Wednesday, April 03, 2013

The evolution of a scientific ufology - the enduring legacy of J. Allen Hynek

(Before I get back to continuing my Westall series I will plug the Australian news stand magazine "Ufologist" and my column)

In the current issue of the Australian newstand magazine "Ufologist" in my regular column "Science and the UFO controversy" I have written a piece entitled "The Evolution of a scientific ufology - the enduring legacy of J. Allen Hynek."

(This image brings back fond memories.  I was in Chicago attending a company based international quality assurance conference, I took the opportunity to meet with Allen Hynek.  It was like open house, with a lot of great friends and researchers in and out, but Allen kindly invited me to stay over night, so I could peruse the CUFOS files, and talk at length the next day when everyone had departed.  I got the opportunity to interview him as well, and also focused on he and I going through his 1973 notebooks he used in his trip to Australia.  While Allen was in Australia at that time we only spoke on the phone.  He was interested in joining me on the Dorrigo plateau to check out the intense Tyringham Dundurrabin localised flap that I had been closely monitoring. But by then, I recommended that it probably wasn't worth his while to come up from Sydney (he was in the good company of my friend David Buching) as the intense phase of the flap had largely passed.  While I spent a wonderful time with Allen Hynek in 1984, I wished we had covered more.  He soon after relocated to Arizona but sadly he passed away in 1986. Revisionist histories paint Allen Hynek's UFO interests in a wide range of perspectives.  I knew him as an open minded scientist deeply intrigued by the UFO mystery.  He signed my copy of his classic book: "To Bill Chalker - we'll unite the two hemispheres - at least ufologically! - J. Allen Hynek."  I certainly formed a closer connection with Allen, but his move and subsequent illness, meant that his CUFOS organisation continued on without his day to day input.  I joined the International UFO Reporter as a contributing editor continuing that connection until is ceased its hard copy presence in 2012)

Here are some "sound bytes" from my column piece: "The Evolution of a scientific ufology - the enduring legacy of J. Allen Hynek."

(I get into a lot of important issues which I highlight here, but there is much more for you to consider in the magazine piece. I encourage you to support the magazine by going out and buying a copy. You may not agree with everything in it, but it is an great cross section of ideas. I will put the full piece on my "Science and the UFO controversy" blog in due course.)

"Because the term UFO has increasingly become uncritically seen as meaning “extraterrestrial spacecraft” many researchers have adopted the more neutral term UAP or unidentified aerial phenomena.” I find that move quite understandable, but Allen Hynek had already recognised that concern and hoped that a scientific data focus would help clear away this misconception."

"Still despite these issues the term UFO is almost universally accepted and at worst its blurring into the sense of “extraterrestrial spaceship” provides a convenient opportunity to focus on its more neutral sense and then go beyond that to contemplate the limitations of this loose stereotyping."

"Both the simplicity and uncertainty of the Hynek UFO definition has always appealed to me, because it anchors the term firmly in the realm of science, informed by doubt, investigation and research – the critical underpinnings of the scientific approach. Thus my approach to my investigations and research over the decades has always been informed strongly by the idea of scientific skepticism."

"Scientific skepticism is an important discriminating tool in UFO research. Doubt and testing of data, through careful investigations, creates an objective approach to evaluating the case for UFO reality. I see it as a powerful tool for the assessment of UFO cases as it focuses on letting the quality of the evidence for any particular claimed UFO event determine if there is a credible UFO event involved.
Popular ufology dominates the focus of the field’s most popular history, namely the contributions of Richard Dolan, with his “UFOs & the National Security State”, with Volume 1 (“Chronology of a Cover-up, 1941-1973” (2002, an earlier edition “”An Unclassified History” published in 2000), Volume 2 (“The Cover-Up Exposed” (2009) and a projected volume 3 to close this version of UFO history.
Richard Dolan was critical of “scientific ufology” in his Volume 2 and drew this review from me:

“While more focused and documented than the first volume some of the problems of the first are revisited in it. Excessive attention to unsubstantiated conspiracy claims is given and anyone who seems to have an advocacy for scientific ufology is considered naïve and short sighted.
“What concerns me more is his argument that a focus on scientific ufology is less important than the focus on the “cover-up” story. This is an interesting area for debate but it is poorly argued in Dolan’s book, simply because he gives far less attention to “scientific ufology” and is often quite dismissive. This is perhaps not surprising as his focus is on the “cover-up” and his argument for a close connection between UFOs and the national security state. This is without doubt an important aspect but Richard Dolan does his case a disservice with his use of some dubious material.

