Sunday, February 7, 2016

Interview with Paracast

Dear all,

I gave another interview, this time with The Paracast. It is available at:

And more to come soon.   

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Could UFO sightings be considered as apparitions?

Students of the paranormal have spent a lot of energy since the 19th century trying to understand a phenomenon that came to be known as “apparitions”. This words usually evokes images of the Spiritism séances operating in semi-darkness led by a mysterious medium showing ectoplasmic material moving on its own. A classic book on the topic, Phenomena of Materialization, by the Baron Von Schrenck Notzing published in its English version in 1923, is still reprinted today. Similarly, the various research conducted by the Society for Psychical Research on ghosts and haunting were essentially focussed on apparitions. Once again, we can cite the famous study Phantasms of the Living by Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers, and Frank Podmore, published in 1886.

Of course, a number of observers have made a connection between some of the UFO experience and the literature on apparitions. Jacques Vallée in Passport to Magonia, published in 1969, established a number of similarities between folkloric apparitions and UFO occupant reports. We can also note that the so-called encounters of the fourth kind (alien abductions) have also a lot in common with more classic apparitional experiences. The famous parapsychologist Scott Rogo wrote UFO Abductions in 1980, concluding along those lines. Taking an even wider perspective, Hilary Evans published in 1984 Vision, Apparitions, Alien Visitors: A contemporary study of the entity enigma, where he shows that UFO occupants, ghosts, religious visions, etc., have also a lot in common once the experience is analyzed outside the beliefs system that surrounds each of them. Finally, Jenny Randles, in Mind Monsters (1990), looking at a variety of odd and unclassifiable stories proposed conclusions quite similar to Evans.

The real question here is whether most UFO events are not in the end apparitional experiences? The Hynek typology of 1st to 3rd kind encounter, which has been quite central to ufology, and the so-called extra-terrestrial hypothesis (ETH) have created a mental construct where the concept of apparition only applies when one sees the UFO “driver”. But this need not to be.

The first mental hurdle to deal with is that one does not need to have a non-human entity to see an apparition. Stories of ghost ships, which are normally considered as apparitions, have been around for a long time, and do not necessarily involve any ghost sailors. Ghost airships, and ghost planes were often considered as apparitions, even if no “driver” was seen. More recently, stories of ghost cars without a driver have been part of modern folklore. In effect, an apparition is simply sensing something external that has no known explanations to the witness; it is an anomaly.

The second mental hurdle is linked to the notion of hallucination. If someone sees an apparition and there is no physical object actually present, then one is considered as not mentally well, and hence the experience is declared irrelevant. The fact that there would be no actual physical object does not mean that the person is mentally ill. In fact, the vast majority of apparitional reports (of all kinds) are coming from mentally fit individuals. The lack of physical object does not preclude the possibility that there might be an external input. An apparition might be considered as information (oftentimes visual, but not always) acquired through non-normal means, which is the actual definition of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP). The role of telepathic hallucinations in ghost and haunting experiences has been suspected for a long time by those who seriously studied such phenomena. Logically, there is no reason why UFO events would not be apparitions as well.

For instance, I was appraised of a very recent case in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada where two groups of people in two separate automobiles made separate UFO reports without being aware of what happen to the other group. They were waiting for a light change at a busy intersection in broad daylight and saw a strange object not far in the horizon, very visible. We have multiple witnesses in two different and unconnected groups. Yet, in spite of the fact that the object was perceived as being quite close, no one else at that busy intersection saw it (otherwise it would have been in the news!). This event has a lot in common with ghost and haunting experiences where not all the witness saw something in spite of looking in the same direction. Like a ghostly apparition it appeared and disappeared suddenly, it left no traces (no reports of anomaly from the nearby international airport). And interestingly, in the traditional ghost literature, road intersections were “hot spots” for ghost sightings. Given the structural similarities of this UFO experience and ghost haunting, there is no good reason not to consider it an apparition. In other words, once one removes the ETH mental blinders, then a different picture emerges.

