Flawed Investigation

Harley Rutledge. Project Identification: the First Scientific Field Study of the UFO Phenomena. Prentice Hall, 1981.

As this book has been widely praised in the UFO literature on both sides of the Atlantic (though a note of strong dissent came from Allan Hendry and Jerome Clark), and its sub-title promised much, I read it to see if it offered challenging new evidence.

I was disappointed, for it rapidly becomes clear that the seven year in-depth scientific field study actually consisted of a series of skywatches held informally from 6th April 1973 and formally from 21st May 1973, and on weekends and holidays until April 1974. As far as we can tell the presonnel for this study were Rutledge, members of the S.E. Missouri Astronomy Club, and some university students. One must be vague about this, as no complete list is supplied. Compared with the average skywatch held by the better organised UFO societies like BUFORA or MUFON, the Rutledge enterprise appears veryamateurish and shambolic.

What would your average run of the mill UFO group think of a skywatch organiser, who in his own words "hardly knew one contellation from another" [p.119], does not appear to have read any of the useful manuals on skywatching and celestial observation. When this ufological naivety is coupled with a strong 'will to believe' - on 11th May 1973 Rutledge saw nine unusual LITS from an aircraft and reports "a great wave of excitement overwhelmed me, UFOs really exist. And I was an eyewitness: [p.43] - the image of an objective scientific enquiry looks pretty thin. Indeed, even before the 11th May incident, in fact on the first informal skywatch, he saw 5 'UFOs', at least some of which a sceptical astronomy professor accompanying him ascribed to car headlights.

Given this background, it is less surprising than it might be thought that Rutledge sees more 'UFOs' in these skywatches than most ufologists see in a lifetime; or that most of these turn out to be ambiguous LITS which are regarded as anomalous for reasons such as: "a lighting configuration like that would be against FAA rules", "it couldn't be a helicopter because it made no noise", "it couldn't be a satellite because it suddenly blinked out". Nor is one then surprised that Rutledge makes calculations that 'demonstrate' that a UFO was a half-mile long without wondering if he had made an error, or by his careless and unjustified use of terms such as 'craft'.

Rutledge claims that the lights react to his presence and even read his thoughts, the examples given are non too impressive, and the sceptic may find the best explanation in terms of shifts of attention on the part of the observer. Hendry noted several cases where IFOs were alleged to have responded to actions and thoughts of the percipient. The pseudo-stars which hide among constellations and run away when you look at them are an old feature of Warminster days which feature in this book. Few ufologists took them seriously then, and there seems no reason to do so now. Aircraft lights, astronomical objects obscured by cloud, and the possibility of tiredness induced hallucinations seem as reasonable explanation now as then.

Ufologists have generally abandoned skywatches, recognising that they provide optimum conditions for fatigue and eyestrain, expectation, anxiety and 'atmosphere' for misidentification. When a high degree of ufological naivety and a pronounced 'will to believe' are added, the results inspire little confidence.

As I read through the book I felt a growing credibility gap, and the greatest enigma is why sensible and competent people, who could do a damn sight better themselves, have praised this upmarket Warminster Mystery to high heaven. Maybe they are awestruck by the authors PhD, and have not stopped to consider that a degree gained by studying 'photelectric emission from strontium oxide is not much qualification for observing celestial phenomena on rainy hilltops. Would a book like this, written by Bert Figgis of the Ballspond Road UFO Club have achieved any notice outside the 'how not to do it' sections of investiagtors manuals?

The book is illustrated with photographs of streaks of light in the sky, which prove nothing. The same can be said of the whole book. -- Peter Rogerson


Anonymous said...

I found this book in the library after searching for an explanation of what I was seeing. The book explains spot on the same activity that I myself have witnessed over 20 years. When "stars" move and come down to treetop level, you know its not just your eyes playing tricks on you.

James said...

I think the main reason people like this book is because Doctor Rutledge actually went out and looked, rather than read books by noted experts. In the beginning you stated that Rutledge knew nothing of astronomy.. He didn't need to, his companions, the Astronomy Club knew all that stuff..