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Thoughts on THINKING AND WRITING ABOUT UFOS




When I wrote my dissertation in the late 1990s on the UFO and alien abduction movement, one of my committee members was horrified when I mentioned the 1947 Roswell crash as a part of the history of UFO events (and the ideas and behaviors of followers) in the United States. I had simply presented the bare facts: something crashed outside Roswell, the US Army retrieved the debris and issued a formal press release saying they had captured an unidentified flying object, they soon issued a retraction and said it was just a weather balloon, and there was controversy in the UFO field over exactly what had really happened.

 

My advisor looked up at me with big, wide-open eyes after reading the paragraph aloud. "You can't say things like this, Brenda," he said with genuine alarm. "It makes you sound like a believer."

 

"I can't write about the UFO movement without mentioning Roswell," I said in return. "It's one of the iconic pieces of UFO history, and to leave it out would be inaccurate and wrong. I have to mention it."

 

He was a little bit less alarmed, but still unconvinced.

 

"There is no debate as to whether something crashed outside of Roswell," I explained. "It's a matter of public record. Something did crash. What is hotly debated is what crashed and how to understand what that means. The Air Force itself has just recently come out with a document that revisits the case and provides a slightly different explanation for the events than the one they offered 50 years ago. It really DID happen."

 

He looked slightly less uncomfortable.

 

"There's not a single thing I've written in that paragraph that anyone who knows UFO history would take exception to," I elaborated. "Not even the strongest, most ardent skeptic or debunker of UFOs. Because nothing I've written is contested."

 

In the end I won my case...which is just as well because I wasn't about to back down!

 

But he made another demand: I had to talk not about UFO sightings, but about reports of UFO sightings. I could not talk about a sighting as a thing in itself with any kind of ontological validity. No matter how many people had the same sighting at the same time. No matter how much photographic or video evidence was officially validated as authentic (not hoaxed or doctored). No matter how much trace evidence of UFO effects on the environment had been collected and maybe even analyzed. No matter if a visual sighting was corroborated by instrumented data. No matter if the sighting was admitted by the Powers That Be to be a genuine "unknown." I had to talk about the event not as an event, but as simply the report of an event. At least he didn't insist that I use the word "alleged."

 

I'll grant you that in my dissertation I was talking about the people in the UFO movement, not about UFOs per se, so it wasn't entirely wrong to qualify my statements by reminding the reader that I was talking about UFO reports. On the other hand, it did seem a bit dismissive of the experiences and beliefs of the people I was writing about to keep reiterating, essentially, that they were claiming something rather than that they had experienced something.

 

UFOs, in short, were a forbidden topic for anyone with any pretensions to half a brain. If you were going to handle the subject, you had to take great pains to formally distance yourself from it in your choice of words and your approach so that you didn't appear to grant any ontological validity to the phenomenon itself. The image of health care workers donning personal protective equipment to put a barrier between themselves and the COVID virus during the earliest days of the pandemic comes to mind. Words were the academic's PPE against belief. Appearing to grant any existential validity to the idea that UFOs might actually be "a thing" would constitute exposure to an unthinkable danger whose provenance and nature we couldn't fathom. To reports, we could give ontological status. But to the thing to which the reports pointed, not so much. Our denial was our protection.

 

In those days I was fascinated with knowing how many academics had managed to do any work at all in the field of UFOs, so I began to compile a list as I discovered books (rarely) or articles (slightly more often) written on the subject by our culture's knowledge creators. By March of 2016 I had found 90 people who had written over the course of 76 years. That's an average of a little more than 1 academically trained person dipping their toe into the UFO field per year. ONE. For an entire field of inquiry. Many of them had apparently published only one piece on the topic; some had ventured to write several; almost none of them appeared to have made the topic their chief area of inquiry. At least...not formally.

 

My dissertation was published in 2001 by the University of California Press. While they didn't have any big qualms about the text (it was unanimously accepted by their board), the cover art I wanted to use created a brief flap. It was a painting done by Melissa Reed, who worked a myriad of images associated with UFO lore into the picture. Each one was an authentic representation of some well-known (to ufologists) aspect of the UFO story. The painting came with a key naming each image and placing it in its  context. The managing editor of the press didn't like the painting because he thought using reported UFO events as the basis of the artwork made the book look too "believer-ish." The art director of the press wanted the cover art to be a drawing of a fictional UFO dreamed up in the head of one of her subordinates.

 

In other words, the same dynamic that made my dissertation advisor want me to omit the Roswell story from the text and couch all my references to UFO events as just reports rather than events was at work in the world of the scholarly press as well—at least, in its art department. But in that context, even having my cover art focus on "just reports" was too uncomfortable for them. They wanted to omit the "reports" angle entirely and focus their effort on giving the would-be reader pure visual fiction.

 

I try not to read too much into it. After all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But.... It was a dull visual fiction they wanted to use, at that. The cover art Melissa created for my book is full of color and detail and eye-catching interest. The cover art the press wanted to use was dark and close to monochromatic, with a dim, frankly fictionalized image of a UFO on the front. In other words, the cover art I wanted to use was, if you'll pardon the wordplay, al-LURE-ing. It tried to catch the eye, tell a big story in a few quickly absorbed images, and coax the reader into wanting to know more. The art department's proposed design was, shall we say, considerably less attention-grabbing.

