ETH - Best Case Scenario

Jerome Clark. The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial. Visible Ink, 1997.

A revised, one volume compilation from Jerry Clark's massive three volume encyclopaedia, making a large portion of the main essays in that work available to the general public for the first time. There is no doubt that had this book been written 30 years ago, it would have been the UFO book. Now, while still excellent in many ways, it has a somewhat old fashioned air about it, no doubt caused in part by the chronological arrangement of the matter, but also because of a certain naiveté about eyewitness testimony, which was common in the subject in the 1960's but has gradually been superseded, as ufologists have come to recognise just how many cases really are IFO's. Clark's problem is that, in common with many of the older works of ufology, is he tends to imagine that UFO witnesses are Star Trek Vulcans: perfect, emotionless, observing, reasoning and recording devices. They are no such thing, of course, they are human beings, and no uniform, dog-collar or college degree can exempt them from the eternal fallibilities of the human condition.

The result of this is that Clark tends to view any conventional interpretation of UFO stories as a personal attack on the integrity of the witnesses, rather than an acceptance of the universal failings of the human perceptual processes when it is trying to undertake tasks which it did evolve to do. Indeed in many cases the perceptual process actually fools us, because it is doing its job too well, in manufacturing patterns out of raw, ambiguous data.

As the sub title suggests, even more than the original this book is not an impartial summing up, but a lawyer's brief for the ETH, and it has to be said that on occasion Clark resorts to some nifty lawyers tricks, in particular conventional explanations are rarely examined in detail but brushed aside as "debunkers said that.... but". Often contrary views are dismissed solely on the basis that Dr James McDonald disagreed with them. He couldn't actually be wrong on occasion, could he?

Clark is deeply scathing about paranormal explanations of UFO stories, and on the whole I would tend to agree with him; where I part company is his assumption that the ETH is much superior. At first sight, Clark's arguments are plausible; the ETH does not, as far as current knowledge goes, violate any prime knowledge claim, or invoke radical new principles, or run wholly counter to current scientific knowledge. However it is a long way from saying that, to saying it accounts for specific apparent anomalies. For the ETH to be a testable scientific hypothesis we would have to have 'independent' knowledge as to the powers and capabilities of the ET's which could test against observations. As it is we don't even have the slightest scrap of evidence for the existence of the ET's let alone what their powers and capabilities would be.

It is not surprising then that the ETH theories presented by different ufologists show very little mutual coherence, the ETH of Donald Keyhoe, Stanton Friedman, Aimé Michel, Budd Hopkins, etc., not only don't gel together, they are often mutually incompatible. After all one of the fiercest critics of the nuts and bolts ETH was Michel, arguing from a rival ETH viewpoint.

If we try as best we can to analyse the ETH from what little evidence we have, then the omens are not good; for the ETH to be a scientific hypothesis we have to limit the ET's to what is possible by the physics we know about, and there the verdict is that while interstellar travel might be theoretically possible, in practice it would be inordinately difficult. One would certainly not expect to see 'space ships' carrying biological entities; meaningful two way space travel is ruled out by all the physics we know, any interstellar traveller is going in for permanent exile. The description of the alleged occupants as humanoids may well violate current scientific knowledge.

Certainly if the neo-Darwinian thesis is correct, it would appear to be ruled out (the arguments raised by Michael Swords represent very much a minority opinion, certainly most evolutionary biologists regard the possibility of quasi-humans evolving elsewhere as very remote indeed). Difficult as it is to anticipate what an ET craft would behave like, there is no good reason to think it would resemble an ultra high performance aircraft, which is what a literal reading of much eyewitness testimony would suggest, in any case much of the claimed behaviour of UFOs does seem to violate known physics. And when it comes to abductees being drawn through solid walls and seeing the cobwebs inside as they do so, that does violate a prime knowledge claim, it is simply impossible.

Clark may object that we have no right to place such limits on supposed ET's. Maybe so, but if give to the ETs the famed 'magic technology', then in practice we are simply creating another empty supernatural hypothesis, we can ascribe to the ET's any properties we like. At this end of the spectrum the ET becomes a synonym for god and we are in the domain of religion not science.

Clark may be partially correct in his critique of some of the earlier psychosocial hypotheses, but even the worst of them is better than invoking magical technologies possessed by hypothetical ETs. There are of course, other hypothesis which Clark doesn't even discuss, such as the Earthlights hypothesis and others involving poorly understood natural phenomena, for example.

I am afraid that Clark has failed to convince me of his argument. Reading through the cases in this book I suspect several are radically misperceived astronomical objects, still others probably psychological phenomena, still others hoaxes, some military activity, some perhaps novel natural phenomena. Not a whiff of ET. But don't let that you dissuade you from buying this book: it is affordable, it is the best case the supporters of the ETH can make, it is full of obscure information, and it is work of genuine effort by someone who has spent a lifetime in the subject, and is far more worthy of your cash than the hacks. It would also take a booklength review to do justice to it. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

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