Sight Unseen

Budd Hopkins and Carol Rainey, Sight Unseen: Science, UFO Invisibility and Transgenic Beings, Atria Books, New York, 2003.

There are several reasons why the work of Budd Hopkins attracts criticism and the principal one is the fact that he evidently regards abduction narratives as being true accounts of real, physical events. In his book on the Linda Napolitano abduction case, this led to all manner of absurdities, including the then secretary-general of the United Nations being asked some very silly questions. This new book is just as crazy, even though his wife, Carol Rainey, has attempted to give it a veneer of respectability by giving snippets of information about developments in applied science and arguing that the fantastic details of UFO abduction stories are not in conflict with basic scientific principles.

Hopkins insists that UFO encounter reports are not the results of hallucinations, sleep paralysis, or hoaxes. "The skilled UFO researcher has learned how to identify such mundane explanations, thus avoiding pursuit of any vague, dubious, and unsupported accounts." The main problem here is that the abductees get to know what Hopkins expects of them. If he considers their cases important they are repeatedly questioned, as well as some of them attending his abductee support group.

We are told that: "Out of the mass of credible reports that remain, the supporting physical, medical and photographic evidence is so consistent that none of the debunkers' psychological or psychosocial theories can begin to explain it away. Over the years, for better or for worse, I have come to believe that UFO abductions are real, event-level occurrences." Of course, physical, medical and photographic evidence does exist in connection with many of these stories, but, as Hopkins carefully avoids pointing out, there are always mundane explanations which can be considered to account for such evidence.

What appears to be a new departure for Hopkins is his discussion of extraordinary accounts, which do not fit in with the rather stereotyped abduction narrative which he has developed in co-operation with David Jacobs and a few other investigators. This time he gives us some stories reminiscent of John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies. He doesn't mention Keel of course, as he is an "unperson" in certain sections of American ufology.

These stories are interesting, but Hopkins's determination to take them as being accurate accounts of real physical events results in much absurd theorising and pseudoscientific speculation. One of them concerns the abductee Katharina Wilson who told Hopkins about an occasion when she flew from Portland, Oregon to Chicago to speak at a UFO conference. Two of the organisers of the conference had arranged to meet her at the airport. Although her plane was on time she was about an hour late in meeting the organisers. Hopkins, of course, attributes this "missing time" to a probable abduction, with the result that the story becomes more convoluted and complicated than the original report. It seems that Wilson started to feel somewhat confused while still on the plane. When she got off she visited the women's toilet near the gate and allegedly had trouble washing her hands. The washbasins had automatic taps operated by sensors, but when she put her hand under them nothing happened, although the other women there had no trouble. She felt panicky and asked a woman: "Am I invisible or something?" The woman did not answer, which she thought very odd, though the most likely explanation is that the woman thought she was crazy.

“I have come to believe that UFO abductions are real, event-level occurrences.”
Two chapters are devoted to discussing this case, one written by Hopkins and the other obviously by his wife who writes: "In looking at Katharina Wilson's troubling, confusing experience at O'Hare Airport, we may speculate about an abduction, or a changeable human energy field, even the possibility of teleportation, although we currently possess a limited knowledge of such subjects." So it seems we can indulge in any sort of fantastic speculation apart from the obvious one that Wilson was suffering from one of her mental fugues which caused her to lose an hour by wandering around aimlessly. This story will cause more sensible readers to wonder, not about a "changeable human energy field" (whatever that might be), but whether Wilson is fit to be allowed out on her own.

As for the taps, Carol Rainey did some research on these devices but probably didn't manage to get details of all the variations on the theme of taps and other plumbing items worked by sensors. She has assumed that the taps in the toilet visited by Katharina Wilson were operated by holding one's hands under them, but I have encountered a design in which the sensor is let into the tiles above the basin and you have to touch it to turn the tap on. If they were of this type and if Wilson, in her confused state, failed to notice, then this explains the phenomenon. But don't tell Hopkins, as he doesn't like mundane explanations.

We also have the fascinating story of the "phantom support group", which is supported by "four credible witnesses". These witnesses were actually two married couples, and Hopkins interviewed the two men separately and the two women together. Hopkins tells us that the accounts he received agreed with one another but he doesn't give us the separate accounts; we are merely given his interpretation of what he was told. Also, the alleged events had taken place some years previously.

It is said that two ufologists, "Dennis" and "Don" had produced a videotape of their investigation of an abduction case in their area and had presented it at a meeting which was open to the public and was attended by 15 to 20 people. A week later they received a call from a man who said he had been at the meeting, and he invited them to a meeting of his abductee support group.

This was a very odd meeting, in an apartment block, where Dennis, Don and their wives were greeted by "a very strange 'blank-looking', rather short man . . . " The other people present were also described as "blank-looking". The leader of the group berated Don for making the video of the abduction investigation. When questioned he claimed never to have heard of Budd Hopkins or David Jacobs.

One of the strange persons present at the meeting was a "mannequin like female whom they regarded as almost unnaturally beautiful". She suddenly stood up. "As she did so, both men said that she seemed to metamorphose into an incredibly ugly, inhuman-looking creature with large eyes and sparse hair. It was this metamorphosis that triggered their speedy exit from the apartment."

This is all very strange, and very interesting if taken as an example of modern folklore, although Hopkins obviously expects us to believe that the incident really happened as described. However, there are certain details which one would reasonably expect to see included in such a story. Why are we not told the name of the town where the incident took place? Why is there no mention of any attempt being made to identify the owner of the apartment or the person who rented it on the day of the incident? Who are these keen ufologists who sell videos and hold public meetings but insist on remaining incognito in the story?

We are told that the incident occurred in the "early 1990s", so there has been plenty of time for confabulation, in addition to Hopkins's editing of the accounts into a smoothly written narrative. This would not matter if the authors did not regard this as a description of a real event. They just cannot see how their total rejection of the psychosocial approach to such narratives gives rise to absurd speculations masquerading as scientific theories.

There is much more that could be written about Hopkins's technique of interpreting the weirdest UFO narratives literally, in defiance of basic scientific principles and common sense. No doubt he will respond to criticism of this book as he did with his account of the Napolitano case (Witnessed), either by ignoring it, or by indulging in character assassinations of his more persistent critics. -- Reviewed by John Harney, from Magonia Supplement 49, February 2004.

1 comment:

Carol Rainey said...

Carol Rainey says:
January 6, 2009 at 5:56 pm (Edit)
Hello, John,

I think your criticisms of our book Sight Unseen, the assumptions made, and the high strangeness of tales told without much in the way of confirming evidence are right on the money. This phenomenon, whatever it is — and I think it’s something — apparently cannot be understood through the use of standard scientific techniques. Ufologists, unfortunately, have not been joined in
their search for answers by a large number of mainstream scientists, who are at least trained to use appropriate research methodologies and invent others when needed. Most ufologists have no such background, yet understand that they need to appear to be using the language of science in their work in order to attempt a degree of credibility, even among the public lay readers.

I, for one, appreciate your commentary.
Carol Rainey