 

I can't help but wonder if maybe that wasn't the point, in some barely conscious way that resonated with the zeitgeist. In the end, the permitted academic rubric for looking at the subject of UFOs in any of its facets was, "Whatever you do, DON'T do anything to suggest you might believe that the reports from witnesses were of real events! Don't suggest that there was or even might have been a thing behind those reports that might have any kind of intersubjective existence!"

 

Distance. Distance. Distance. As good public citizens, academics and other knowledge creators were expected to go to lengths to prevent people from believing the wrong things.

 

But then there was John Mack. In 1994 this Harvard professor was subjected to high-level scrutiny of his work with and writings about people who said they had been abducted by aliens. The Powers That Be at one of the flagship knowledge-creating institutions of the world were highly displeased that Mack was taking a serious interest in the topic at all and scandalized to think that he seemed to believe these peoples' narratives instead of pronouncing the good folk to be mentally ill precisely (and solely, if necessary) on the basis of their believing that such a thing had happened to them. It was only after an outcry arose about the inquiry being a threat to tenure and academic freedom that he was let go with just a reprimand.

 

Belief, or even just the threat of belief, can be dangerous. This was reinforced to me when I went on the academic job market in 1998. I came close to getting a job a couple of times, but there was quite a bit of hesitation on the hiring side because of my interest in UFOs and the UFO subculture, and in the end I got no offers. There were undoubtedly several reasons for this. I couldn't help but think that one of them was their fear of having another John Mack on their hands, or a David Jacobs—a tenured historian at Temple University who had become involved with (and written quite a bit about) alien abductions as well. It was hard enough for respectable universities to avoid being embarrassed by such people after said professors had gotten tenure and thus had some job security. Why risk embarrassment from the git-go by hiring someone like me? In the end that was OK, because I was no longer sure I wanted to endure some of the less delightful aspects of the academic life. I moved on, and slowly the demands of earning a living and then having a no-holds-barred battle with cancer and medical PTSD (simultaneously) moved UFOs off the center of my personal radar.

 

Some years later, both Diana (Walsh Pasulka) Heath and Jeffrey Kripal would begin to write prolifically about various facets of the UFO subject. Like the wise scholars before them, they only displayed an overt interest in the topic after they had landed their academic jobs and established themselves as bona fide authorities in other, more acceptable fields of inquiry. Unlike the beleaguered John Mack, by this time in our cultural evolution they were not called on the carpet and their careers put at risk for daring to have an interest in the subject of UFOs and failing to label their informants as gravely troubled in one way or another. In fact, Kripal currently holds an endowed chair at Rice University, has chaired their Department of Religion, and serves as associate dean in the School of the Humanities. Heath is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina - Wilmington, recently served as chair of her department, and works as a consultant for the TV and movie industry as well as being a sought-after guest speaker on radio and TV.  

 

Meanwhile outside the Ivory Tower, in 2017 videos of recent military encounters with UFOs were leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which media outlets included insightful commentary on the situation. The footage was ultimately officially released by the Pentagon with a statement in 2020 that unidentified aerial phenomena exist and are of interest to the government. In the process, the "rose" that has been called "UFOs" was given a new, presumably sweeter-smelling name: UAPs — unidentified aerial phenomena.

 

The Pentagon's admission that unidentifieds exist and that the government had an interest in them was groundbreaking, opening up the possibility that an imprimatur of respectability had been stamped upon the subject (as long as they are called UAPs) and that they might now be legitimate objects of scholarly as well as popular interest. The name change, however, is telling. It seems a bit disingenuous. It feels like just another distancing device, but this time not to protect us against belief in them, but against solid knowledge about them, however scanty it may be.

 

We are living in interesting times. We shall see just how much of a dampening effect the unclassified report released by the Pentagon in March 2024 will have. That 63-page document, with wording as interesting for what it doesn't say as for what it does (not to mention how and why it says it), appeared to be an attempt to rein in the enthusiasms spawned by their statements a few years earlier. There is, says the report, "no evidence that any of the sightings were extraterrestrial in origin and...no evidence that the U.S. government or private companies have ever possessed extraterrestrial technology that has been secretly reverse-engineered."

 

This all feels like a straw man response to the renewed public interest. Careful thinking about UFOs over this last three-quarters of a century has produced a number of options for understanding the phenomena other than the ETH. Yet the government persists in making that approach the sine qua non of UAP reality. They set up that one idea, and then knock it down. In other words, like Dorothy and her companions nervously standing in the Emerald City before Oz, the Great and Powerful, we are to pay no attention to whatever is behind the curtain that was briefly pulled back. There is no noteworthy "there" there. No extraterrestrials. Just move along....

 

By the time I had finished my active UFO research and become distracted by the need to earn a living and then by health crises, I had formulated one idea that has stuck with me ever since: We may be dealing with more than one phenomenon but are lumping them together as "UAPs" or "UFOs" because we lack the perceptual, technological, and/or cognitive sophistication to discriminate between them. The new openness toward study of the topic presents us with reason to hope that this question can be explored and engaged with more fully going forward.

