Electric Dreams

Albert Budden. UFOs: Psychic Close Encounters. Blandford, 1995.

You know that feeling you get at a UFO conference, or in the pub afterwards when you're talking to someone and for the first ten minutes you are convinced that they are an interesting and intelligent person making a number of cogent points; then after about twenty minutes you get the vague feeling that there's something not quite right here, and after half an hour, as the saying goes, "in your guts you know he's nuts"? That's something like reading this book.

Budden does indeed make interesting points and presents intriguing cases. There is nothing particularly outrageous in the notion that certain people may be unusually sensitive to electromagnetic fields which might induce epileptiform episodes or other neurological disturbances, and as a result might experience anomalous perceptions. Had Budden stayed there we would have a rational and testable hypothesis which might account for a portion of UFO and other visionary episodes.

Testable, but likely to fail the test, for if visionary experience is related to electromagnetic pollution, then the evidence of visionary experience should be constantly increasing as electromagnetic pollution increases, from a zero point sometime before the nineteenth century. Of course this is not true. Although the cultural colouring of the experiences change the general evidence remains fairly constant, or even to have fallen. Other scholars, unaware of the continuous evidence of visionary experience, have suggested environmental causes for a supposed larger number of such experiences in the middle ages, for example ergot poisoning from contaminated bread.

However, all this is rather academic, for Budden simply does not stop at this superficially reasonable explanation, but serves up a chaotic pot-pourri of science, speculative, science and downright pseudoscience. Though he evokes the terms 'allergy' and 'electromagnetic fields', he ascribes to both origins and properties far from those acknowledged by mainstream science. Thus EM fields are invoked to explain ghosts, poltergeists, dowsing, ESP and psychokinesis.

The notion that there are groups of 'electromagnetic sensitives' who react in extraordinary ways in the presence of EM fields, does not appear to have been subjected to any rigorous scientific testing, and 'EM sensitivity' may be a socially constructed disorder such as Mesmer's 'mesmeric trance' or Charcot's 'hysteria'. Indeed the whole idea appears to be a modem version of the theory of magnetic sensitivity proposed by Baron Karl von Reichenbach in the 1850s. Budden's 'electromagnetic field' seems to have more in common with Reichenbach's 'Odic Force' than modern understanding of electromagnetism.

Budden is a disciple of a doctrine known as 'environmental medicine' which sounds very scientific but has many of the properties of a therapeutic cult: charismatic leaders, claims of omnibus solutions, etc. The two main promoters in the United Kingdom were Drs. Keith Munby and Jean Munro who evolved the notion of 'total allergy syndrome', ascribing all life's ills to allergic reactions to just about everything associated with modem life, and advocating a return to Stone Age diets and Spartan living conditions. The best known sufferer from total allergy syndrome was a former member of the pop group Pickettywitch whose plight was regularly featured on TV programmes.

At the height of its popularity TAS was seen as the root cause of virtually all human distress and it evoked a powerful symbolism - the corruption of decadent modem times may be overcome by a return to Spartan simplicity. There were obvious resonances with some of the deeper shades of Greenery. As the 80's progressed TAS in large part mutated into ME and as Munby and Munro parted company with mainstream medicine it is clear that their ideas became more - how shall I put it - unorthodox. From some literature quoted by Budden they seem indistinguishable from the radiaesthesia and little black boxes of a previous era. The catchword was 'electromagnetic' (but not as we know it Captain). Some supporters went further: Michael Shallus argued that electricity was dangerously artificial and intrinsically evil, indeed that it was an emanation of the devil, and computers were the Anti-Christ.

And that funny feeling in the tummy? It finally came on page 75, when Budden suggests that the 'crashed saucer' at Roswell has been assembled by psychokinesis. -- Peter Rogerson. From Magonia 55, March 1996.

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