So, it is possible to construe UFO events, without the presence of non-human entities, as apparitional experiences. Whether the witnesses shared telepathically an input coming from somewhere else is difficult to say. But it is still an anomaly worth investigating, as long as one does not search in vain for the “UFO drivers”. Another line of inquiry is that if the apparitional information has been received through ESP, then it is likely to have a symbolic content that might make sense, but only much later on. This indeed requires a different approach to UFO investigation, as it is about what the witnesses may have in common rather than focussing on an “object” that was likely not there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Physical Reality of UFOs: How to think about it differently

Dear all,

First, please let me take this opportunity to wish you all a Happy and Prosperous New Year.


It came to my attention that Bill Chalker in his blog Theozfiles   proposed a short review of my book Illuminations. In his review, he states that “Dr. Ouellet argues there is no compelling physical evidence for UFOs”. 

It is actually incorrect, but I also think this assessment is based mostly on a misunderstanding about the physical reality of UFOs. So, I will address this issue more directly here.

In the book, I do a tour of the knowledge that is available about the physical aspects of UFOs. The key word here is “knowledge”; I am not proposing a tour of the physical “evidence” considered as being linked to UFOs. This is an important distinction. I wanted to get the readers up to speed with what we know (and I underlined that our knowledge is still quite limited at this point in time). I was not proposing a perspective based on where we are at with the speculations linked to the physical reality of UFOs.


That being said, if there is some knowledge about the physical reality of UFOs, then by definition there is a degree of physical reality to UFOs! As well, the book presents a number of case studies where some physical evidence are presented, and accepted as evidence. What more is needed to say that there are physical evidence linked to UFOs? But maybe this was too implicit.

I realize that when anyone is discussing UFOs, this very very word “UFO” implies dealing with a “foreign object”. The “O” (for object) in UFO is definitely setting the tone, and this is why some are preferring the wording “Unexplained Aerial Phenomena” (UAP), as it is actually less “loaded” because it does not imply necessarily an object being present. Then, of course, decades of ETH nuts-and-bolts ufology has not only set the tone but created an unconscious association between “UFO” and “spaceship” (a hard physical object). In other words, the concept of UFO comes with a lot of cognitive baggage, which railroads the way we think about it. We seriously need to break away from such cognitive mold, if we really want to enlarge our understanding of UFOs.


To do so, we need to use different mental categories.

Hynek proposed a useful typology, when it was developed decades ago, covering “Night Lights”, “Day Discs”, “Radar Tracking”, and the “Close Encounters” of the type 1, 2, and 3. Implicit in his typology was, once again, “how close the witness was from the object”. The nuts-and-bolts perspective is actually built-in the typology. Although he added the issue of degree of “strangeness,” it appears to be in the end only a measure of the witnesses’ degree of altered state of consciousness.

So, what would look like a different UFO typology consistent with the parapsychological hypothesis?

First, what needs to be measured from a parapsychological perspective is not how close you are, but how anomalistic the event is. This, in turn, would provide a useful tool to assess how rare and unique an event might be, and therefore helping to guide the search for data (and that’s actually the purpose of any typology).

Based on what is emerging from general research in parapsychology, it seems that the most common form of psi events are synchronicities (meaningful coincidences), then comes various forms of Extra Sensory Perceptions (ESP) (telepathy, premonition, clairvoyance, etc.), and finally, more rare are various forms of Psychokinesis (PK) (telekinesis, healings, teleportation, etc.). Hence, a sound typology would be going from common synchronicity to ESP to PK events. So, here is what I propose, and how the physical aspects of UFO events would fit in.


S1. UFO-related Synchronicity. For example, a perfectly mundane airplane or helicopter could be mistook for a UFO. Yet, two or more separated observers made the same mistake, reporting a UFO with similar descriptions that would not fit the actual “real” object in the sky. In this case, it seems that we would be dealing with a case of synchronicity, misunderstood by both debunkers and ETHers as a random coincidence, and an illusion, respectively. There might have been an optical illusion involved, and yet there might have been a meaningful coincidence involved too. In such a case, it is by interviewing the witnesses about other things going in their life and surrounding (e.g. both witnesses dreaming of UFOs beforehand, bumping by accident into the other witness, etc.) that one can identify if there is indeed a synchronicity. It was what Jung had, mostly, in mind when discussing UFOs in his famous book Flying Saucers: A modern myth of things seen in the skies.


