wasn’t ready for that yet. So there was a long pause from 1947 to 1974, when the Watergate scandal proved beyond doubt that the United States government was indeed capable of lying, scheming and deception on an industrial scale. It was only in the post-Watergate world that people were culturally primed and ready to believe in Roswell.
One striking example came from the 1960s, when a glowing orange ball was filmed hovering over an English primary school, as well as being witnessed by dozens of 10 and 11 year old children at the school. Despite having all the hallmarks of a UFO, the cameraman thought it might have something to do with the fact that a US Air Force F-111 fighter-bomber crashed nearby on the same day (in those days, the USAF was allowed to maintain a small number of air bases in the UK, as a goodwill gesture from the British government—and by inference, the British people). But when the USAF saw the photo of the orange ball hovering over the English school, their response was along the lines “Nothing to do with us. The picture was taken 14 minutes before the crash-landing of the F-111, which at no point caught fire. So it’s nothing to do with us. No, sir. If you ask us, it looks like one of them there extraterrestrial spacecraft people are always talking about.” So contrary to popular belief, this was a case of the US authorities actually encouraging an extraterrestrial interpretation of a UFO sighting.
Many years later the truth emerged in a way that leaves no room for any doubt. When the F-111 first got into trouble, 14 minutes before the eventual crash-landing, the crew went through a standard procedure to reduce the risk of an explosion on landing. They ejected all the aircraft’s fuel, and used the afterburner to ignite it, causing a massive fireball. The US aircrew chose to do this immediately over an English primary school. Had it become known at the time that they had effectively placed their own safety over that of British schoolchildren, the goodwill of the British people would have evaporated... and the USAF would have been kicked out of the country. That’s the kind of cover-up and conspiracy I find easier to believe than the extraterrestrial kind.