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Sunday 24 May 2015

How UFOs Conquered the World

 As you can see from the photograph, the latest addition to my collection of UFO books is How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clarke. Despite having a picture of a child on the cover, it’s one of the most grown-up books on the subject I’ve ever come across. My review of it appeared on Brian Clegg’s Popular Science site last weekend. At that time I hadn’t read any other reviews of the book, so I was pleased to see on David’s own blog the next day that both the Sunday Times and Magonia described it in very similar terms to myself.

The clever thing about this book is that it’s not about UFOs per se, but about how people think and talk about UFOs, and the way this has become inextricably interwoven with popular culture over the last 70 years. As David Clarke demonstrates, this is a subject that can be analysed methodically, intelligently and – most important of all – constructively. That’s what I was getting at when I described the book as “grown up”. It’s a refreshing antidote to the childish to-ing and fro-ing between uncritical speculation on the one hand and destructive debunking on the other.

The book’s subtitle is “The History of a Modern Myth”. This uses myth, not in its colloquial sense of “popular misconception”, but its original sense of “pre-scientific world-view”. As the author says: “To qualify as a myth a story does not have to be true or false, but it must express a conviction held tenaciously by its adherents. It is a defining characteristic of myths that, like the extraterrestrial hypothesis, they are immune to scientific scrutiny.”

I don’t want to repeat large chunks of what I said in the review, but I will quote one bit which highlights just how “immune to scientific scrutiny” modern ufology has become:
The X-Files went on to provide one of the most powerful tools in the cognitive dissonance arsenal, by popularising the idea that ‘They’ (the government, NASA et al) are actively concealing the truth about UFOs. This hypothesis – which Clarke points out is unfalsifiable – allows any awkward counter-evidence to be dismissed as ‘disinformation’.
One striking thing occurred to me while I was reading the book which I didn’t have space to mention in the review. As far as the extraterrestrial hypothesis is concerned, there is simply too much evidence for it, not too little. I’m not referring to evidence that would convince a court of law or a peer-reviewed scientific journal (neither of which has ever been convinced, of course), but evidence of the type commonly cited by UFO believers. There are too many UFO sightings (750 in the UK alone the year that Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released). There are too many Roswell-style “crashed saucer” incidents (more than 200, according to one website). And too many people claim to have been abducted by aliens (2.5 million British citizens, extrapolating from a survey carried out in 2014). Those figures are simply too big to make sense in the context of extraterrestrial visitation. On the other hand, they make perfect sense in the context of a social and/or psychological phenomenon.

Of course, some UFO reports may still be “true” (i.e. real extraterrestrial spacecraft) even if the majority are not. But the extraterrestrial hypothesis remains nothing more than speculation. On the other hand, it's an indisputable fact that there is a fascinating psychosocial phenomenon at play, independent of the truth or otherwise of the ETH. That’s what I meant when I said David Clarke’s book is constructive, not destructive.

You can read my full review here. I gave the book four stars, which in the context of the Popular Science site where it was posted means “Excellent book that any popular science fan would want to read”. From a Fortean perspective, however, the rating would be a resounding five stars – definitely as good as they come. You can get your copy by clicking on the following links:


Anonymous said...

I'm one of the 2.5 million British people who was kidnapped by aliens - I was anally probed then forced to mate with a green-skinned alien female before being left in a crop circle after the alien ship departed. This really happened. Honest.

Andrew May said...

Sounds a little far-fetched Colin, but I know you're an intelligent down-to-earth chap with no reason to make this sort of thing up, so I'm going to have to believe you.

Kid said...

You were anally probed, CJ? Is that why you're smiling in your avatar? On a serious note, Andrew, I wonder how many people in this country suffer from the delusion that they're the Anti-Christ or Napoleon - or the Emperor of Venus? I actually know someone who believes he's the Anti-Christ, and it doesn't matter how logically or sensibly I (or his doctor) explain to him why he most likely isn't, nothing will convince him otherwise. Maybe those who think they've been kidnapped by aliens are likewise deluded.

Andrew May said...

Interesting suggestion Kid, but I would guess it's true only in a small minority of cases. There's an example of just the sort of thing you're talking about in David Clarke's book, where one of the people he interviewed was obviously deluded in the way you suggest (it's a sad case, actually, because the guy clearly needs psychiatric help). On the other hand, I suspect the vast majority of "alien abductees" are just normal people who misinterpret dreams or half-remembered memories based on their expectations from watching sci-fi movies and the like. Another analogy would be with people who claim to have interacted with the spirits of dead people - not really a delusion so much as wishful thinking!

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