Extra Sensory Perception (ESP):

E2. Shared telepathic hallucination, where there are no object per se in the sky, but two or more witnesses see the same “hallucination”, implying some form of telepathy involved. Berthold Schwartz in UFO Dynamics: Psychiatric and psychic aspects of the UFO syndrome gave interesting examples of such psi-induced shared hallucinations.

E3. Altered states of consciousness and visionary experience, possibly in the context of a shared event with other people or involving some form of ESP experience such as telepathy, premonition, clairvoyance, etc. In such situation, there might be a mundane flying object that gets “mixed up” in the witness’ consciousness. Jenny Randles’ concept of “Oz Factor” covers many of such cases. Some abduction experiences might also be explained in such a way (see Brian Thompson. (1994). “Telepathy: possible telepathic spread of UFO abduction stories”. Paper presented at Alien Discussions: Abduction Study Conference Held at M. I. T. Harvard University).


E4. Altered states of consciousness and visionary experience reinforced by a source of electromagnetism, such as an earthlight or ball of plasma. In such a case, there is something physical in the sky or nearby on the ground, even if it is of a short-live duration, involving some form of ESP experience such as telepathy, premonition, clairvoyance, etc. The Betty and Barney Hill story may possibly be explained in part in that way, as noted in my book Illuminations.

Psychokinesis (PK):

P5. Witnessing an exotic natural phenomena involving a possible psychokinetic event. Paul Devereux’s personal “encounter” with an earthlight that seemed moving as he was thinking about the object, may be a possible example of such a case, as discussed in his book Earthlights. Pierre Viéroudy’s experiment to create a UFO would be in the same category of experience, as reported in his book Ces OVNIs qui annoncent la venue du surhomme. Similarly, the mysterious healing of Dr. X. reported by Jacques Vallée, might be another example of psychokinetic effect. In all those cases, the “physical object” was perceived as a ball of light of some kind.


P6. A much less frequent anomaly would be one involving the psychokinetic movement of an object, or even an apport or teleportation of a physical object behaving like a UFO in the sky or on the ground. These events are very much comparable to some of the most intense poltergeists (or RSPKs), but occurring higher in the sky. Such object could be some form of plasma, but it could be made of other things too. Scott Rogo in The Haunted Universe reported a number of UFO cases that seem to fit this category, including a bunch of planks and other knick-knacks collated out of nowhere to take the shape of a UFO on the ground (again, similar to a bunch of towels and bedsheets taking the shape of a person during a poltergeist event).

It is important to note that these various elements of intensity are not mutually exclusive. For instance, a visionary experience involving a source of electromagnetism could also be involving psychokinetic healing, like in the story of Dr. X. As well, there is no need for a “crescendo” of intensity. UFO experiences can start at the rarest end P6 without “passing through” any other previous stages. And again, this scale is mostly useful in evaluating what would be the rarest form of psi involved in a particular UFO experience. The point here is that the social and psychological intensity required to produce a synchronicity is considered as being less than one causing a psychokinetic effect. Hence, in investigating a case we have a predictive tool to look for data.

The issue of physical traces, such as burning on the ground, matter brought from somewhere else, and radar tracking can be now be put in their proper perspective. Burning on the ground are likely to be caused by some form of plasma. Marks on the ground (as noted in some poltergeists event) can be a matter of psychokinesis. Matter from somewhere else can be either brought by a plasma ball or earthlight or a matter of psychokinesis. Radar tracking can be a matter of psychokinesis interfering with electronic equipment, some form of flying plasma, or psychokinesis of an object. Hence, I do not say there is no compelling physical evidence. What I am saying is that physical evidence are important (and do exist), but they are not of a primary importance; they are side effects of more crucial social and psychological psi-related dynamic

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What is wrong with the Psycho-Social Hypothesis in ufology?

One of the schools of thought in ufology is described as the so-called “psychosocial hypothesis” (PSH). It is a loose group of writers, mostly centered on the Magonia magazine. Some of its authors are better known in ufological circles, such as David Clark, Hilary Evans and Peter Rogerson. Although there are some variations in their opinions, and their central point of contention has evolved over time, they are today in agreement to say that essentially ALL UFO events are of a mundane nature. Yet, contrary to their less sophisticated debunking brethren, they also consider that psychological and sociological factors are important in the understanding the overall UFO phenomenon.