 

As we look toward this hopeful future and envision how it could unfold, I think there are some interesting questions to be asked:

 

  • By calling UFOs UAPs are we now set up to try to re-invent a wheel that has been in production already for nearly 3/4 of a century?

  • Or, alternatively, are we going to keep on officially, collectively tilting at one particular windmill (for instance, the ETH) while ignoring a multitude of others that might also bring light to the subject?

  • A lot of theorizing has been done and alternative scenarios proposed in the last 70 years by amateur (as well as a few professional) ufologists. Will students of UAPs be willing to take that knowledge-creation seriously and engage with it critically (in the best sense of that word)?

  • There has been a lot of field work and data gathering by amateurs over the last 70 years, and not all of it has been low-quality and of little use. Will those studying UAPs in this new era of UFO/UAP glasnost be willing to look at all of that data? Will they even be able to lay their hands on it?

 

There is potentially great value in having an academic society to promote scholarship on UAPs. The society could take up the banner(s) that have been raised so far in the field of UFO studies and define/refine and extend them, leading to more precision of thought and, one would hope, many more opportunities for fresh research — which means ongoing sources of funding for the effort. But all of this will only be useful insofar as the new era of UAP Studies can and will cast its net broadly and be willing to follow the data, even if it leads into uncomfortable, frightening, or (my best bet) downright bizarre places.

 

---

 

Brenda Denzler is a mostly retired writer and editor who has never been accused of being verbally parsimonious, whether in person or in print. She lives in NC near her children and grandchildren and in the company of two young dogs, one geriatric cat, and whatever or whoever else may be reading over her shoulder. She is the author of The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs (University of California Press, 2001), a couple of invited chapters in academic volumes, her newly published For My Own Good: Medical PTSD and Me (Pocket Angel Productions, 2023), and a bevy of medical blogs on sites ranging from a small local newspaper to internationally recognized journals.

 

She saw her first UFO in 2021. Literally. Lights in the sky that moved oddly, were not typical of nocturnal lights she has seen before, and were presumed to be objects of some kind rather than optical tricks. Thus, unidentified (not necessarily unidentifiable by someone else, however), flying (because air-borne), and an object or objects. While conceding that they might have come from Alpha Centauri, she suspects it is more likely that they came from somewhere like Atlanta. She continues to watch the sky. Just in case....

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Brenda, I read your very interesting book when it was published years ago, much to my surprise, by the U of California Press. Those who reviewed your book for publication were able to discount the UFO taboo because of the high quality of your work. Nevertheless, as you note, academic resistance to the UFO (not to mention other anomalous phenomena) was significant back then. I managed to publish two academic articles on Abduction (1997 and 2003), also to my surprise, but these article received zero comments, not even dismissive ones. Yes, things are different now, and I wish that you had been offered an academic position that would have allowed you to continue now the important research that you published…

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Brenda, sorry not to reply sooner but we are preparing for guests arriving tomorrow, and I'e been running errands. A few thoughts. John Mack's second book, Passport to the Cosmos, brings his abduction thinking to its most sophisticated point. The book is the product of years of thinking about/wrestling with The Phenomenon, and he knew that there were still things that he did not understand, but in an important sense the search, the quest for understanding matters a great deal. My late younger brother, John, was apparently abducted in the mountains outside of LA in 1987. I'm writing an essay on this event, and anomalous phenomena that affected three of my other siblings, including a close encounter with a UFO.…

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bdenzlerster@gmail.com I'll look forward to it when you can get it done. I know how it is, when it comes to writing......

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Thank you. I love to share and look forward to constructive criticism.

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She may want to visit Chris Bledsoe who also lives in North Carolina. I traded emails with Chris and he is willing to allow me to camp near his home in hopes of seeing and putting instruments on his friends in orbs.

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Kenneth, hi. I know Chris Bledsoe. He offered once to ask his angels/entities come up to my place to interact with me. We don't live that far from each other.... I declined, as I am cautious about getting myself into something deeper than I'm prepared to handle. But I've often thought of going down there and seeing what I might see.

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Very interesting!


Your advisor had a point. Hynek said in The Edge of Reality…, “I would start by pointing out that we do not study UFOs; we really study UFO reports, the data.


I have prepared a draft paper comparing the results of surveys by Peter Sturrock in the 1970s with the survey in 2023 by Marissa Yingling, et Al, on the attitude of academics on the serious study of UFO/UAPs. My conclusions: over about 50 years the attitude has improved by 14.9% but the number of academic responders who reported seeing something that might be a UFO/UAP has increased by 262%. I guess seeing is not believing.

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I'd like to see a for-sure UFO/UAP, but that may not be in my future. And that's probably OK. The one sighting I've had of some kind of thing in the sky was probably something mundane that I just couldn't place.


I don't know how to categorize the UAP/UFO phenomenon. I suspect that rather than trying to fit it into the categories we currently use to make sense of what we perceive on a minute-by-minute basis, we may have to change our categories. It does certainly seem to have elements of both physical and non-physical. But not sure that such a distinction will in the end be viable.

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