“Despite these problems I did enjoy the journey Richard Dolan’s book takes us through, the period of 1973 to 1991, a time I was (and am still) actively involved with the debates, controversies and research areas that dominate ufology. He does a reasonable job with covering the twists and turns of ufology, the important cases, the directions and controversies. In fact he starts his coverage with a case I documented in some detail, the North West Cape encounter of October 1973. I thank Dolan for re-envisioning the period. It was a rich and rewarding period, but one that was often side tracked and paralysed by controversial issues, often rooted in the “cover-up,” such as the notorious MJ-12 documents. Case controversies such as the validity of the Gulf Breeze photos and sightings get mixed attention. The fascinating 1986 JAL sighting, which has some credible “cover-up” dimensions, gets a reasonable coverage.

"A perhaps more objective and solid evidence based focus on the role military and government has emerged with the appearance of “UFOs and Government – A Historical Inquiry” by the UFO History Group, the primary authors being Dr. Michael Swords and Robert Powell, and contributions from the rest of the group – Clas Svahn, Vicente-Juan Ballester Olmos, Barry Greenwood, Richard Thieme, Jan Aldrich, Steve Purcell and myself (Bill Chalker).

"One of the major themes that runs through the “UFOs and Government” narrative is the recurring sense of lost opportunities to engage appropriately with a consistently unexplained phenomena, which if studied properly could yield fascinating scientific breakthroughs. When the picture presented is of poor investigation and active debunking with far to little serious in depth analysis, and yet we have impressive international evidence of a consistent unexplained phenomenon, there is a vast disconnection from an appropriate scientific response.

"It seems to me true scientific skepticism is being lost in a blurring of public organisational skepticism with the term debunking. My position is one informed by scientific skepticism (not the only approach I use, as on its own it can be limiting, I also try to be open minded and be led by evidence - but it is the foundation that guides me). Scientific skepticism has doubt as part of the approach, and it is a very important part of the scientific method. Doubt in the scientific method approach, automatically requires evidence and investigation and research, that includes what people say happen, but also tries to reconcile belief in what happen, with any objective evidence, such as photos, physical traces etc. So science tries to be objective, anchoring conclusions in evidence, not just anecdotal evidence (or not just in what people think or believe they saw).

"That background has meant that for decades, my approach has been that many reported sightings will turn out to be explainable. I assume that, based on experience and I let an objective assessment of the information and evidence guide me to whether we might be dealing with a real UFO event. Ultimately in my experience there are many events that survive that approach that I regard as likely UFO events. But by always trying to be objective and scientific no case is final, simply because some information may turn up that might change things and a cherished UFO event may take a step back. Equally an IFO (Identified Flying Object) report might develop into a UFO if sufficiently good evidence is carefully amassed to make a good case to change conclusions.

"I apply the same process to my own sightings, so I am continually revisiting them to re-evaluate them to see if they still stand up. Despite some compelling experiences I still do not see myself as a "true believer", simply because I accept that I don't have the answers. I don't impose my approach or conclusions. I just put them out there for people to consider as possibilities.

"If the UFO field wants an enduring mainstream future it seriously needs to engage with the principles of scientific ufology. These are not about debunking, but they are based on scientific skepticism, not the rants of the debunking skeptics who seem to argue there is nothing worthwhile looking at and anyone who does is suspect. True believers also need to understand that belief based on critical thinking and a serious engagement with actual evidence is the best way of bringing this extraordinary phenomenon from the fringe world it dwells in, into the mainstream of wide public and scientific recognition."


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