Patrolling the Borderlands

Jacobs, David M. (editor). UFOs and Abductions: Challenging the Borders of Knowledge. University Press of Kansas, 2000.

A presentation of various aspects of the UFO and abduction saga to the academic community, by a number of people prominent in the field. Contributors include Jacobs, Hopkins, Mack, Jerry Clark, Thomas Bullard, Don Donderi, Ron Westrum, Stuart Appelle, Michael Swords and Michael Persinger. Some of the contributors try for their best academic language; some others fail.

In many respects the big three simply repeat their propaganda; Hopkins and Mack lack any ability to critically assess their own viewpoints, and Hopkins's contribution in particular is little more than a self-apology. Jacobs tries to be a little more even handed, and towards the end of his essay there are perhaps the first hints of self-doubt.

Appelle, Westrum and Donderi study the often fraught relationship between ufologists and the scientific community. While they take the scientific community to task for failing to consider the UFO reports, they don't address the fundamental problem, that 'explanations' involving non-human intelligences of unknown nature and arbitrary powers directly contradict the central plank of modern science, 'scientific naturalism' which specifically rules out appeals to the supernatural.

Donderi appreciates this, and argues that science would not be the most appropriate medium for the study of radically new phenomena. His alternatives include the law, and he seems to think that if only some college professor got the sack for espousing ufology, then the UFO question could be settled in court. But the law courts aren't there to discover 'the truth'. The argument would not revolve around the question as to whether UFOs were real at all, but whether the professor's conduct could be proved to have caused such damage to the university as to allow them to override his basic rights. The case would be similar to one in which an academic, say, argued for the compulsory sterilisation of the poor, or that the recreational use of drugs should be encouraged.

Clark and Swords explore the history of the ETH, and the military involvement with the UFO reports respectively. There is good historical stuff here, even if it is essentially Americocentric. Clark's piece leads on to Bullard's, in that they explore the possibility of demythologising UFO reports. Clark is surely correct in arguing that UFO reports are generated by many different things, and I suspect this will be the case for "the multi-witness reports of structured craft", which he sees as the core. How many of these cases would survive really detailed critical analysis is impossible to say.

Bullard's piece is the best in the collection. He examines the mythology which has grown up around ufology. He is perhaps the first American ufologist to note that the 1954 wave was largely made up by the press, and when one considers the impact of that wave on subsequent developments, that is a very interesting state of affairs. He traces the development of new mythologies which challenged the secular world view from the late 1960s onwards and notes the revival of charismatic fundamentalist churches, relating them to reactions against the anomie produced by rapid social change. This does leave a puzzle: Western European society has seen just as rapid change, sometimes more so, but the religious backlash has been much less intense.

Can we separate a 'true core' from the UFO mythology? Behind the folklore stand the "wondrous events" which James McClenon sees as the foundations of religious beliefs. Behind these in turn might lie neurological events of various kinds, but even the experience is deeply conditioned by culture. Cultural responses are not a lightly worn garment, but are sewn into our very being. Thus nocturnal paralysis has been given various culturally based supernatural explanations, which in turn structure and alter the experience. Between culture and experience there is a continuous feedback loop.

Perhaps this book is the swan song of the abduction narratives; they were already fading away and now have a distinctly yesterday quality about them. The new century will spawn its own mythologies born out of its own experiences and fears. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 76, November 2001


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