The focus of their writings is on UFOs, so they are to be considered as ufologists, even if they do not see anything unusual in the phenomenon. To their merit, they highlighted a number of important, yet very problematic, points regarding UFOs. Some of their keys points can be summarized as follow:

-          UFO events are described by witnesses using descriptions that are “fashionable,” and such descriptions will change as fashion changes. For instance, in the 1950s aliens were described as coming from Venus or Mars. By the 1960s, we knew that Venus and Mars were lifeless, and the UFO reports of aliens from Venus or Mars disappeared. The grey aliens only became a common description after the story of Betty and Barney Hill became famous, especially after the diffusion of a telefilm on the topic in the early 1970s.

-          UFO events tend to describe machines that are meaningful to a specific era: airships in early 20th century, ghost planes and rockets in mid-20th century, triangles in the age of stealth bombers, etc.

-          UFO reports tend to follow ufological reporting frenzies created by ufologists in the mass media. The wave of 1947 launched the ball for flying saucers  reports until the humanoids reporting wave started in the 1960s. Then, it became quieter until the 1973 wave, followed by quiet times until the Roswell hysteria unfolded. The abduction phenomenon started to peak after several key books on the topic were published in the 1980s, etc.

-          In a number of well-known sightings events, further investigations have shown that a common description of events emerged after the fact and “fitting” a more socially conducive story line, either through the influence of a particular witness (think here how Betty Hill had an influence over Barney in interpreting their experience), or by the wishful thinking of a ufologist (think here of Budd Hopkins and the story of the UN Secretary-General allegedly witnessing an alien abduction).  


These issues are well-documented and they indeed point towards the UFO phenomenon in general being an expression of larger social phenomena. The ETH ufologists have not provided any meaningful answers to these issues, and given their simplistic and fundamentally materialist approach I doubt they will ever come up with any substantive answers to the issues raised by the PSH.

The real problem with the PSH is not about the critique and questioning they have put forward, it is about what they imply. Out of their critique of ETH ufology, there is an implicit idea that if the UFO phenomenon is embedded in social phenomena, then by definition there is nothing possibly anomalistic about UFOs. This implicit idea is actually a logical fallacy, and it can only be held if one does not understand key sociological phenomena.

PSH writers rarely use proper sociological terminology, and if they do they never fully embrace its implications. Many of their critiques are pointing out what should have been described as the social construction of reality, for which the key authors are Berger and Luckmann. This is a central concept in sociology that explains why any social structures or dynamics are essentially based on an implicit socially shared consensus. This is true for any social forms. For example, when people talk about “science”, it is a social construct defining the reality of "science", about what constitutes “science” and what it does not. In the Anglosphere, “science” means natural sciences and engineering. Yet, in different cultures like in continental Europe (Germany, France and Italy), “science” is defined as "organized knowledge" and covers both natural and human sciences. The consensus will vary from one culture to the next. Hence, what is science and what it is not is a social construction that determines where its reality starts and ends.


Does this mean that because something is socially constructed then there is nothing to it? No, of course not. It only means that how something is defined is based on social conventions. So, no one should be surprised if the notion of UFO is defined based on social conventions too, like anything else. To that effect, American ufologists tend to describe UFOs in very reductive ETH terms, whereas their European counterparts tend to describe UFOs with much more open terminology. Hence, UFO sightings tend to be described according to prevalent conventions, which will change over time, but it is actually quite normal. People use words that are available to them at a specific time. So, yes, UFOs are socially constructed; and that's no big deal!

