John B Alexander. UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies and Realties. Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Press, 2011.
John Alexander is someone with a background in the wilder and weirder aspects of the US military, including those parts studied by the likes of Jim Schnabel and Jon Ronson. In post-military life he was associated with the semi-mysterious National Institute for Discovery Science.
This is a book with some good and some not-so-good bits in it. The good bits are those in which the author is clearly talking about things about which he knows a lot: the internal bureaucracy and politics of the US military. Here he manages to effectively demolish the many conspiracy theories swirling around the UFO subject in the USA and to pretty much demonstrate that there is no ‘big secret’. If there was can you really imagine that no politician would have revealed it to clinch an election. The example Alexander gives is McCain in 2008, when such a revelation, he argues, would have swung the election to the more experienced man.
Of course, if you factor in the great secret would also have to be kept by all the world’s leaders for generations, including all those who hate the USA (and each other) then it is patently absurd. Not only is there no saucer in the Pentagon pantry he also argues that in effect there is no absolute metaphysical entity called the United States Government, merely lots of separate agencies which, he suggests, spent much of their time and energy trying to filch funds off each other. Shortage of money is constant refrain here.
The reality is that while any number of military personnel or politicians may have a personal interest in the subject and can tell a spooky UFO story at a cocktail party, there is no official interest in the topic. Perhaps a good parallel would be with ghost stories; no doubt any number of military, political, scientific or business figures could tell you a good ghost story if they were sufficiently lubricated, and that various military and government buildings (post the 2001 attack now probably including the Pentagon itself) have some spooky stories attached to them but no one would serious suggest a top level US government enquiry into haunted houses.
Alexander shows how various agencies pass the buck on the subject, and how NASA managed to avoid having the topic dumped on it by President Carter. In the end, on both sides of the Atlantic, ufologists made such a nuisance of themselves with Freedom of Information Requests that agencies just took the attitude please do not send us anymore UFO reports, and if you do we will file them straight into the waste paper basket.
The less good bits of the book are where he deals with actual UFO cases. Here his knowledge seems rather superficial, and his view of investigation is to believe everything you are told, especially by someone in a uniform. Those looking for amazing revelations will be disappointed, for his list of good cases contains mainly the usual suspects. As this list his headed by our old friend Rendlesham, where he uncritically believes the ever-escalating tales told by Jim Penniston. The Rendlesham story is one of those which looks the more exiting the further away you are from and the less you know about the background. Other cases include the famous Cash-Landrum and Coyne helicopter cases, and the 1993 British case which was subject of a detailed critical investigation by David Clarke and Andy Roberts, which is not mentioned here of course. Then there are the Phoenix Lights and Gulf Breeze.
By the time Alexander suggests that there is some great mystery behind crop circles credibility is disappearing. It does not improve with his endorsement of the infamous Skinwalker Ranch, not withstanding the fact that when he was there himself he didn’t witness anything out of the ordinary and that no actual film of anything unusual happening exists. Whether this was a ‘simple’ hoax or some sort of psycho-social experiment is very much a moot point.
This does not mean he supports the ETH, and he acknowledges that there are just too many weird things going on (or reported as going on) for such a simple explanation to work, and that UFO reports are just one of a huge number of anomalous personal experiences, not all of which are easy to classify. However that does not impel him towards a psycho-social outlook, but towards a paranormal one involving “precognitive sentient phenomena ”which not only controls the events but is already, precognitively, aware of how the observers or researchers will react. This sounds rather like the gnomes that were thought to control the rainbow and move it away from you before you could reach the pot of gold. Scientists have a technical term for this sort of speculation: “not even wrong”. Needless to say invoking tricky boggarts to explain anomalous experiences violates the number one rule of the game of science, operational scientific naturalism, which basically states that whatever your personal religious or theological beliefs you do not invoke supernatural causes or beings or ‘arbitrary wills’ when doing science.
Of course there are deeply ingrained ways human beings interpret the world, part of which include the tendency to ascribe quasi-anthropomorphic behaviours and thoughts to the natural realm, which though largely moribund among adults in our at least superficially scientific society still come to the fore when people are confronted by anomalous experiences, especially those which fail to produce any actual hard evidence.
It is not surprising then that no government or official agency is really going to get involved with investigating sets of experiences and/or phenomena which will cost a great deal in time and expense and which you know in advance don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of coming to a resolution. | Peter Rogerson