The second problem with the PSH’s lack of sociological terminology is that they refer essentially only to what sociologists called “dominant narrative”, also known as “meta-narrative” or “grand narrative”. There are many key authors in sociology studying this phenomenon, but they tend to owe a lot to the ideas of the Germany philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

A dominant narrative is essentially a particular way of looking at reality which becomes the dominant view, even if facts are not always matching. More importantly, such dominant views are maintained and reinforced by those who benefit the most from such perspective. A classic dominant narrative is in the realm of medicine where only members of the medical profession (namely Medical Doctors) can speak about health issues. Over the years, abuses by medical doctors, narrow-mindedness in refusing to consider innovative treatments, refusal to accept the effectiveness of alternate medicine, and refusal to acknowledge patients’ rights in selecting their own treatment have all contributed to erode the dominant narrative that “doctors know best”. But in the end, it still remains the dominant narrative. Members of the medical profession have resisted and protected this narrative because, obviously, their social power and monopoly over health treatments depend on it. Dominant narratives exists in all spheres of life, be it about science, religion, politics and governance, in defining terrorism, etc.


Are there dominant narratives in ufology? Of course there are, like any in other sphere of life! The main dominant narrative is essentially the one maintained by ETH ufologists, who have a vested interest in making sure that it is the only one perceived as valid, because their social reputation, and sometimes livelihood, depend on it. And yet, like any dominant narrative, the facts do not fully match. If one takes the time to look at actual UFO reports, the variety of experiences is quite astonishing, and oftentimes do not match at all what ETH ufologists are portraying. Hence, the PSH writers are correct in identifying “fashions” and “coloring” of UFO events due to the actions of ufologists and the mass media. But they are only showing the normal dynamics that dominant narratives create when one looks only at the mass media representations of the UFO phenomenon. The “suppressed narratives” (i.e. the reports that are not fitting the ETH, which rarely surfacing in the public realm) provide a much more complex and diversified perspective. Again, the existence of a dominant narrative in ufology is in no way a proof that there is nothing anomalistic to the overall phenomenon, because it is only about how things are represented by a few influential voices. It is also interesting to note that many PSH writers put the caveat that they are not interested in analyzing individual cases, but just in the “big picture”. Now you know why.

A third problem with the PSH is the idea that particular images may shape actual sightings, for those who venture in explaining individual cases. In such situation, one will typically read from a PSH article that images from an obscure sci-fi magazine or B series movie are the original images that was reported by the witnesses, speculating that the witnesses must have seen such images before, yet without feeling the need to prove such assertion. Here there is an implied notion that socially shared images may have a specific psychological and cognitive effect on specific UFO witnesses. Once again, key conceptual terminology is absent in their analyses. In this case, however, it is much more problematic. The linkages between sociological phenomena and psychological ones are yet to be done; establishing a real bridge between sociology and psychology remains to this day an incomplete task. How could the PSH proposes such explanations while the key disciplines involved can’t!


Authors in cultural studies, like the psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, have proposed a number of ideas to bridge the two, but they all remain speculative and unsatisfying. Before him, sociologists like Erich Fromm produced similar unsatisfying results. Social psychology has been very effective in studying small group interactions, but very much unable to explain in a detailed way how larger social dynamics connect with individual psyche. Here is an interesting article for non-specialist on this topic.  


In my opinion, there might be one school of thought that can provide some ways to establish a partial bridge between the two disciplines, it is Serge Moscovici’s “theory of social representation”. Moscovici, and those who followed his lead, studied how ideas and images become prevalent in the popular culture of a society. His first research was on how ideas and notions from psychoanalysis became part of the popular culture in France and used by ordinary people. Notions such as Freudian slip of the tongue, projection, neurotic behavior, Oedipus complex, etc., are part of the specialized terminology of psychoanalysis which eventually became part of the common language, oftentimes with a meaning significantly distinct from its original psychoanalytic roots. What is key in his research is that for something to become part of popular culture and where individuals start using such ideas or images, there is a need for key people to actively promote such ideas and images, i.e., what Moscovici calls the agents (usually through the mass media). As well, there is a two-step process where such ideas and images are at first anchored in the collective psyche and then objectified (or institutionalized). This is not a random process. The presence of the very widespread images related to flying saucers and gray aliens can definitely be explained through the theory of social representations. But when it comes to pick arbitrarily an image from an obscure sci-fi comic book to explain a particular UFO sighting, there is nothing in psychology, social psychology or sociology to support that. In the end, the PSH is doing exactly what it accuses everybody else of doing about UFOs: explaining a mystery by another mystery.